So you know how I always moan that nobody publishes anything worth reading in English any more? And how it’s only in Spanish that I find real literature that speaks about important stuff?
I’m happy to report that this has changed. My favorite book of the year in 2021 will be in English. I’m hoping it’s not an outlier, and we’ll be seeing a real rebirth of American literature.
I’ve always liked Jonathan Franzen but only as light, fluffy reading that I enjoy in the process but forget two minutes after I finish a novel of his. I once read one of his novels twice in a year without remembering anything from it. This is how I started reading his new novel Crossroads. I thought it would be easy, enjoyable fluff, and I read the first 100 pages as such. The subject seems to be the similarity between a midlife crisis and teenage angst, and there’s hardly a topic that has been more overdone. Nobody can say anything interesting about it any longer, so I expected to be mildly entertained but not touched.
After resisting the novel for 100 pages, I had to give up and recognize that it’s real literature that I no longer expected an American author to produce.
Crossroads is about Christianity in the US. It captures the moment in the 1970s when American Christianity split into the direction of MTD (moralistic therapeutic deism, or Oprah-style spirituality) on the one hand and the displacement of religious feeling into politics on the other. The novel captures this transformation very vividly, and the results? Well, we are all living them today. There are few topics more important than this because we are all suffering under the rule of militant fanatics who displace their needs for transcendence onto politics.
Conservatives often complain that the cultural space has been completely taken over by the Left. There’s no art that is made today for us. If we want to enjoy art, we have to accept the liberal sensibility as the only sensibility that has the right to exist.
Crossroads proves that the opposite can be true. This is a novel for people with deeply conservative sensibilities. If you are liberal (leftist, whatever), you won’t even begin to comprehend it. To smarter liberals, the novel can offer a taste of how conservative people feel in the existing cultural space, so it’s a great exercise in humility for a liberal still capable of it to read it.
I worry that it won’t occur to anybody who is conservative to turn to Jonathan Franzen, of all people, for a conservative artistic experience. He’s one of the last people I’d have expected to write something like this. But art is God’s way of speaking to us. The vessels God chooses to transmit the message tend to be the most unexpected ones.
I have to go into the classroom, but not to worry, I’ll keep talking about this novel for a long time to come. I’m so stunned that it exists that I don’t think I’ll get over that for a while.