My Reviews

Crossroads: A Novel by [Jonathan Franzen]

Jonathan Franzen is READING MY MIND!

That’s how I’ve felt while reading each of Franzen’s novel’s. He has such an amazing talent for empathy—getting to the very heart of what a man feels, worries about, cares about—that reading his new novel Crossroads seems therapeutic. It may even be better than weekly sessions with a private therapist/psychiatrist.

Crossroads is the story of a preacher—an associate minister—and his struggles to relate to his wife and kids, both his own kids and the kids in the youth ministry he founded before being booted from it on false pretenses and accusations. He is a protagonist some readers might not be able to relate to in the hands of a lesser writer since, after all, how many of us are ministers? Even those of us who are leaders in our own churches tend to be part-time lay leaders rather than full-time, paid pastors, right?

But in the hands of Franzen, Russ Hildebrandt is a perfect “everyman;” all those of us who try to live an ethical life, at least; to be a good dad, a good husband while, despite making our best efforts, often finding we’ve fallen quite short. This is reality in book form; all your list of worries distilled, magnified, and examined: Russ doesn’t make enough money, mentally struggles with his failures in his career not hardly living up to his dreams, has become bored with his life, harbors animosity towards his wife and associates for (it seems) hardly adequate reasons, is disappointed with (at times) his kids, and (other times) fails as their father. The list goes on and on. In other words, this is your life; or what it might be if you plugged in your own complaints. And all he needs is a little grace and some luck, just like the rest of us.

I suppose it is refreshing to see that even a faithful preacher, potentially God’s favorite son, still can’t get a break at times.

Incidentally, it’s like looking at myself in a mirror, more so than any protagonist I’ve met in a long time (if at all), and I’m rooting for him like no other. His failures are my own, and when he’s vindicated, when he receives that grace he so very deserves, it makes me feel really good about my life. Much better, in fact. That’s why this novel is so encouraging and life-affirming. 

The cover art of Jeff Vandermeer's Dead Astronauts features trippy, out-of-focus-seeming smeared shades of red, orange, blue, purple, and other colors of the spectrum, with the images of astronauts in their space suits floating upward through the scene as if floating through space.

 

A prologue to Dead Astronauts entitled “The Dream of the Blue Fox” describes its inciting incident, although I did not know that during my reading. In fact, the novel’s overall meaning, along with its inciting incident, are entirely opaque until nearly its end when the Blue Fox finally describes his dream, but I’ll get to that. The prologue describes foxes who are free, happy, and undisturbed in nature. They even travel freely through time and place—are time-travelers it seems: 

So they ran threaded through the breaches, found the seams. So they ran with a memory of the City without buildings. So they navigated two worlds: the new and the old. When the ancient seabed had been green with reeds and lakes and the low salt-poisoned trees with their thick moss-encrusted limbs upon which they might sleep (5). 

The inciting incident, then, is when the Blue Fox appears like a ghost (the essence of nature) and disturbs their peaceful lives with a prophecy, “There shall come scavengers to the City from far away. They will call themselves the Company. They shall have no face. They shall have no body at which to strike, but many limbs (6),” and mobilizes them in defiance of the insidious Company (or, in other words, humans) with their pollution, pesticides, bioengineering, etc., with which they will tamper and ultimately destroy nature. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel—its poetic lyricism, mystery, weirdness, experimental avant-garde style—and, because of all that, its overall difficulty. (Many readers might not say that, but I do like difficult novels and writers like Faulkner, Pynchon, Joyce, and now Vandermeer who purposely complicate their narratives.) I wasn’t particularly thrilled to find near its end, though, that the narrative ultimately resolves into an environmentalist diatribe. I’d thought much about the mystery and confusion of this novel; enjoyed trying to parse its meaning. I had no idea where it was headed. And so I admit to a little disappointment at first when I learned that’s all it’s about. Kind of sanctimonious if you ask me. But then again it never seemed preachy, and after all, why shouldn’t Vandermeer write about what he believes even if it seems to me a silly thing to worry about? 

The novel’s first part follows three “dead” (as the narrative calls them) astronauts trying to infiltrate and stop the Company. Although it holds the bulk of the novel’s sci-fi adventure, it also demonstrates the extreme destructiveness of human technology and so-called “progress,” suggesting what we call progress detracts from the natural environment. Their ultimate failure and death further underlines the futility of attempting to fight technology with more technology or in other words, human ingenuity. The novel’s title underlines that theme as well: Astronaut symbolizes humanity’s aspiration to explore and conquer while Dead symbolizes the futility and inevitable failure of that aspiration. We ought to just leave the environment (the world) alone, it suggests, since everything we attempt to conquer and control we ultimately destroy. 

The novel’s second part describes the rise of a king of beasts, Leviathan, long after the demise of both warring human parties the Astronauts and the Company, in a post-apocalyptic environment free from human interference. Vandermeer’s far-fetched imagining and description of this mad and utterly alien world, the potential of what our world could become, is truly awe-inspiring. After the author seems to have had his fun though, the novel’s third part takes a turn for the seriously reflective and meditation as it clearly delineates the themes of the novel: the Blue Fox shares several fevered revenge dreams in which he and other foxes devour humans, dismantling their influence and society. In one he imagines attending a house party disguised as a human, undermining and revealing their hypocrisy and after chastising them for their narrow-minded, self-centered, entitled, Earth-devouring society hails their death, devours them instead, as it seems it should be. 

“Let them never rest as they have not allowed us to rest,” the Fox quips at a later point, “May they always be on the run, looking over their shoulders, that we may have peace” (220), and finally concludes: 

There is no end to us. Only to you. You’ll never understand that. You’ll never understand that without us, you don’t exist. You wink out of existence. You become something else. Forever. And when I’m gone, what will remain? Everything.

Everything will remain. (220). 

A fitting philosophical novel wrap-up magnifying its themes, with particular emphasis on three: there is no end; you become something else; and everything will remain. 

Purchase Dead Astronauts from the Amazon Book Store.

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