Jonathan Franzen Finally Stopped Trying Too Hard
The Atlantic|November 2021
At last he put aside the pyrotechnics and went all in on his great theme: the American family.
Becca Rothfeld
Jonathan Franzen writes big books about small lives. This may sound like a curious characterization of a writer who has sweated to position himself as an encyclopedic chronicler of wide-scale cultural change in each of his five fat novels to date, the shortest of them clocking in at 517 pages. Yet his fiction is typically set in claustrophobic enclaves. His characters don’t hail from New York or Los Angeles, or even Boston or Minneapolis, but from the margins of already marginal cities. The protagonist of his debut, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), languishes not in the eponymous city of St. Louis but in the unassuming suburb of Webster Groves, where Franzen himself grew up. The Corrections (2001), the book that launched him to celebrity, centers on the fictional midwestern suburb of St. Jude. In keeping with his commitment to the local, his latest novel, Crossroads—which is nearly 600 pages long and is only the first installment of a trilogy, the rather grandiosely titled A Key to All Mythologies—unfolds in the township of New Prospect, outside Chicago proper.

In fact, the real province of Franzen’s work is even more narrowly circumscribed. His true territory is the quietly disintegrating household—and his most consuming interest is the existential distress that so often molders within it. In The Corrections, the winner of the 2001 National Book Award, his subjects were Alfred Lambert, a retired railroad engineer, and Enid Lambert, a disaffected housewife intent on enticing her three unhappy offspring home for Christmas. For all Enid’s attempts at cheerful decoration, the once-tidy rooms of the Lambert residence are in revolt against her fantasy of order. Detritus accumulates, canned food succumbs to rot, and Alfred, who suffers from Parkinson’s, has been urinating in stray coffee cans. The portions of The Corrections that follow the Lambert brood of Baby Boomers in their anxious adulthood take place in the late 1990s, but much of the novel dips back into the ’70s of their youth, before the advent of the internet afforded them the sort of global perspective we now take for granted.

Franzen also locates the Hildebrandts, the clan at the core of Crossroads, in the ’70s—and they, too, live in strained and stifling circumstances. Russ, the patriarch, is an associate minister consigned to what his drug-addled teenage son derisively calls “the Crappier Parsonage,” a building “more in need of razing than of renovation.” The same could be said of Russ’s job at the church, where he spends his days steeped in resentment of the charismatic pastor who has succeeded in winning over the hip adolescent members of the youth group from which the novel takes its title. The same could also be said of Russ’s relationship with his wife, the restlessly depressive Marion, who is roiled by her own resentments. As Russ becomes infatuated with a recently widowed member of his congregation, he and Marion take to sleeping not only in different bedrooms but on different floors altogether. The four Hildebrandt children, saintly 9-year-old Judson excepted, are likewise siloed in self-absorbed worlds. Yet for Franzen, if not for his characters, an inward focus is the ticket out. It is by way of smallness that he, at last, achieves monumentality, by way of entrapment that he at last promises escape.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE ATLANTICView All

Unhappy Returns

What really happens to all the pants that don’t fit

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
November 2021

THE END OF TRUST

Suspicion is undermining the American economy.

7 mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021

UNWRAPPERS' DELIGHT

Americans can’t resist the lure of elaborate packaging.

10 mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021

Snowbirds

Photographs by Naomi Harris

2 mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021

THE AUTOCRATS ARE WINNING

If the 20th century was the story of liberal democracy’s progress toward victory over other ideologies— communism, fascism, virulent nationalism— the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021

How Self-Reliant Was Emerson?

Transcendentalism, the American philosophy that championed the individual, emerged from an exceptionally tight-knit community.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021

The Antiquities Cop

Matthew Bogdanos is on a mission to prosecute the wealthy dealers and collectors who traffic in the looted relics of ancient civilizations.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021

Shape-Shifting Animals on an Inhospitable Planet

Lizards’ feet are morphing, squid are shrinking, butterflies’ wings are growing stronger.

10 mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021

The Miraculous Sound of Forgiveness

In his thrillingly transgressive opera The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart pulled off his most amazing musical feat.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021

The Martial Art I Can't Live Without

Brazilian jiu-jitsu has been compared to chess, philosophy, even psychoanalysis. But its real appeal is on the mat.

7 mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021
RELATED STORIES

Ransomware HQ

Moscow’s tallest tower houses multiple companies that experts say are using Bitcoin to launder money

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
November 08, 2021

Two Afghanistans, One Diplomat's Seat

The Taliban want the UN to recognize their ambassador. The old ambassador isn’t budging

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
November 08, 2021

Hieronymus Grabstein – Monumentum

Our brain is organized so that it analyses and memorizes visual information faster than any text. A spectator is always curious to see what is left outside the camera’s view. There is hardly a better way to tell stories of people’s lives other than via visual imagery. Handicraft– from the beginning and up to the end of each operation. It is not an automated process but significant experience, expertise, and a bit of spontaneity and freedom of artistic creativity.

2 mins read
Lens Magazine
October 2021

MEG RYAN I WANT A REGULAR GUY!

Not Her Type The actress has turned down rocker John Mellencamp's offer to rekindle their romance.

1 min read
Star
October 11, 2021

MICROSOFT: RUSSIA BEHIND 58% OF DETECTED STATE-BACKED HACKS

Russia accounted for most state-sponsored hacking detected by Microsoft over the past year, with a 58% share, mostly targeting government agencies and think tanks in the United States, followed by Ukraine, Britain and European NATO members, the company said.

3 mins read
Techlife News
October 09, 2021

Don't Give Up on Small-Cap Stocks

STREET SMART

5 mins read
Kiplinger's Personal Finance
November 2021

Artistic EVOLUTION

Daniel Bilmes’ first New York solo exhibition opens September 18 at Arcadia Contemporary with new work that shows his growth and development.

4 mins read
American Art Collector
September 2021

RUSSIA URGES APPLE, GOOGLE TO REMOVE NAVALNY APP FROM STORES

Russia’s state communications watchdog warned Apple and Google on Thursday that they could face fines if they fail to remove an app created by allies of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their stores.

3 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #514

Who Comes Next?

The race to succeed Germany’s Angela Merkel pits caution against boldness

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
August 23, 2021

Adele & Rich - READY TO WED!

Rumor has it the Grammy winneris getting hitched again.

1 min read
Star
August 23, 2021