This Jonathan Franzen Guy
Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, 2021, pp.592, £20.00 (hardback)
When does sincerity become a fault? When does it shade into vanity, or reek too highly of self-regard? When is it limp, lame, graceless or just embarrassing? ‘This Jonathan Franzen guy,’ David Foster Wallace complained after the publication of his second book, ‘keeps sending me these fifteen page missives describing how I’ve violated every principle of “fiction as a moral exercise, an affirmation of life.’”
It was 1988. Earlier that year Franzen had published The Twenty Seventh City, a wild and ambitious debut novel about espionage, fucking, dogkilling and the corporate capture of government in contemporary St. Louis. It was a frequently uncontrolled novel, whose exaggerated plot and sentence-level understatement prompted a handful of raves and indifference from the world at large.
The sequel arrived four years later. Strong Motion was a similar beast and a better book, about a plague of earthquakes in Boston. (Why not?) It had a little more rhetorical spice and some stagey pieces of scene-management that felt drawn from Dostoevsky. (There is even a Grand Inquisitorial encounter where the protagonist gets rhetorically curb-stomped by an anti-abortion evangelical.) More good reviews; same general indifference.
At the time, Franzen was a plausible heir to post-modern witch-doctors like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, the eidetic comedians who drank from the hidden streams of American culture. Franzen’s problem was that he had no magic in his blood. He never made the decorative fireworks feel essential, the way Pynchon did. He could teach you nothing about Herero rocket engineers or Lee Harvey Oswald.
They were two impressive books from a young writer capable of drawing serious voltage. But so far, the current was earthing where he stood.
1992 was also the time in Franzen’s life when he reached, as he later