The Pequod Review:
Jonathan Franzen’s fifth novel, Crossroads, is set in suburban Chicago and takes place mostly in the winter of 1971. The story focuses on the six-member Hildebrandt family: father Russ (a professionally-frustrated 47-year-old pastor at the local First Reformed Presbyterian Church), mother Marion (an intelligent woman with a troubled past who has primarily taken on a housewife role), and their four children: Clem (an idealistic sophomore at the University of Illinois), Becky (an earnest and attractive high school junior), Perry (an extremely bright but drug-addicted teenager), and Judson (nine years old, and mostly a supporting character). Many of the book's key events take place in either the Hildebrandt home or at Russ's church — and especially its popular youth group Crossroads, which has recently replaced Russ with a younger and more charismatic leader — where the Hildebrandts' desires, insecurities and antipathies are revealed over the course of several extremely powerful scenes.
This structure — in which Franzen explores the lives of a dysfunctional suburban American family — will be familiar to readers of his earlier masterpiece, The Corrections (2001). But there are some subtle differences that make this an even more rewarding book. Franzen brings a significant amount of psychological depth to the story, as he explores in detail the rich inner lives and personal histories of each character. Franzen has always had a gift for characterization — the back stories that introduced each member of the Lambert family in The Corrections were some of the best parts of the book — but often he felt the need to weave them into a larger political or social narrative. Not this time; here he focuses almost entirely on his characters and it makes for a much more satisfying novel.
Of course, there are larger events taking place in the background — the Vietnam War, the increasing secularism of 1970s America, the sexual revolution. But they are backdrops that only tangentially penetrate the interior thoughts of the book’s characters. You could substitute social media or the War in Afghanistan and the book could easily be set in the 2010s or 2020s. This is a wise and natural choice since it allows Franzen to focus on creating realistic, flawed and sometimes not very likeable characters who nonetheless earn the reader’s sympathies because their concerns mirror many of our own. Here for example is his introduction of Marion Hildebrandt:
Disgusted with herself, the overweight person who was Marion fled the parsonage… In her tennis shoes and her oft-mended gabardine overcoat, she proceeded past trees whose bark was darkened by the moisture their frozenness had condensed, past residential façades no longer promising the marital stability they had in the forties, when they were built. Her gait felt more waddling than striding, but at least she didn’t have to worry about being noticed. Unless it was to pity her for not owning a car, no one gave a thought to a pastor’s wife out walking by herself. As soon as people had met her and identified her position in the community, situated her at the Very Nice end of the all-important niceness spectrum, she became invisible to them. Sexually, there was no angle from which a man on the street might catch a glimpse of her and be curious to see her from a different angle, no point of relief from what she and time had done to her. She’d become invisible especially to her husband in this respect. Invisible to her kids as well—rendered featureless by the dense, warm cloud of momminess through which they apprehended her. Although she considered it possible that not one person in New Prospect actively disliked her, there was no one she could call a close friend. However short on money she was, perennially, she was even poorer in the currency of friendship, the little secrets that friends shared to build trust. She had plenty of secrets, but they were all too large for a pastor’s wife to safely betray.
What she had instead of friends, on the sly, was a psychiatrist, and she was late for her appointment with her. She detested jogging, the thudding downward flesh-tug of her heavy parts, but when she turned onto Maple Avenue she started running with short and shallow steps, which conceivably burned more calories, per unit of distance, than walking did. The houses along Maple were a free-for-all of competitive decoration, their shrubbery and railings and rooflines infested with green plastic vines bearing fruits in dull colors. It wasn’t clear to Marion that the charm of Christmas lights at night was enough to offset how ugly the hardware looked in daylight hours, of which there were many. Nor was it clear that the excitement of Christmas for children was enough to make up for the disenchanted drudgery of it in their adult years, of which there were likewise many.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen has become an even better writer, a feat I scarcely believed was possible. The Corrections was extremely well-written with strong observational scenes, but occasionally Franzen seemed to be trying to show off and would let his over-stuffed sentences get away from themselves. That almost never happens in Crossroads. Instead, we get dazzling passages like these:
He heard himself issue a chuckle, prefatory to some kind of speech act. The chuckle was reekingly phony, a creaking contraption of sinew and muscle, involuntarily activated by a craven wish to please and to fit in — to pass as an authentic person. It seemed to him that every word he’d ever uttered had been loathsome, slimy with self-interested calculation, his fatuousness audible to everyone and universally deplored. All his life, people had concealed their true opinion of him — only Clem had been honest. Into his chest, like a giant air bubble, unreleasable through lungs or stomach, came the agony of having hurt his son. He leaned forward and opened his mouth, trying somehow to release the bubble. He perceived his resemblance to the parishioners whose final moment he’d witnessed, his jaw lowered with agonal breathing, his facial skin stretched over an emerging death’s-head. It wasn’t clear how he could survive another moment of the agony.
The public library was a tall-windowed brick building, built in the twenties and seated on a lawn enclosed by dog-proof hedges. It stayed open until nine on weeknights, but it was desolate at the dinner hour, a single librarian holding down the circulation desk amid the silence of books waiting to be wanted.
Into it, through its little-used front door — most patrons arrived by car and parked in the rear — walked a disturbed person stinking of wet gabardine and cigarettes. Her face was shiny, her hair matted with melting snow. She shook herself and stamped her feet on an industrial rug that had been rolled out for the storm. From numberless hours of waiting for her kids to choose their books, she knew exactly where to go. In the reference room, behind the circulation desk, was a cabinet that housed the White Pages of major American cities and minor Illinoisan ones. Tax dollars at work, the phonebooks were all more or less current.
She crouched down in front of them, pulled out the thickest of them, and opened it on the floor. After the Gordons and Gowans, before the many Greens, was a short column of Grants. She was prepared to be disappointed, called back to reason, but her state of mind was so intense that the world seemed likely to fall in line with it. Sure enough, beside a drop of snowmelt that had hit the page and puckered it, was one of the most erotic things she’d ever laid eyes on.
Grant B. 2607 Via Rivera.….….……962–3504
She produced a kind of humming sigh, like the first note of a cello that had sat for decades in an attic…
There is also the way Franzen plants little clues along the way that hint at deeper back stories or portend ominous future developments. He did this to generally excellent effect with The Corrections but it occasionally felt slightly calculating. However, with Crossroads, the story proceeds so smoothy and with just the right reveals of information that you feel like you are in the hands of a master storyteller at every step of the way.
Because of his extraordinary success (coupled with a rather prominent error in judgment two decades ago that led people to view him to be a bit of a jerk), Jonathan Franzen seems today to be one of our most uncool novelists. But at this point if you choose to ignore his work for reputational reasons, then frankly it’s your own loss. A self-own of epic proportions. Because this is another stunning achievement of storytelling, and one of the best works of modern American fiction.