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Jonathan Franzen novels don’t come along often, but they always arrive encrusted in a lot of paraliterary baggage fomented on social media. With all due respect to the proponents of peeved Franzen discourse (which in my opinion is not a lot of respect), I’m just going to skip the long tedious prologue many reviewers seem to find obligatory, addressing Franzen’s persona, his publisher’s publicity campaigns, how he doesn’t “get the internet,” and etc. Do you really need to read any more of that? I didn’t think so.
Franzen’s superb latest, Crossroads—the first volume in a trilogy friskily titled A Key to All Mythologies, after the tome the desiccated scholar Mr. Casaubon labors over in Middlemarch—mostly takes place in the last months of 1971, with each chapter told from the point of view of one of five members of the Hildebrandt family. (The inner life of the sixth and youngest member, Judson—born at about the same time as Franzen himself—remains unknown to the reader.) Everything about the Hildebrandts is middle-ish. They are unprosperous members of the white middle class living in a suburb of Chicago, where Russ Hildebrandt is an associate minister at the First Reformed Presbyterian Church. Beneath that bland surface, however, roil passions, antipathies, rivalries, and hatreds. For example, Russ, who takes the first chapter, has lost interest in Marion, his wife; lusts after a pretty widow; and detests the man who now controls Crossroads, the youth group that Russ founded.
“Crossroads” is exactly the sort of mildly groovy, earnest name a Protestant youth group would have had in 1971, but it also refers to the title of a song by the legendary early-20th-century bluesman Robert Johnson. The lyrics describe Johnson falling to his knees, pleading with God for mercy, but he was also rumored to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for becoming a master guitarist. Each of the Hildebrandts is presented with a dark bargain of some kind in the course of the novel. Each of them struggles to be “good” as he or she understands it, and some of them believe in God. Crossroads is a novel that takes the religious beliefs of its characters seriously, without ever forgetting how easily faith can twist itself into absurdity.
The social change convulsing America in 1971 only lightly shapes the crises that beset the Hildebrandts. Unlike Franzen’s previous two novels, 2010’s Freedom and 2015’s Purity, Crossroads is light on curmudgeonly social commentary. (Readers who prefer his breakout 2001 novel, The Corrections, will surely welcome this.) For Russ, who organizes volunteer work in the inner city and at a Navajo reservation, the ’70s bring a humiliating shift in identity. Not so long ago, while living in New York City, he and Marion were “the It couple, into whose married-student apartment other young seminarians crowded three or four nights a week to smoke their cigarettes, listen to jazz, and inspire one another with visions of modern Christianity’s renaissance in social action.” But the younger minister who usurped him as the leader of Crossroads takes a more “psychological and streetwise” approach, focusing the youth group on heartfelt confessions and discussions of intragroup relationships, an intimation of the Me Decade to come.
As with the best of Franzen’s fiction, the characters in Crossroads are held up to the light like complexly cut gems and turned to reveal facet after facet. Russ, whose squirming attempts at adultery encourage the reader’s contempt, approaches his relief work with a countervailing maturity. “What Russ most liked about Theo,” the Black pastor whose congregation he aids, “was his reticence, which spared Russ from the vanity of imagining that the two of them could be interracial buddies.” On the other hand, that humility also comes tangled up in narcissistic self-loathing. Listening to Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” Russ tells himself he is “an outsider, a latter-day parasite—a fraud. It came to him that all white people were frauds, a race of parasitic wraith-people, and none more so than he.” At times, the lust he feels for his comely parishioner seems like a pretext to punish himself as a perverse validation of his faith. “The sense of rightness at the bottom of his worst days,” Russ thinks, “the feeling of homecoming in his humiliations, was how he knew that God existed.”
