Signposts at a Crossroads

Jonathan Franzen comes along with a great social novel about once a decade, a tale of family conflict that strives to capture something essential to its moment and something timeless about relationships between people. The first, The Corrections, tracked a St. Louis family coming back together at the home of its matriarch and patriarch for one final Christmas together in the 90s. That novel was well ahead of its time in shedding light on the strains between generations in an increasingly digital world, and it got Franzen into a spat with Oprah to boot. The second, Freedom, followed a Minnesota family as it crumbled in 00s America, wrestling with the American ideal of limitless freedom through several very limited individuals. Once again, Franzen’s critiques appeared prescient, and his tale’s sprawling ambitions suggested that the novel, if perhaps not this one, could yet be the most perfect vehicle for a summation of the human condition.

Now comes Crossroads, which, we are told, is the first in a series of three, a saga that will be Franzen’s modern-day answer to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The novel takes place in suburban Chicago in the early 70s, the sort of placid, comfortable environment where Franzen likes to unleash his mayhem. (Some of the street names sound suspiciously like those in the towns where my mother grew up in this era. Like Freedom, Crossroads eerily manages to nail a place that has figured in my own life.) In this world we find associate pastor Russ Hildebrandt and his wife and four children, ready to take us on a journey of sex, drugs, and impulsive decisions.

The historical setting is one of the great strengths of Crossroads, and Franzen succumbs to less of his instinct to make it every event relevant on a world-historical level than he did in Freedom: he mostly lets the milieu do the work for him. This is a good thing, in part because I am skeptical that the world is ready for a literary novel on what has transpired over the past five years of American life, and in part because it is a rich inflection point for mining. It is the point when the edginess of the 60s went mainstream, the party coming to a close and the world left to reckon with the growing cracks in so many of its institutions. Any similarities between the present moment and that frequent point of comparison, another era of a widening gyre, are shown but not told: the certainty of the depravity in some lifestyles, the cloying religiosity in some bourgeois liberal circles, the chasm between white good intentions and the realities of Blacks in Chicago or Navajos in Arizona, a sense of great cultural change, and dents in the myth of moral progress.

Crossroads is the name of the Christian youth group that makes and breaks the fates of the Hildebrandts in varying ways, but each member of the family stands at his or her own crossroads. For Russ and Marion, it is fundamentally about the fate of their marriage, and whether they dare now explore various paths not taken as they seek to reinvigorate their lives, whose suburban staleness is again shown but never forced into that classic trope. Clem, their eldest son, consumed by an intense moralism he has inherited from his father, must decide how far his commitments will take him and wrestle with the shadow of said father. Becky, Russ and Marion’s daughter and queen bee of the New Prospect social scene, must reconcile her ambition, her newfound love for a boy, and her own more subtle but nonetheless intense search for certain standards to live by. Perry, the middle son, is a precocious schemer on a quest for alternative states. Nine-year-old Judson, meanwhile, is a point of projection for his family’s belief in innocence, and I am luridly eager to see how books two and three treat this poor kid surrounded by a family that is largely indifferent to him.

I’m not sure if Crossroads is Franzen’s best writing, but it is perhaps his best storytelling, and his character development has reached new heights. On the surface, the characters in this book are no better than those in The Corrections or Freedom, yet I found myself ever more compelled by his ability to suck us into these very flawed humans’ stories, a skill both subtle and magisterial. Russ may be a sorry cad, but the depth of his convictions almost has the reader rooting for him to pull off his affair. Becky, desperate to rise above the fray around her and put herself on some higher plane, comes across as the most levelheaded of the bunch until Franzen suddenly pulls us back to see what her decisions, both intentional and unintentional, have done for all her family members and to her own dreams. Perry may be the most sympathetic character ever to appear in a Franzen novel, an astonishing feat considering that he is an amoral addict who sells drugs to middle schoolers. Both Perry and Becky had my heart beating a little faster for how they pulled me back into certain states of mind, ones that may have reached their apogees in high school but never truly went away.

If there is an actual hero or heroine to be found in these pages, though, it is Marion: tortured, pushed to the brink, but able to find a flawed human grace in her moment of crisis, to see her fantasy for what it is. She is the anti-Russ, a chaotic mess of feeling with no firm belief to stand on, but her fevered quest to find it resolves into Crossroads’ most unambiguous triumph. After Russ grovels before her in an attempt to win her back, she gears up to return the favor. But instead, Marion rejects of the confessional culture that now dominates contemporary relationship discourse, and for that matter in the trend of literary fiction toward an intensely autobiographical sub-genre called autofiction. Maybe Marion does not need to tell Russ everything, can live with certain secrets, can accept some burdens as part of her inner life to build a story of perseverance so that she can give the best of herself to Russ and to Perry, the two people who most need her. More than any of the other Hildebrandts, she comes to a crossroads and finds a clear road ahead.

Faith lurks near at hand for each of the Hildebrandts, with the deeply confessional Crossroads—a setting in which scheming Perry excels—as its backdrop. For Russ, faith is a moral calling and a way to convince himself he is doing the world some good; Clem sees the gap between his father’s beliefs and actions and goes into full oedipal revolt. Marion, after a descent into purgatory, rediscovers a raw sort of grace, while Becky seizes upon God as her orientation to the world for thinner but not unrelated reasons. Perry chooses other gods, but, in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, agonizes over the meaning of goodness and his own inability to reach it. It is as honest a treatment of faith and the search for it as I can recall in fiction, made all the more powerful by how much the traditional trappings have faith have fallen out of the circles in which most readers of Crossroads reside. Once again Franzen is a countercultural iconoclast, but pulls it off subtly, raising doubts through the best vehicle for creating them: complicated yet lovable humans.

Crossroads is not a perfect novel. Franzen’s endings are usually moving and powerful, but the denouement in this one, which sets the stage for part two, doesn’t quite clear his very high bar. Clem’s storyline is a relatively weak one, the teenage speech is occasionally off the mark, and certain Franzen tropes recur: the sorry patriarch, the matriarch’s lurching therapy, the cool musician friend sweeping the girl away. Other critics have lingered on the relative flaccidity of Franzen’s prose compared to his earlier work, though if this is the price we pay to drop some of the preachiness of earlier Franzen, I find it a worthwhile tradeoff. The more mature Franzen has dropped some of his old pretense, and much like Marion at prayer, his writing has its greatest power when stripped of its adornment.

My birth as a writer owes a certain debt to Franzen, the grumpy Great American Novelist who opened my eyes to the power of contemporary fiction. I was so absorbed by the hype Freedom that my mom sent a copy in a care package while I spent a semester in Mexico City, and by the next summer I was in a brief, unfortunate phase of life where I thought I might be able to make a living as he did. Franzen showed that fiction really can reveal something about the world as it is, and even when he whiffs, his work is worth reading. I can’t recall the last time I inhaled a book so deeply, as addicted as Perry Hildebrandt to his drugs, and he may yet be a gateway to more fictional pretensions. For now, though, I’ll settle for eagerly awaiting part two, convinced again that a novel can indeed give us some insight into which paths to follow in the meantime.

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