An American novelist named Jonathan Franzen has published a new novel. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He is the author of several previous books, in this millennium, The Corrections, Freedom, and Purity. Franzen is, or intermittently has been, the country’s biggest literary celebrity, and so the publication of a Franzen novel is an Event, heralded by a fever pitch of demented internet discourse.
On the one hand, you’ve got people who swear they’ll never read him because of the dimly remembered Oprah incident, and on the other, you’ve got people who won’t read him because they find him middle-brow. A third group thinks he’s bad on women, and a fourth bad on race. A fifth is furious that straight white men have ever been read, let alone are still read in the year 2021. A sixth cops to liking The Corrections and Freedom, but reluctantly. Reluctantly. Liking him online takes a certain type of ironic ambiguity. In the parlance of Twitter, “I love Jonathan Franzen. Haha, just kidding… Unless?”
To rise above such noise, the book better be big and it better be good. It better contain the author’s hallmarks, but push his work forward, and show a maturity, too, as he’s inching toward what is known as the late career.
Sorry to Franzen’s haters, but Crossroads is an excellent novel. Readers of his previous work will find the premise familiar: A Midwestern family experiences a season of upheaval, marked by infidelity, drug abuse, mental illness, the surfacing of secrets, and chronic parental dysfunction. This time, the family is the Hildebrandts, we are in the suburbs of Chicago, and the year is 1971. Russ Hildebrandt, the associate minister of a church called First Reformed, and his wife, Marion, and children Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson live in a dowdy parsonage in New Prospect, Illinois. The novel opens a few weeks before Christmas, with Russ on his way to meet up with Frances Cottrell, a “gut-punchingly, faith-testingly, androgynously adorable” member of the congregation, with whom, Russ, in his poor, weak sinner’s heart, hopes to sleep.
Russ’ desire to bed Frances is tangled up in a feud he’s been having with Rick Ambrose, the director of youth programming, “him of the stringy black hair and the glistening black Fu Manchu.” Rick has succeeded in toppling Russ as the head of the youth group, Crossroads, following an incident that left Russ humiliated and disgraced. Under Ambrose, Crossroads has transformed into something hippie-ish, touchy-feely, and so popular that even Russ’ own children betray him to join.
Russ has come to think that only an affair with Frances can restore his confidence. He contrives to achieve this on a Crossroads missionary trip to Arizona. Meanwhile, oldest son Clem grapples with guilt about his college deferment from Vietnam; brilliant but troubled Perry discovers how various drugs interact with his bipolar disorder; golden child Becky falls in love with a shaggy-haired Christian rocker; and Marion unravels in therapy, triggered by, I kid you not, a phobia of Santa Claus.
The central question here is how to be good, whether such a thing is even possible, whether, as Perry puts it to two clergymen at a church Christmas party, “we can ever escape our selfishness.” The early ’70s make a fitting backdrop for these anxieties. It’s a moment of cultural upheaval—new freedoms impinge on family life—and Franzen writes it well. The details feel natural and unforced, as lived-in as the Hildebrandt home: Frances’ plaid hunting cap, the bib overalls and painters’ pants of the Crossroads kids, Russ’ collection of blues 78s, kept as souvenirs from his Greenwich Village days.
Franzen’s five previous novels are by turns confusing (The Twenty-Seventh City), preposterous (Strong Motion), genius (The Corrections), a blast (Freedom), and preposterous again (Purity). Charges of sexism and racism against the writer have originated from not only a series of PR blunders, of which the Oprah incident is just one, but also the work. The novels often cast women as shrill, or calculating, or both, and are especially unkind to mothers. His portrayal of people of color—Indian American women across several novels, a Taiwanese seismologist in Strong Motion, the Black man who murdered a minor character’s daughter in The Corrections—are bizarrely rendered if not outright offensive.
In Crossroads, Franzen has improved on both fronts. The women of the book are its most compelling characters: Marion with her sordid past and hamstrung present, Becky with her dashed plans for the future. Likewise, a long section about the Navajo could have been an embarrassment, but mostly works as a critique of Russ, who sees them as exotic and noble, facilitators of his own salvation.
Franzen brings to this novel a refreshing simplicity. At times, he has shown himself to be over-enamored with the novel form; he has a tendency to connect all his disparate elements back to the whole, even at the expense of credulity. Novelists should strive for coherence, yes, and get mileage out of their inventions. But his novels, at their weakest, bend too much to coincidence, or worse, demonstrate an excessively orchestrated causality. You can see the seams.
Purity, for example, takes the titular character from Oakland to Bolivia to Denver and back, on a journey that begins with a mild interest in nuclear disarmament and concludes with her discovering she is an heiress to billions. The strings, we are meant to believe, have been pulled all along by a single German sociopath avenging himself on her father.
Crossroads is the first book of a planned trilogy, and the complete narrative might yet prove too neat. But in volume one anyway, Franzen has left behind such machinations. He has jettisoned, also, his impulse to explain how the world works. Absent are the corrupt systems, polluting corporations, institutions in decay that populate his other novels. What remains is family drama as high art. What remains is Franzen’s gift for interiority, his uncanny ability to take us into minds as fraught and depraved as our own.
Take Russ and Frances trying pot for the first time at her house. Russ imagines the pot will lead to sex or at least make him seem modern, but it is Ash Wednesday, broad daylight, and paranoia sets in instantly.
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.
This is why Franzen is always worth reading. He articulates the terror of exposure. The fear that people will see you for what you actually are. The flimsiness of the facade, the trembling doubt in every heart.
Erin Somers is the author of the novel Stay Up With Hugo Best. She co-hosts a podcast about Jonathan Franzen called Mr. Difficult.
Author photo: Janet Fine