Reading notes: Crossroads

Various theses about the new Franzen novel:

  1. Crossroads is set in the '70s, but is only lightly sprinkled with period references. Almost all the diction would fit into any of Franzen's other worlds. (Why would Franzen do this?)
  2. The characters in Crossroads largely sit around wondering whether they're good people; what exactly constitutes their badness, if they are bad; and how to find God.
  3. The topics in (2) are about as timeless as they come, so leave the book's setting a mystery.
  4. The manifestations of those topics, however, involve revelations about "social justice" (a phrase that appears three times in the book); the systematic mistreatment of women by men and of non-whites by whites; and the systematic mistreatment of women by men.
  5. The isues in (4) are politicized in the Callard sense: an area is politicized if "action and speech in that area must be interpreted against the backdrop of some standing debate." A 2022 reader could not read a book set in or around 2022 without immediately interpreting a remark like, e.g., "the Crossroads-encouraged inflation of emotional scrapes into ambulance-worthy traumas" in light of certain standing debates.
  6. Fiction is different from other kinds of discourse. First, there's a stronger presumption that things happen for reasons. Second, one's raw aesthetic reactions matter more than they do in other contexts. So whereas in conversation we can at least try to say "OK, I know this is politicized, but let's just try to talk about X here," it's clumsy or impossible or both to make a move like that in fiction.
  7. But part of what produces that raw aesthetic reaction--that is, the reaction we have when we see a politicized topic and interpret it against the backdrop of a standing debate--is our understanding of the world in which the fact or event or thought is being presented.
  8. So by setting the book in the '70s, Franzen opens up a bit of distance between certain facts and events and thoughts, on the one hand, and our current debates, on the other.
  9. Yet those issues remain politicized for us. It's only some distance that gets opened up, and how much distance probably depends a lot on the reader.
  10. And Franzen is well aware (i) that these issues are politicized and (ii) that certain things are only presumptively OK in the world of the novel because the novel is set fifty years ago. (In a climactic scene, someone says something like: "this is OK; it's the seventies." It's hard not to feel called upon, at that moment to compare our world to the novel's and feel grateful we're here.)
  11. I suspect it's wrong to read Franzen either as (i) longing for a world where the old norms applied or as (ii) creating distance between our world and the novel's only to give us a perch from which to feel superior.
  12. And if you don't buy all that: a less complicated answer to the mystery in (1) is  that the book is large about finding (a Christian) God. It's a lot easier to give all sorts of characters a plausible connection to the church and to Christianity in the '70s than it is now.

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