To state that Jonathan Franzen ranks among America’s best novelists reliably provokes ire—especially on the Internet, where such ire is never in short supply. Nevertheless, his work has long been discussed in these terms, at least since his third novel, 2001’s The Corrections, the rare work of literary fiction that was both a critical and a commercial hit. Whether or not he is any good, let alone one the best novelists in the country, Franzen’s tidiest trick has been to force us to litigate his own excellence every few years.
Franzen began his career in 1988, with The Twenty-Seventh City, and followed that experimental novel about St. Louis a few years later with Strong Motion, which established the themes that have concerned so much of his work: the environment, capitalism, faith. These novels share a self-conscious, postmodern sensibility and an ambition to probe deeply into the world—to use fiction to talk about reality. But it was The Corrections that saw this ambition most fully realized; abandoning the earlier works’ hyper-exuberance for a more realistic mode. His follow-up, 2010’s Freedom, trod the same territory as its predecessor—an exploration of sexuality, morality, money, and power through the lens of family bonds; easy to read, indeed, difficult to put down.
Purity, published in 2015, was, in its way, a sidestep, indebted to Dickens, full of coincidence and intrigue (secret identity, mysterious paternity, a billion-dollar fortune). There was still a family and big issues involved (gentrification, journalism, the fall of East Germany, and the rise of the Internet), but there was also a tone of near-absurdity. The book was zany, a ripping yarn that felt like it must have been fun for the author to write, especially after the dour Freedom.
Crossroads, Franzen’s sixth work of fiction and the first of a planned trilogy (called “A Key to All Mythologies,” after Edward Casaubon’s life’s work in Middlemarch; maybe Franzen isn’t as humorless as he can seem), will doubtless reignite the familiar debates about his stature. The novel itself is familiar, stepping back from Purity’s manic register, eschewing interest in the present moment and attempting a study of God and faith set in the 1970s. It’s played straight, with nary a joke or postmodern gag in evidence. But that I read all 580 pages of it (too many; being presumed great means editors give you a wide berth) in three days is a testament to Franzen’s ability with the novel form. He’s a storyteller, a master at holding the reader’s attention, himself attentive to that reader’s pleasure. He’s surely among the great American novelists, but Crossroads also finds Franzen discharging his powers in a way that feels like a departure.
Crossroads centers on the Hildebrandts of New Prospect, Ill., an invented Chicago suburb. They are Russ and Marion. He’s a pastor, and, given when the novel is set, maybe the best word for her is “housewife.” They have four children: the idealistic naïf Clem, an undergraduate; Becky, a pretty and popular high schooler; Perry, a too-brilliant-for-his-own-good teen; and Judson, the baby of the family, in whom no one, Franzen included, seems especially interested. (Perhaps we’ll hear from Judson once he’s more than “an appealing and well-regulated youngster.”)
Nothing about the Hildebrandts’ middle-class, Midwestern anomie is new for a Franzen novel, even if it is well-done. Pastor Russ is smitten with another woman, a young widow who is one of his parishioners. Marion is dissatisfied with the way her life and marriage have turned out, which is manifested mostly in her desire to lose weight. The kids have their own struggles. Clem, long a dutiful student, wonders whether there’s more to life than obedience; the well-adjusted Becky finds herself experiencing a spiritual revelation; Perry spirals into drinking and drug addiction. In The Corrections and Freedom, a family’s crises lead the author and the reader to politics, the environment, ethics, the Internet, sex, and class in the present moment, but in Crossroads, every plotline leads to God. Not religion, although that’s of interest, but the individual’s relationship with the big guy himself. It’s not couched in metaphor or coyly suggested; it is explicitly Crossroad’s central question. “Almost everything in life,” Franzen writes, “was vanity—success a vanity, privilege a vanity, Europe a vanity, beauty a vanity. When you stripped away the vanity and stood alone before God, what was left?”
Pastor Russ’s obsession with the widow Frances Cottrell is the novel’s first disclosure to readers. For some, it will serve as a litmus test. American literature is not short on depictions of the heterosexual male libido at midlife; do we really need another? The way Russ tries to involve the woman in the church, eager to spend time with her, is mostly cringe-inducing. But his desire and his pursuit of Frances is emblematic of Russ’s alienation—from his family and the church he serves, but maybe also from his faith itself. Not only is he chafing at his commitment to Marion and puzzled by his children; he’s also at war with his colleague, the youth pastor Rick Ambrose. Russ is a man, you might say, at a crossroads—sexually and spiritually as well as in terms of his work and family life.
