Jonathan Franzen’s “Crossroads” is a triumph: novel review


Few Gen Xers and Zero Millennials will remember it, but there was a time – call it 1971 – when Protestant Christianity met the counterculture, where teens were overflowing with faith, hope and love while wearing bell-bottomed jeans and pearl necklaces, strumming guitars, even cursing and drinking beer. I had just entered elementary school when my cousin was called to serve as a youth pastor at my Baptist church in Tennessee. He founded a ministry known as the “Minority of God,” which visited underprivileged towns in West Virginia and Connecticut each summer. The men worked a week, maybe two, mixing concrete to erect prefabricated chapels while the women taught at the holiday Bible school. In the evenings, the teens would get together singing folk music hymns with spooky minor chords: We are one in spirit, we are one in the Lord. / And we pray that one day our unity will be restored.

Jonathan Franzen’s new and sumptuous novel, crossroads, looks back on that eerie, post-Manson Family and pre-Watergate moment when Jesus was groovy and Nixon’s America teetered under the stress of Vietnam and (closer to home) the ravages of drug use and the ‘infidelity. crossroads takes place during Advent – most of the time a single day, December 23 – and the following Easter with a coda a few years later; but in classic Franzen style, it folds decades of history into its frame while meticulously following its course. It pays homage to the great social realists of the 19th century, from George Eliot to Balzac via Dickens, while looking without flinching at the evils that shape us today.

crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

In his late forties, Russ Hildebrandt is the cash-strapped associate pastor of First Reformed and New Prospect, in an affluent, very white suburb of Chicago. Pious and self-conscious, Russ stays away not only from his wife Marion, who ghosts his sermons, but also from their children: Clem, a sex-obsessed student at the University of London. Illinois; Becky, the queen bee from her high school; sophomore Perry, an existentialist drug dealer with a high IQ in the 160s; and nine-year-old Angelica Judson, oblivious to her family’s impending fate.

Franzen starts in media resolution: a few years earlier, Russ, head of Crossroads, the youth outreach program, had been cast for young Rick Ambrose, following a disastrous annual mission to a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Russ has held a grudge ever since. Carrefour is the heart of crossroads, a mesh of bad boys and bad girls, teenage identities and adult egos, striving to save souls while putting some to the side. It is a merit for Franzen that he recreates these characters and their bond of sex and salvation in a nostalgic but immediate way. Its use of rich period details is perfect, from sheepskin jackets and group hugs to two-sided cliques.

The Crossroads team is sensitive, perhaps too much. Russ’s eye wandered over to Frances Cottrell, mother of a ministry member and a widow in her thirties who Perry describes as a “FOX.” Tempted to get lost, Russ enlists Frances on a visit to a downtown black congregation that snowy afternoon. (Franzen skillfully contrasts the memes of the White Saviors with the skepticism of the Black Pastor.) Meanwhile, Perry has vowed to turn a new leaf by cutting back on marijuana use and cultivating a friendship with his hostile sister. Becky isn’t sure she wants to be good. On the one hand, she plans to share an inheritance from her aunt with her siblings; on the other, she is attracted to the magnetic Tanner Evans, musician in a rock group and pillar of Crossroads. There’s only one problem: Tanner remains stable with Laura, an actress from Russ’s previous downfall. Having left for the university town of Champaign, navigating the throes of his first serious relationship, Clem struggles with a sense of duty: should he give up his postponement of the project?

And Marion? It is an enigma, shrouded in a mystery, inside an enigma: in equal parts Emma Bovary, Elizabeth Bennet and Enid Lambert (the weary wife of the world in Franzen’s The corrections, winner of the National Book Award 2001). Her husband thinks he knows her, but secrets swim in her opaque depths like deep-sea fish, “invisible to her children too – without characteristic features by the dense, warm mama cloud through which they apprehend her” . Franzen pours all his donations into Marion, and the results are dazzling. She sneaks in to her psychiatrist under the pretext of an exercise class, but in Dr. Serafimides’ office, she drifts into a reverie, a brilliant piece of news integrated into the novel. Originally from California, Marion has survived all manner of trauma, sublimating her own ambition – her selfishness – for the sake of her spouse and children. That she separates is no surprise, and Franzen removes her diapers methodically, like a surgeon. Marion’s story is a container for some of the novel’s most vivid and insightful writing.

The Hildebrandts are mired in a quest as old as literature: how to live an authentic life? How do you become a legal person? Everyone struggles with strategies and tactics, and everyone comes out more confused, more compromised. Later sections of the novel revolve around the exhausted star that is Perry, who realizes that his desire to be good is a dupe race, as much a childhood fantasy as being elected President of the United States. Morality, he realizes, is anything but a binary choice, so to hell. Perry’s ending begins at a private vacation party, then continues in a late-night Crossroads event: “There was kind of a release in letting go of all thoughts of being a good person …”

Somehow the Hildebrandts survive Christmas, but the family is shattered. Marion considers leaving her unhappy marriage. Russ has his own revelations during the annual spring trip to Arizona, where Franzen weaves in another wonderful piece of news, the pastor’s own story and network of connections. There is more to Russ than just pointing out virtue.

Against the internal growls of his characters, Franzen poses the enduring beauty of the world and his indifference to the bipeds that dominate him – they have recently arrived on the planet and will soon be leaving. As Russ wanders through the mesa, “a crow croaked, hares roaming the shadows of the sagebrush.” A snake, both startling and frightened, flew off in its haste to get off the road. “

“A triumphant opening bet in what could become an essential pillar of our literature.”

The novel unfolds quietly, accumulating detail and narrative layers in Eliot’s vein Middlemarch and that of Balzac The Human Comedy, but Franzen also dialogues with Dante Hell, injecting a distinctive American Puritanism. The walls of the family eventually crumble, and yet the consequences are not what we expected. With the exception of Judson, every Hildebrandt is agitated in his circle of Hell, from drug-induced psychosis to steel holiness to literal exile; whether they can navigate through Purgatory to Heaven is an open question. The self is an obstacle to surrender to God. crossroads the final act is punctuated by repetitions of “vanity”: in a hotel room, Marion and Russ confess their vanities, Becky wonders if her virginity is a “kind of vanity”. Here Franzen echoes the heaviest of the Old Testament books, Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities,” said the preacher [Solomon, Son of David], vanity of vanities; it’s all vanity. ”(It’s no coincidence that singer Carly Simon wrote her famous“ You’re So Vain ”in 1971, or that Tom Wolfe invented“ The Me Decade ”for the 1970s.) Post-war Americans have long benefited from this egocentricity, now exacerbated by social networks… It is a masterstroke to go back fifty years to the genesis of our own cultural decay.

Perhaps Franzen’s most radical move is to sink deep into a middle-class family as they grapple with cosmic issues of faith and allegiance, family and community. crossroads is consumed by the cause and effect of our choices, especially our selfish choices. The novel ends on a cliffhanger, setting the stage for the next two episodes of its trilogy, a triumphant opening bet in what could become an essential pillar of our literature.

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