What left is there to say about Jonathan Franzen?
Depending on who you talk to, he’s either a generational talent or a wretched relic of literature’s white male hegemony, an Updikean inbred whose books belong to history. To discuss Franzen among my peers in graduate school was akin to dropping Mentos in a Coke bottle, the explosion of vitriol so swift and insistent that anyone with the slightest taste for Freedom or Purity would have done well to incinerate their bookshelf. While widespread disdain for Franzen first emerged in 2001 after he disavowed Oprah’s endorsement of The Corrections, criticisms now tend to focus on his dorky bird-watching obsession and fossilized novel formula (i.e. middle-class whiteness and haughty moralizing caged in a 500-page family drama). Franzen himself has expressed doubts about his future as a fiction writer, telling the New York Times in 2018 that “he doesn’t know if anyone really has more than six fully realized novels in them.” Yet here he comes with Crossroads, the first volume in an impending trilogy ambitiously entitled A Key to All Mythologies. Admittedly, this blurb proclaiming a “sweeping investigation” of America’s “political, intellectual, and social crosscurrents” appears to reaffirm the well-worn Franzen scorn. I can almost hear my former cohort members muttering: What can this Boomer really tell us about contemporary American life?
Put aside your Franzen ire and Crossroads reads as a work of total, tantalizing genius. Entombed with big ideas and eccentric characters, Crossroads is a brilliant, excessive, and absorbing novel that instantly feels like Franzen’s finest. In depicting a Midwestern family on the verge of crisis, he accentuates the novelistic virtuosity seen only in stretches throughout his oeuvre: indelible and idiosyncratic character studies that propel an otherwise prosaic plot toward a satisfying yet brutal dénouement.
Set in the early 1970s in New Prospect, a fictional town in the Chicago suburbs, the novel locates the Hildebrandt family navigating a series of shifting realities. The family patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, an associate minister at First Reformed Church, lusts after a widowed partitioner, Frances, as a way to regain the “edge” he’s lost with age. He’s a self-proclaimed acolyte of Eugene Debs, John Dewey, and Richard Wright, a man who marched for racial justice in Birmingham with Dr. King. But much to his own chagrin, his brand of liberalism has lost its radical salience. Worse, his faith in God has “vanished.” After being humiliatingly ousted from the church’s youth group, Crossroads, which he co-led with a charismatic and handsome young pastor, Rick Ambrose, he rescinds into a state of self-pity and resentment. Desperate to salvage some sense of political, spiritual, and sexual relevancy, he hopes an affair with Frances can inject him with the passion and freedom necessary to find salvation.
Russ’s wife, Marion, also stands at a personal and spiritual crossroads. Sharper than Russ and more existentially connected to God, she’s spent the past twenty-odd years writing her husband’s sermons and playing good housewife, selflessly devoting herself to requisite domestic duties. But Russ’s marital transgressions have prompted in her an urgent personal reckoning. One sprawling scene between Marion and her psychiatrist reveals a tortured childhood, several abusive sexual experiences, an aborted child, and a manic episode that led to a spell in a mental hospital. Although her past is steeped in trauma, Marion understands her backstory as being vibrant and self-directed. The obsessive ecstasy she felt then, even if caused by an undiagnosed mania, remains superior to the boredom she’s suffered for two decades with Russ.
While masterful at illuminating the inner lives of middle-aged characters, Franzen also excels at nosediving into the three Hildebrandt children. Clem, a sophomore at the University of Illinois, grapples with the self-imposed moral quagmire of relinquishing his student deferment to serve a tour in Vietnam. His college experience has mostly revolved around having sex with his girlfriend, Sharon, who loves him in an “old-fashioned, romantic, totalizing way.” Similar to memorable sections in past Franzen novels, Crossroads portrays the annihilating consumption of first love and its typical hedonistic destruction. As the lone atheist in the Hildebrandt clan, Clem relies on “existential forms of knowledge” to make his decisions, and thus determines that going to war is what a “strong man” would do. He assumes that this news will devastate his younger sister, Becky, who he once had a dubiously intimate relationship with. An inordinately popular high school senior who detaches herself from her family’s drama after falling in love with a heartthrob Christian musician, the novel sees Becky in the process of discovering who she is and what she believes. Years spent idolizing Clem’s philosophical atheism evaporates when she has a marijuana-induced encounter with God. The event brings her closer to her boyfriend and farther from her family.
And then there is fifteen-year-old Perry, a manipulative, drug-addled genius who wants to absolve his destructive tendencies and intellectual neuroses in a higher power, but understands that “if you’re smart enough to think about it, there’s always some selfish angle” in being a “good person.” Perry’s freefall into hard drugs and the compromises he makes to secure such drugs gives way to some of the most inspired writing of Franzen’s career. And, as Frank Guan astutely points out in his review for Bookforum, this may be because Perry has “potent parallels” with Franzen’s late best friend, David Foster Wallace, who, like Perry, was “a bonkers-level white teen genius addict trapped in ’70s Illinois.”
Maybe the most attractive aspect of Crossroads is its depth of moral, capitalist, and religious contemplation—discursions that thankfully do not present via authorial (or authoritative) monologues. It is no small feat to show five characters wrestling with disparate philosophical concerns—God, self, addiction, monogamy, war, social justice, race, etc.—in a way that reads as convincing and sympathetic, intellectually rigorous and emotionally dexterous. In Crossroads, Franzen has reinvigorated the contemporary novel by offering a vision for how fiction can still serve as the preeminent vehicle for exploring humanity’s most consequential ideas. Best of all is that two more novels are still to come.
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published October 5, 2021