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Robert RubsamOctober 01, 2021
(“Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Janet Fine)

Few American writers regularly earn as much conversation as Jonathan Franzen. When advance copies of the 62-year-old’s new novel, Crossroads, began making the rounds, literary Twitter fixated on a bit of advertising copy to the effect that he is “widely regarded as the leading novelist of his generation,” and the extent of the mock outrage more than proved the point. In a time when Americans are reading less—and even fewer read literary fiction—Franzen stands alone as a writer whose novels are treated as events.

Crossroadsby Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
592p $30

Crossroads is very much an event. Following 2015’s techno-paranoiac misfire Purity, Franzen’s sixth novel marks a return to the Midwestern realism of his National Book Award-winning novel, The Corrections.The story opens in New Prospect, a fictional Chicago suburb much like the one in which Franzen was born. It is two days before Christmas 1971, and the novel follows the fates of the Hildebrandt family, each on a quest for ill-conceived self-fulfillment.

The patriarch of the family is Russ, a local pastor at First Reformed Church who longs to regain his edge—and in the process to sleep with his congregation’s most eligible divorcee. His frustrated wife, Marion, wants either to lose some weight or her crippling need for self-control. The children aren’t doing any better: Their son Perry becomes convinced of his own damnation, daughter Becky is trying to get dreamy folk-rocker Tanner to break up with his girlfriend, and the college student Clem declines the student draft deferment because he believes it has made him as weak as his father.

In a time when Americans are reading less—and even fewer read literary fiction—Franzen stands alone as a writer whose novels are treated as events.

The family’s frustrations and fears are deeply interwoven. Marion sees signs of her own youthful downfall in Perry’s increasingly drugged-out behavior. Clem’s unsettling attachment to his sister Becky colors his every decision, and her rejection of him leads ultimately to a rejection of her family. Russ still fumes over being kicked out of First Reformed Church’s youth group, Crossroads, an event that caused all his children to despise him in their own particular ways and has led to a years-long silent feud with the church’s youth pastor. Secrets are revealed, mistakes made and recouped; profound moments give way to base desires; and vice versa.

This is all familiar territory for Franzen, but hardly boring. Crossroads is a remarkably confident novel by a man who has spent the greater part of his life writing them. Though more than half the novel’s 600 pages are set over just two days in December, Franzen is always peering back into the past—by a few hours, days or decades. Something is always simmering just beneath the present moment.

While often regarded as a bit of a scold, he mixes a post-60’s satirical sensibility with a Victorian eye for pithy bits of characterization. The story overflows with jokes and digressions, and even minor characters are given their moment in the sun. And yet the story rarely veers off track. By giving readers space with each member of the family, Franzen turns exposition into little dramas of revelation and withholding, leaving us with the expectation of clarity always just around the bend.

This approach is effective up to a point. At times the hopscotching narrative serves to generate cliffhangers that fade in the reader’s mind long before they are resolved, killing the narrative’s momentum. The endless motivational elaborations in others do not complicate so much as over-explain, and whole pages go by that feel like rationalization. Marion’s story in particular, while acidic and often humorous, feels precisely but thinly drawn, a substantial surface that never quite yields to further depths. Instead, the self-defeating suburban man remains Franzen’s great subject, and the further he gets from Russ and Perry, the greater the novel’s lag between precision and pleasure.

Crossroads is a remarkably confident novel by a man who has spent the greater part of his life writing them.

Ironically, Crossroads must leave the suburbs in order to achieve liftoff. Throughout the second half, titled “Easter,” Franzen delves into Russ’s boyhood and his coming to spiritual, political and sexual consciousness during a service trip he leads with Crossroads on the Navajo reservation. Unlike the novel’s other characters, Russ is allowed to develop past the point of label or caricature, his manifold failings stacked within his virtues and convictions like an elaborately self-pitying matryoshka nesting doll. His satisfactions, however grotesque, never quite outweigh his rationalizations. I am sure that many readers will despise Russ, but Franzen allows us to understand this fallen man.

Crossroads takes seriously the role of religion in everyday life to an extent not often found in contemporary novels. Several of the novel’s most overpowering moments—a vision in a quiet chapel, a man washing his enemy’s feet—could have emerged from Tolstoy. But these revelations do not remain unalloyed. Bitterness and self-interest, lust and perversion are always found in both sacred and profane spaces. For instance, when Russ takes up a charity run to a Black inner-city partner church, he both cares about his spiritual duties and desires to spin them into sexual success.

Crossroads is only the first part of a proposed trilogy, with subsequent volumes to follow the Hildebrandts across the following decades. This cycle shares its title, A Key to All Mythologies, with Mr. Casaubon’s magnum opus in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a work famous for remaining incomplete.

Crossroads takes seriously the role of religion in everyday life to an extent not often found in contemporary novels.

It takes guts to put oneself on the level of our language’s greatest social novel, and Franzen has more than earned the right to try. Through this one family’s story, he wants to weave together those forces that defined life for much of the American century, from economic turmoil and radical politics to evangelicalism, the counterculture, the legacies of colonialism at home and their enactment worldwide via the Cold War. Through this disintegrating family he will show the disintegration of a country.

In an article in Harper’s in 1996, Franzen argued against the sort of sweeping social novel then in vogue among authors like Tom Wolfe and Bret Easton Ellis, writing instead that the novel’s future lay in the minute exploration of a character’s interior life. In recent years, he has written a number of pieces for the New Yorker arguing against politics on a societal scale, claiming, instead, that in a world unraveling under the pressures of climate change and inequality, it is the responsibility of the individual to attend to one’s immediate surroundings, to conserve what one can and do one’s best to others. Everything ultimately originates with the self and thus requires individuals to act as they can, and no better.

Perhaps this explains the peculiarly petty feeling of much of the novel. Crossroads funnels every gesture, every experience, back to whoever happens to be in frame. The characters suck in every last bit of light, leaving the world in all its richness and tumult feeling oddly drab and occluded. The novel’s cinematic sweep can at times look like a painted panorama, overflowing with detail but without relief. It frequently seems as if the 20th century has conspired to ruin this one suburban family.

Eliot believed that great and profound things find themselves incarnated in the smallest lives, and that even the most trivial elements of everyday experience point in turn to the most powerful forces at work in the cosmos. For all his attention to unhistoric acts, Franzen misses ultimately the growing good of the world. Like Middlemarch’s Mr. Casaubon, he is so caught up in the minutiae that he loses the bigger picture, if he ever grasped it to begin with.

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