Although they don’t realize it, Russ and Marion—the novel’s most magnificently realized character—share this attraction to Christianity’s masochistic side. They met in Arizona. He was working for the Navajo and she was going through an ecstatic Catholic stage following a catastrophe she’s only partially confessed to Russ, an affair and a breakdown and a transaction with a person she firmly believes to have been Satan. The affair, with a married salesman at the Los Angeles car dealership where Marion worked, haunts her. It was both the best and worst time of her life, and it is the emotional epicenter of the novel. Crossroads feels purged of showy writing and stylistic set pieces, but the long flashback recounting this interlude feels bleached with the merciless glare and punishing downpours of winter afternoons on treeless Southern California boulevards. The way Franzen conveys this atmosphere without calling attention to how well he’s conveying it is in tune with the deferential spirit of the novel.
Of Russ and Marion’s three oldest children, Clem is the least vivid creation, a college student whose sexual awakening triggers an idealistic rejection of his draft deferral. Becky, the Hildebrandts’ only daughter and a virginal cheerleader, expertly navigates her high school’s social hierarchy until a guitarist belonging to Crossroads catches her eye. He has a girlfriend, but it strikes Becky that going out with the musician would be “a crowning confirmation of her status,” and she sets about stealing him. Of all the Hildebrandts, Becky enjoys the most unsullied experience of religious feeling, a “golden light” that suffuses her the first time she gets stoned. Crossroads is sustained structurally by a web of oppositions like these. The suffering entangled with Russ and Marion’s versions of faith certainly seems unhealthy, but the complacent glow of Becky’s revelation appears, by the end of the novel, to be leading her down a more perilous path.
All of the characters’ moral conundrums seem to converge in Perry, a 15-year-old genius who, when he first appears, savors his mastery of the “fundamental economy of Crossroads: public display of emotion purchased overwhelming approval. To be affirmed and fondled by a roomful of peers, most of them older, many of them cute, was exceedingly pleasant.” A dressing-down from Becky, however, inspires him to try to be “good,” a condition the very nature of which perplexes him. How is it possible, Perry wonders, for someone as clever as himself to do a good deed, when he is “helpless not to calculate the ancillary selfish advantages accruing from his charitable act. Suppose that his mind works so quickly that, even as he’s performing the act, he’s fully aware of these advantages. Is his goodness not thereby fully compromised?”
These were the preoccupations of Franzen’s late close friend David Foster Wallace, with whom Perry also shares a ravenous susceptibility to addiction. At a particularly farcical Christmas party, Perry even gets into a debate on the foundation of morality with a rabbi and a priest, and holds his own until the shrewd hostess, perceiving that the kid has been sneaking glasses of her potent glögg, kicks him out. But of all the mind-twisting problems that torment Perry, he never wonders if he is calculating because he is an addict or if he became an addict because he sees people as the means to an end. Clever as he may be, Perry, like all the Hildebrandts, remains oblivious to the most essential questions.
By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Like all the Hildebrandts, and like most human beings. The power of this enveloping novel, facilitated by neatly turned plot elements—will Russ win the widow? What will happen when Marion goes back to L.A.? Will Perry survive a spectacularly foolish attempt to buy a bag of peyote buttons on the Navajo reservation?—finally resides in how uncannily real, how fully imagined these people feel. It’s easy to despise Russ for his indifference to Marion and the matronly weight she’s put on in bearing and raising his kids. After all, he despises himself for it, noting that “Hating her looks was yet another of the jobs she quietly and capably took on for him,” as brutal a line as Franzen has ever written. But as the couple’s full story emerges, it becomes clear that the real Marion, the one he married, has encased herself in something less material but far more deadening than adipose, a layer of Midwestern niceness that both stifles her and keeps her alive, even as it corrodes her marriage.
Real people are tricky puzzles, volatile blends of self-knowledge and blindness, full of inexhaustible surprises and contradictions. Literary characters seldom achieve a comparably unpredictable intricacy because they are, after all, artifacts made by equally blinkered human beings, and furthermore they are the means to an artistic end. Franzen hasn’t always given his readers characters as persuasively flawed as the Hildebrandts. He hasn’t always tried to. But in Crossroads, his satirical and didactic impulses largely in check, his touch gentled, Franzen has created characters of almost uncanny authenticity. Is there anything more a great novelist ought to do? I didn’t think so.