Suburban Hell

“Just because you’re outraged, doesn’t mean you’re right.” Ricky Gervais.


The greatest trick Jonathan Franzen ever pulled was to convince me that he didn’t care about the press. I’m sure he frets (occasionally) and won’t wander off into the woods on a birding adventure, never be heard from again. I met him once (I was first in line at a book-signing in the before times) and said to him, “It’s not your fault you were picked by Oprah” (I’m sure the pitch-fork mob, keyboards in hand, will descend on my laptop for this blasphemy) he looked at me blankly. I went on to say, “I loved The Corrections, I’d wish I could have amnesia and read it again.” His gaze still shark-sharp, “You can always read it again,” he said. This meet-cute happened on the eve of the end of the world, planes hadn’t fallen from the sky yet, employees weren’t forced to jump from windows, and America still believed its righteousness was justified.


Crossroads arrives on the heels of much anticipation (Purity wasn’t my bag, sounded too much like an R rated after school special, I rip-corded out around 100 pages), and the promise of two more books to follow – completing a trilogy. As Michiko Kakutani, (kingmaker and career-ender of post-modern fiction), the former book reviewer the New York Times pointed out, (I feel like she’s a cosmic friend, just saying) that Freedom was aping John Updike, (paraphrasing), and for Mr. Franzen to have created a main character who plays basketball and is sexually assaulted, is John Updike. To name check that legendary writer seems like an insult in this “woke” world we now find ourselves masked in (maybe?), where a “congressional subpoena” should always appear in quotes.


Times change, people never do.

Listening to the Rabbit Angstrom books on audio, as well as the Patrick Melrose novels and Crossroads, this seems like an efficient and compelling path into the material. Patrick Melrose is a surgery confection with a healthy dose of rat poison, the gallows humor from the lips of Alex Jennings, of The Crown fame makes Edward St. Aubyn realer than real. David Pittu reads Mr. Franzen’s words, acting out each character. My favorite creation is Marion, the matriarch of the Hildebrandts, wife/foil to Russell, who himself is the disgraced/obsolete leader of the local church, and co-leader of the youth group Crossroads. Placed in the 1970’s, healthy doses of weed, fear of Vietnam, and bargain store racism abound. Crossroads tells the story of this white family as they navigate the earliest forms of mid-western “community”, (in a recent profile, Mr. Franzen admits to attending a “Crossroads” in his salad days).

The moral of this story comes down like a hammer to your funny bone, mostly in the last third, where Russell helms a trip to Arizona with the youth group, to help them come of age, see the world, and be closer to G O D. His real motive is to bed a local widow who is on the trip too. The machinations Russell must navigate to be with her are epic. Like Russell, she’s a believer, do-gooder, and purveyor of the finest carnal pleasures. The sex here is funny, steamy and well told. Writing about two adults having sex without turning it into a Life Skills class is admirable to be sure. Copulating aside, the reader is treated to white superiority veiled in an educated white man’s frock. The fact that Russell was raised Meionite is fascinating all on its own.

As a parallel story, if not the context to the whole novel, is the trip to Arizona…and the native American’s, (or first Nation), as it might be, who are giving no room to this coven of spoiled rich white kids from the Chicago suburbs who are on a “journey”. Remember the story of Falling Rock? Mr. Franzen does.

However, my question: Is this novel, like all novels, just a lump of nostalgia? Are writers either looking back or forward? Can we read something set in the now? I compare every novel to either The Road by Cormac McCarthy (we’ve not seen a novel from him since, would you ever write again after writing that masterpiece?) or Turn of the Century by Kurt Andersen. If you’ve had the time, read Mr. Andersen’s Fantasyland (should give you a road map to now) and Evil Geniuses, (which will make you wish you were born pre-Kennedy.) If you want to know the truth, (you never asked, but thanks!) McCarthy or Andersen appear to be truth-tellers of the highest order and that’s enough for me.

To illustrate the past, Bret Easton Ellis stands on the shoulders of Mr. Franzen and Mr. Updike, (and yes, Mr. Cheever, Ms. Homes, and Mr. Yates), to deliver an urban trip down memory lane, circa his years in high school being stalked by the Trawler. This California legend, (see The Jersey Devil) is grotesque and brutal when he lands in your ears. Mr. Ellis wrote and read aloud this novel on his podcast over the course of the pandemic.

I believe that there is a suburban narrative which lies at the heart of all great American novels and can’t be overlooked. Mr. Yates does it with Revolutionary Road, April Wheeler administers an abortion on herself to wiggle out of the yoke. Like all things, it ends badly. Ms. Homes does Yates one better with Music for Torching. Her novel is filled with unbridled anger, and you’d have to be brain dead not to feel queasy while reading it. Mr. Franzen is painting his masterpiece of American fiction, telling the un-woke story of a family that isn’t more than a mashed potato sandwich (with occasional seasoning). That said, I loved Marion. I loved her like I do my own children. There is a feverish boredom that sets in on this clan. They’re so repressed and tortured by their past that their only relief is at the hands of Mr. Franzen.


Like the greats listed above, the suburban hell they’ve outlined and, in some cases, made a mint off of, wouldn’t be properly represented if we didn’t mention the nihilism of Lionel Shriver’s, We Need To Talk About Kevin. This hot shot of heroin will level you if you dare pick it up. I was told repeatedly that this book was too depressing. Aren’t all books about the suburbs supposed to be that way? Where the only ones who make out well are the kids (good schools…). Not Ms. Shriver. She wants to murder everyone. Except for Eva and her son Kevin.

Eva never wanted kids. Her husband talked her into it. So, she left her beautiful Manhattan life researching overseas travel destinations (going place to place, not just surfing the world wide web) for her Fodor’s guide knock off. They move to the Palisades (a funny little town in North Jersey by the GWB) with the Emerald City shimmering a few miles away on the horizon. The novel is told in the letters Eva writes her to her husband to confront him about the crime of having Kevin, and to confess she was never meant to be a mother. (Eva threw her toddler son Kevin across the nursery, that too ended badly) Trouble is…well…read the book and see.

There is an arrogance and condescension to Ms. Shriver’s prose (which makes me love her more). Something that Mr. Franzen could learn from. Sentences are melted down from fine silver to coffin nails. Kevin does the unspeakable. He slays his high school classmates in the most creative way possible. I’m not sure what rock you’re living under, but Tilda Swinton did an amazing version of Eva on screen (my praise should be redundant). A baker’s dozen of the “gatekeepers” passed on this novel, and it went on to win The Orange Prize.

Just goes to show you, to be well received you don’t have to make it rain Skittles all day long.

How any agent or publisher could pass on this book is beyond me. What’s even more embarrassing is that it’s taken me this long to discover her (I’m not a complete moron, I know of her books, but never cracked one open). I want to write her a fan letter, but that seems so 1990’s of me.


Do authors still care what readers think? Are they writing for an audience? Is this “novel writing business” still about entertainment? I guess. Whatever. Consider me entertained, just make it Cormac McCarthy dark. If I ever meet the man, I’ll thank him for his contributions to the literary canon and like Mr. Franzen remind him it’s not his fault Oprah picked him.