As it happens, Crossroads is the name of the youth group at First Reformed from which Russ was recently ejected—Franzen is making things easy on his reader. Russ’s ouster is the reason for his animosity toward Rick, a former protégé, who has supplanted Russ as the group’s leader. (Russ “had lost his edge and couldn’t relate to young people anymore.”) Insult to injury: Both Becky and Perry join Crossroads, drawn in by the crowd that surrounds their dad’s groovy, long-haired colleague. It’s hard to believe that Franzen followed up Purity, which features a fictionalized WikiLeaks trafficking in state secrets, with a novel about the internecine battles of a suburban church youth group, but Crossroads is very much what Crossroads is about. Through it, Franzen probes the evolution of belief in this country. Russ’s God was a force to be obeyed, a way to bring meaning to life, while his children’s faith is one of rap sessions, guitar tunes, and good vibes. “It was undeniably pleasant to have the full attention of the mustachioed leader about whom his irreverent friends spoke admiringly,” Franzen writes about Perry; “to be in frank conversation, for once, with an adult.”
Maybe this new mode of belief-as-lifestyle is insubstantial. Clem, Russ’s oldest son, abandons college and, with it, his draft deferment, but just as he’s willing to sacrifice the self for the state, the war wraps up. Unable to be a martyr, Clem becomes a wandering soul, knocking about America, North and South. Perry, meanwhile, is more comfortable with modern life’s meaninglessness, slipping from furtive pot smoker to full-on drug addict, in the trajectory of a cautionary after-school special. He means to be good, Franzen assures us; that’s why he goes to Crossroads’ meetings. But he’s not quite able to be. Perry gets loaded at a church Christmas party and holds forth on God and goodness, sounding like every insufferable drunk you’ve ever met, if not quite like the 15-year-old boy he is. “I suppose what I’m asking,” Perry says to a crowd of his father’s fellow clergy and their wives, “is whether goodness can ever truly be its own reward, or whether, consciously or not, it always serves some personal instrumentality.”
But this new, gentler faith is Becky’s salvation. Caught in an uninteresting teenage love triangle, the novel’s most exhausting plotline, the Hildebrandts’ only daughter sees God (yes, really) and changes her life. She renounces the vanity of popularity and the vapidity of American adolescence. She marries her crush, a musician named Tanner (the coolest dude in the youth group), and is granted the happiest ending in the book, not because she’s chosen by God but because she’s chosen God.
So much, maybe too much, of Crossroads is devoted to teenagers and their travails, but it is their parents’ stories, particularly Marion’s, that prove to be far more interesting. The complaint that Franzen is a throwback to the mid-century man of letters would be more credible were he not so adept at writing characters who happen to be women, and Marion is an example of the author at his most imaginative. She’s revealed mostly through her illicit visits to a shrink (a prestige-television trick, one Franzen deployed to similar effect in Freedom).
In Marion’s childhood, her father, facing financial ruin, died by suicide. Her sister Shirley left Vassar to make a life in New York City; their mother threw herself on the mercy of wealthy friends in San Francisco. Marion, still in high school, was sent to live with an uncle. She and a girlfriend hatch a plan to move to Los Angeles and pursue stardom. There, Marion ends up alone, working at a car dealership, where she has an affair with a married salesman named Bradley. The delusion that she and this man might make a life together leads to a breakdown and Marion’s eventual hospitalization.
Thereafter, Marion is dispatched to the home of another uncle, a gay man living in Arizona. Marion’s faith is a part of her recovery, and it’s during Mass that she meets Russ. If it’s difficult to reconcile this young Marion with the suburban matriarch we meet in the book’s opening, that’s either Franzen’s point or else he’s so skillful at telling a story you don’t really mind.
Russ’s backstory is compelling too, though much of its power is diminished by its placement late in the book. Born a Mennonite in Indiana, Russ sits out World War II as a conscientious objector at an alternative-service camp in Arizona. With little to do there, he volunteers on a nearby reservation, impelled by a well-intentioned desire to serve others and by a naive curiosity. “To the U.S. government, the Navajos were a problem to be solved by force,” Franzen writes. “To Russ, who was haunted by their faces, what needed solving was the mystery of them.”
Some risk attends a white writer addressing the subject of Native life. Franzen depicts Russ’s benighted and troubling view of the Navajo as an inscrutable other without reducing the Navajo themselves to such on the page.
