Yitzchak Blau

A Victorian Novelist Alive Today

I tend to avoid contemporary novels because I am a big believer in a literary canon and the judgment of history and posterity has yet to rule on fiction published five years ago. Additionally, in our postmodern condition, authors often focus more on technique than on message and find it hard to take a moral stand without ironic detachment (see David Foster Wallace and Don Delilo). Thus, I am grateful to our son Zecharya for recommending Jonathan Franzen to me. Subsequent to his suggestion, I read Freedom and Crossroads and thoroughly enjoyed both.

Franzen is the master of grey characters, those with positive and negative aspects. In Crossroads, five of the main characters (the two parents, the older two children, the popular religious youth leader) have this mixture and almost no characters are one dimensional (an exception is talent agent Gig Benedetti).

Moreover, the moral dilemmas reflect similar complexity. Should a person avoid the draft for a Vietnam War he opposes when he knows it means a poorer young man will serve in his stead. Does Ambrose wrestling with the question whether or not his youth work is an ego trip redeem that work? How does one navigate the choice between anger at others or blaming oneself (an argument between Marion and her therapist Sophie)? Finally, Russ struggles with complex motivations for his apologizing to Ambrose. Is it sincere regret, just trying to advance his affair with Frances, or an attempt to become a different father for Clem?

Along the same lines, Franzen takes the power and potential beauty of religion quite seriously but realizes its dangers as well. Here is Russ’ grandfather on Russ’ parents:

As to your parents, I don’t guess they’ll forgive you if you marry her. Your father doesn’t look to our Savior but to what other men think of him. He preaches love but holds a grudge like no man’s business. I know firsthand the vengeance in his heart. Your mother’s a good woman, but she lost her mind to Jesus. She’s so deep in her faith you can scream at the top of the lungs and she won’t hear you. She thinks she loves you when she prays for you, but she only loves Jesus. (p. 448)

Note also Russ’ rationalization of his interest in Frances:

The accusations, and even more the crazy talk of Vietnam, had reeked of adolescent moral absolutism. Clem was too young to understand that, although commandments were important, the callings of the heart amounted to a higher law. This had been C.’s revision of the Covenant, his message of love, and Russ regretted having lacked the courage to level with his son and make an example of his own heart’s calling for Frances. Clem needed to be cured of his absolutism. By denying his feelings, Russ had done a disservice not only to them but arguably to his son as well. (p. 324)

As mentioned, Franzen takes moral issues quite seriously. How many modern authors would write with respect of Becky’s initial decision to delay premarital relations? The novel gives prominence to issues of honesty and spousal fidelity.

Franzen also writes well and with psychological insight. Why does Marion struggle socially?

However short on money she was, perennially, she was even poorer in the currency of friendship, the little secrets that friends shared to build trust. She had plenty of secrets, but they were all too large for a pastor’s wife to safely betray. (p. 127)

The novel is the first volume in a projected trilogy titled A Key to All Mythologies, a reference to Casaubon’s projected work in Middlemarch and, indeed, Franzen reminds the reader of George Eliot in his morally grey characters and moral seriousness. One can be a great novelist even with one dimensional protagonists as with Dickens (thanks to Shalom Carmy for this example) and Hugo. Cosette, Marius and Valjean are not complex; Valjean’s dark past is not part of his makeup for the bulk of the novel, and Javert is of one piece until his breakdown and suicide. This adds to our appreciation for those able to portray greater nuance.

Jonathan Franzen’s efforts give one hope for the ongoing significance of the novel.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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