If “The Corrections” now feels dated, that’s mostly because of the accuracy with which Franzen assembled his mosaic of a still-twin-towered world, gluing in all of its diskettes and antennaed cellphones. In “Crossroads,” without overdoing things, he has nicely textured the last, confused years of the Age of Aquarius. The guitar-strumming Tanner is “mellow”; people still joke that “this tape will self-destruct in five seconds”; and Becky muses that the “lumpy, shadowy snow coating her window was like the cellulite pictured in her mother’s Redbooks.”
Franzen’s lyricism has always taken scientific and mock-technical turns: You don’t donate blood in his books; you get “phlebotomized”; an old photograph memorializes the Lamberts’ couch “in its pre-reupholstered instantiation.” The virtuosity has calmed down in “Crossroads,” often for the better but occasionally to the point of slackness: “He thought his head might burst with terror”; “It might have been the most extraordinary moment of his life.” Although he made fun in “Purity” of his own “spurious specificity,” Franzen can still prefer inventory to description: The First Reformed Church contains “a storage room for off-kilter music stands and a crèche ensemble last displayed 11 Advents ago, a jumble of wooden sheep and one mock steer, graying with dust.”
Sex in his novels varies from the rhapsodic to the gruesome, but the descriptions of it are almost uniformly and perplexingly terrible. We’re told that a male character in “Purity” “seemed honestly to want her private thing,” and in “Crossroads” that Russ’s “testosterone manifested itself in his long johns.” There is worse than that in book after book, enough for a reader always to keep hoping the characters will unclench and just talk. The author’s dialogue, especially in argument, remains fast and nimble, elevated a bit beyond believability in the manner of a good script.
Franzen’s novels do raise the question of whether characters can be over-realized, so round that they begin to lose any edge. Nothing ever goes unsaid by the narrative voice, no matter whose point of view it comes from; the author’s copious imagination would always rather add than select. Readers of literary fiction are accustomed to inexpertly designed novels being presented as “linked stories.” Franzen’s books are more like linked novellas. Their interlocking parts, expansive and heavy, make them move spasmodically, with long stretches of back story interrupting and then having to catch up with the foregrounded matter. As he did with Walter Berglund in “Freedom,” Franzen takes a deep dive into Russ’s childhood only after 400 pages of “Crossroads” have gone by. In fact, in these family chronicles, each generation can seem to beget the one that came before, not after, it. And yet, one wouldn’t want to impose another method on the author; books coming from his particular sensibility probably couldn’t fulfill themselves otherwise. Like Marion, they need to go backward in order to move ahead.
Franzen concluded his “Why Bother?” essay by declaring an allegiance to “tragic realism,” a natural blend of the social and the private. As much as any writer of his generation (albeit sometimes exasperatingly) he has achieved it. A reader never loses the feeling, however, that Franzen would still like to seek something more, to be a novelist whose books record not only how we do exist but also how we should. “How to live?” — Walter Berglund’s question for himself — may be the one Franzen would really like to answer for the figures who populate his pages and the world. The characters in his books, including “Crossroads,” consistently fail in their efforts to do right, which are prompted by a need for redemption or just self-fulfillment; the civic aim gets thwarted by the personal compulsion.
And yet, what Russ appears to ask toward the end of “Crossroads” — “Did words give expression to emotion, or did they actively create it?” — gets closer still to a prescriptive inclination that the morally serious Franzen may even now yearn to pursue. “Crossroads,” we are told, is the first book of a trilogy, and if the Hildebrandts move forward in time, they will take their author with them back toward the here and now, where fiction retains its slim, dwindling chance to influence the life it reflects.