Russ doesn’t want to evangelize the Navajo but is on his own spiritual quest, experiencing during his time among them an awakening, though not in the way one might assume. “He mistook a hovering falcon for an angel,” Franzen writes, “and then he saw that the falcon was an angel, unaffiliated with the God he’d always known; that Christ had no dominion on the mesa.”
Russ’s sojourn among the Navajo is the first stop on this spiritual journey; a visit to observe a Catholic Mass at which he meets Marion is another. Thus the spiritual becomes romantic, a journey to full selfhood. The young lovers’ meeting is inextricable from their relationship with God. Even their fucking is a kind of sacrament: “What the Bible meant by joy…he learned the following afternoon, when he went back to Marion’s uncle’s house. There was joy in his unconditional surrender to her.”
If Russ’s spiritual awakening begins in Navajo country, perhaps it’s fitting that his return there, years later, rekindles his faith. Through machinations too complex to summarize (it’s a long book), Russ leads Crossroads on a mission trip to the reservation he’d visited in his own youth. Frances, the object of his affection, is a parent chaperone; Perry is on the trip too. As father and son go off to serve in the spirit of Christ, Marion and Judson fly from Chicago to California, where Marion, newly svelte (one of the book’s least credible details), intends to visit the love of her youth.
It’s to Franzen’s great credit that each trip goes wrong in its own way. Marion’s attempted fling with Bradley is revealed as foolish—a lifetime has passed, and he’s now an old man, awakening her pity, not lust. Russ does at least get Frances into bed, but his sin is overshadowed by his son’s: Perry, coked up and half-mad, burns down a Dine barn on Navajo land and is arrested.
Husband and wife reunite in Arizona and, despite having hated each other for most of the novel, fall into bed. In this moment of crisis, they rediscover what held them together—God and sex. “I want us to pray together every day,” Marion says. “I want us to change. I want us to be closer. I want us to experience the joy of God together.” I’ve never heard postcoital talk quite like this, but Franzen’s storytelling has the force of the tide, bearing the reader along nonetheless. I can’t quite believe anyone would speak of God thus, but if anyone would, it’s Marion to Russ.
I have a tic of underlining especially lovely sentences in novels; I didn’t mark a single one in all of Crossroads. I don’t mean to insult Franzen’s prose so much as to marvel at how ably he writes by marshaling language in the service of story over beauty. I love books where language is the principal concern, narratives constructed from oblique fragments, and works of fiction that test the boundaries of how we define the novel. Crossroads is none of those things. Yet even readers like me cannot but succumb to the charms of plot and momentum, characters and conversation.
But what can readers like me—so secular that even “atheist” doesn’t seem the right designation—make of a novel in which a teenage girl sees God; in which a teenage boy wonders whether the soul grows as the body does; in which a mother is confident that she loves her children more than she loves Jesus but wonders whether she loves God more than she loves her children?
Franzen is dramatizing a historical collision between liberal Protestantism (Russ’s church hosted Paul Robeson in 1952, and the room in which Crossroads meets is emblazoned with painted quotations from e.e. cummings, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, “even Jesus”) and secularism. We know how this battle—between religion and the counterculture, psychiatry, women’s liberation, individualism—turned out. For the reader too young or secular, Crossroad’s interest in the individual, unmediated relationship of the person with God is hard to parse. Indeed, there’s so much talk about God in Crossroads that I eventually stopped trying to make sense of it, much as I gloss over the untranslated French that peppers Henry James’s novels.
Knowing this is but the first installment in a larger work changed how I read it: The novel didn’t quite satisfy, but I never expected it to be more than a first course. A novelist this skilled can do a lot with faith as a subject. What will befall the Hildebrandt kids as they become adults; what will Franzen light upon (televangelism, astrology, money) as the 1970s become the ’80s? Impossible to answer, but I’ll certainly read the subsequent volumes, because I want to know.
I hope that as Franzen progresses from the distant to more recent past, he’ll relax into the material. Crossroads is a measured work, but writing about God doesn’t need to be so pious. There’s a moment when Becky is in a speeding car, and while I didn’t dislike spending time with her, I wanted Franzen to dispatch her the way he did (famously, to South Asian readers like me) a supporting character, an Indian woman named Lalitha, in Freedom. Not only is Crossroads is about God; it reminded me how all authors are playing God. It’s something Franzen is very good at, but I still wanted a bit of Old Testament drama.