Russ Hildebrandt, the patriarch at the center of Jonathan Franzen’s excellent new novel Crossroads, has been humiliated.
Russ used to be cool. He’s a former Mennonite turned associate minister at a suburban church in 1971, but before he moved to the suburbs, he lived in New York. He marched with Stokely Carmichael. He likes Dylan Thomas and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues. He lines the walls of his office with proof of his progressive bona fides and good taste.
“But to the kids who now thronged the church’s hallways in their bell-bottoms and bib overalls, their bandannas,” Franzen writes, those bona fides “signified only obsolescence.” The youth of Russ’s church consider him helplessly dorky, old and out of touch beyond redemption. They think the way he showers attention on the church’s teen girls is creepy. Moreover, they can smell his weakness; how much he longs for their approval, how eager he is to please them. It only makes them more contemptuous.
So now Russ, unable to control the kids around him, has been pushed out of Crossroads, the church youth group that he helped found. He barricades himself in his office in wrathful self-pity, mourning his lost edge, resenting the wife and children who he believes are the reason he lost it, and ashamedly lusting after a lovely young widow among his parishioners.
Russ is not the sole protagonist of Crossroads, which is concerned with both family and nation. Yet his professional humiliation looms balefully over the rest of the novel, his failure a sin that poisons his children’s lives. We won’t find out the details for hundreds of pages, but it’s clear that, like Franzen himself, Russ has found that he cannot be both a hip young outsider and the embodiment of the patriarchy. The world will no longer allow such a thing. And so Crossroads becomes a portrait of America on the brink of turning away from the well-meaning white male preachers of the world, an America on the brink of recognizing other voices.
Crossroads is the first of a planned trilogy that Franzen, channeling Middlemarch’s windbaggy Casaubon, has titled A Key to All Mythologies. It loosely follows the same structure that Franzen first developed in 2001’s Corrections and reprised in both 2010’s Freedom and 2015’s Purity: a set of interlocking novellas, with different members of the Hildebrandt family taking over in each section.
Of the four children, the two eldest, Clem and Becky, are like their father: born rule followers whose only big questions are whose rules to follow. Clem, newly escaped to college, is considering dropping out to join the Vietnam War in an act of protest against his own unearned privilege and his parents’ pacifism. Becky, a senior who reigns over the high school’s popular crowd with an easy and instinctual callousness, is considering getting very into Jesus; she’s also considering getting very into sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
Both Clem and Becky are disgusted by their father after his exile from Crossroads, and they understand themselves to be enmeshed in a familial war, the aims of which are obscure. Clem has long felt himself to be allied with his mother against his father, and Becky, generally a daddy’s girl, is considering switching sides to join her brother. “Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be your son?” Clem asks Russ.
Franzen is having fun with the Clem and Becky sections, their self-consciously square vocabulary, their earnest striving, the intensity of their small ambitions. But it’s with the two black sheep of the Hildebrandt clan, Perry and Marion, that Crossroads crackles to vicious, blazing life. (The youngest child in the family, Judson, does not get a section to himself.)
Perry, a sophomore in high school, is highly aware both that he is the smartest one in his family and immediate social group, and that he is not a very good person. His quest to self-betterment, interspersed with frequent attempts at self-medication, winds around and around itself in long circulatory sentences so delighted with their own cleverness that they delight you, too, as you read, almost as much as they sting you. (Perry, it almost goes without saying, is firmly allied with his mother against his father.)
Perry’s obsession with becoming a better person also gives Franzen a chance to lay out most clearly one of Crossroads’ biggest thematic questions: namely, whether improving oneself purely and without self-interest is even possible.
“My question,” Perry asks a rabbi and a priest at a climactic cocktail party, “is whether we can ever escape our selfishness. Even if you bring in God, and make Him the measure of goodness, the person who worships and obeys Him still wants something for himself. He enjoys the feeling of being righteous, or he wants eternal life, or what have you. If you’re smart enough to think about it, there’s always some selfish angle.”
Then the party’s hostess busts him for sneaking alcohol and monopolizing the grown-ups.
Meanwhile, Marion, our matriarch, hides behind a frumpy cloak of preacher’s wife anonymity when everyone else is narrating, only to come screaming out in a vicious blast of rage the second we get to hear her voice for ourselves. Rage at herself, her family, the world: Marion is, frankly, over all of it.
Franzen’s name has become synonymous with the foibles of white male writers across the world at their most smugly blinkered, partly because of his deeply cranky nonfiction and party because his work is often given the kind of critical attention rarely lavished on authors from more marginalized backgrounds. But with Marion, he reminds us that he’s actually one of our great novelists of female fury. Marion’s self-effacing self-loathing is a protective bandage over deep wounds of trauma, and in her sections of Crossroads, Franzen peels away the layers to show us all that seethes below. By the time she’s finished with Russ, his first humiliation seems lenient.
Yet despite Marion’s fury, there is a surprising tenderness to this novel. Franzen is known for his acidity, for his willingness to delve into the least attractive parts of his characters’ psyches. Crossroads is certainly unsparing toward the Hildebrandts, but it is also empathetic. Even awful, dorky, self-pitying Russ is allowed moments of surprising grace. This is a big, ambitious novel that aims to say big, ambitious things about America, and the church, and familial power dynamics; about what happens to families and countries after the patriarch has been deposed; about how we strive to be good and whether we ever can be. But it is also interested in the possibility of redemption after a great sin — or a great humiliation.
Jonathan Franzen’s outsize reputation as a crank means that to his critics, he’s come to seem like a walking chain email on the evils of social media, and it has often tended to occlude his equally outsize reputation as a great writer. So loud is the conversation about him that it is sometimes hard to see the forest for the Franzenfreude.
Crossroads is good enough to overwhelm that conversation. The book is deceptively simple, merciless without being cruel, and thrilling in its sheer fury.
Haters and his own often-insufferable public persona be damned: Jonathan Franzen really is one of the great novelists of his generation. Crossroads stands ready and willing to prove it.