Be As Gods: More about Franzen’s Novel

In Jonathan Franzen’s novel Crossroads, there’s a fascinating character, Perry, who’s a very intelligent, hyper-rational young man. He decides that he can figure out good and evil using the powers or his intellect. Who needs God when you are a rational human being and can understand how everything works on an intellectual level?


Perry follows this idea to its logical conclusion and realizes that there is God. He, Perry, is God. And if he’s God, then by definition everything he does and wants is good. And what does Perry want? He wants to be happy. What’s the easiest way to achieve intense bliss? Of course, it’s drugs.

Perry begins to snort cocaine. Immediately, he gets severely addicted because there’s no limit to his desire for cocaine. Snorting cocaine makes him feel good. Hence, cocaine must be good. Remember, Perry is God. He can’t want anything bad. His desire is the most important thing in the universe, and it must be fed. In a search for an ever-, growing supply of cocaine, Perry descends into complete self-debasement. As he digs out specks of cocaine from a pile of excrement in a public restroom where he accidentally spilled the drug and rubs them on his gums, Perry is still convinced that he is infallible and his desire is the perfect guide to what he needs to do.

The complete loneliness and debasement of this character who is incapable of noticing anything or anybody in the world except for his bottomless pit of desire is a perfect example of where placing a desiring individual at the center of creation leads. This doesn’t mean that everybody who looks to himself for the understanding of good and evil will end up snorting cocaine. Crossroads is a work of literature, and Perry is a metaphor. But the power of art is precisely that one could waste a million words trying to explain why individual desires are a poor substitute for religious morality and fail to deliver the message created by an image of a young man kneeling in a pile of shit and worshipping his own obliteration. You can’t read this scene and not think about living in a society full of Perrys that was being born at the time described in the novel and that has reached full maturity today.

Mind you, I’m retelling just a few pages from a 700-page novel. Perry is only one of the characters, and not even the central one. And there’s already so much to say about this part of the book. People often ask how I determine if something is art or not art. This is how. Art brings out feeling and thought. If there’s something to discuss after reading, it’s art. If there’s nothing to say beyond what’s already said, it isn’t.

I’ll be happy if anybody on here decides to read the novel and then comes here to discuss it. My app shows comments as they appear, irrespective of how old the posts are, so your comments on old posts are never lost.

7 thoughts on “Be As Gods: More about Franzen’s Novel

  1. “follows this idea to its logical conclusion and realizes that there is God. He, Perry, is God”

    My idea is that anyone that uses ‘logic’ to come to that conclusion was already a narcissist with self-destructive tendencies, the atheism is just an excuse to disable any brakes in the neighborhood.

    Some kind of religious observance might have helped keep those tendencies in check (or they might not have) or they might help keep the lid on until he has a stabled settled life so when the meltdown comes a lot more people are affected.

    I’m personally incapable of religious faith (gave it a shot a time or two early in life… it never took) but I do recognize that many/most individuals and basically all societies that try to disregard religion… do not end up the better for it. And those who can exist without religious faith and without turning into narcissistic or nihilistic messes along the way should keep it to ourselves and stop proselytizing.


    1. Oh, Perry definitely has some rather serious psychological issues to start with (and the book does describe quite well the parental dynamic that creates them), although I’d call him solipsistic rather than narcisistic. Franzen doesn’t do anything as cheesy as setting up a moral here.


      1. You read the novel! I’m so glad to have a fellow reader here.

        The beauty of the novel is precisely that it’s complex. It’s definitely not an easy good vs bad morality play.

        Perry’s mother manufacturers a “mental illness” scenario for him to support the convenient narrative of her own “mental illness” that absolves her of guilt. Perry is also a convenient tool to eliminate the inheritance that the mother resented.

        Great novel. The closing sentence is just superb. I wonder if the next two novels in the trilogy will continue with these characters or start anew.


        1. Well, how could I not read it after such high praise 🙂

          Marion really is the heart of the family, isn’t she? Russ’s projections over the children are so much weaker, so much easier to shake off than hers.

          Becky’s rather interesting as well in the religious framework you’re mentioning. She’s the only one to have any sort of religious experience, and it could be argued that at the end of the book, she’s the most functional, but she isn’t exactly getting herself outside the orbit of the family, despite her protests.

          As for the next two novels, my money’s on starting anew, with thematic parallels


          1. Becky is also the farthest away from any actual Christian sentiment towards others than any other character except for Perry. It’s definitely not a simplistic book.

            I’m so glad you read it! You are a damn fast reader, I’ve got to say.


  2. I am thinking about reading it based on what you have written here, it sounds intriguing. However, I am not a fan of books with violence, dirty language, and trashy scenes, which makes me bypass most of the books written today. What do you think, am I going to find it readable?


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