Crossroads: A Novel (A Key to All Mythologies, 1)
That Jonathan Franzen has large ambitions as an author is not news. Nor is it news that his success has been large. In this, his sixth work of fiction—the opening installment of a projected trilogy—he consolidates achievement. From first to final page we know we’re in his hands. The opening phrase of the novel is: “The sky broken by the bare oaks and elms of New Prospect was full of moist promise . . .” and that promise gets delivered by book’s end.
Crossroads reads like an extension of Frantzen’s relatively recent work, The Corrections (2001), Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015). In all of these, his subject has been family relations amid the larger cultural context of America; in each, he strives to make an individual’s dilemma somehow represent the struggles of the commonweal. Both telescopic and microscopic—a doubled form of vision that characterizes, also, his five works of nonfiction—the prose is expansive yet closely contained. There’s a good deal going on and, happily for a book of this considerable length, there are cliff-hangers throughout. One wants to turn the page.
Again we have a family chronicle, with alternating chapters and successive points of view. The Hildebrandt family—father Russ and mother Marion, children Clem and Becky and Perry and Judson—live in the auspiciously named New Prospect Township in Illinois, where Russ is a pastor at First Reformed Church. The action takes place in 1971 (“Advent” and “Easter” are the titles of the book’s two parts), though there are lengthy flashbacks to both adults in their youth, and the final pages transpire in 1974.
Each of the Hildebrants is in a kind of crisis, and by novel’s end all are displaced from previous positions. Russ gets the most space, Judson the least, but everyone’s at risk. The precipitating conflict is the pastor’s infatuation with a pretty and footloose parishioner; his wife Marion—the least predictable and most interesting member of the family—deals with his infidelity in surprising ways. When Marion takes stage center, we watch her open-eyed.
John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy has been hailed as the definitive description of middle-class behavior in America in the late 1950s through the 1980s. Frantzen here follows that lead; there’s even a roguish car salesman with whom Marian in her youth falls in lust; he has books by Updike on his shelves. (Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, has a Toyota dealership and a love of cars.) Matters of faith and credulity are central to the narrative, which focuses on the interaction of young people in a church-sponsored group called by the titular “Crossroads” and—as with Updike—there’s an ongoing agon between the characters’ spirit and flesh.
The book has its longeurs. Frantzen writes at over-determined length about the rituals of courtship, the weather, the presence or absence of God. His dialogues go on a beat or three too many, his descriptive prose wears thickly thin. The sex scenes could be improved. “It bordered on miraculous how completely this little person accommodated him. He lowered his full weight onto her and lay still, trying to etch into his memory the feel of total penetration.” Or, worse: “In the flickering light, a pair of lips surfaced. And, oh, their softness. The intimacy of kissing them was so intense it made him anxious, like a mortal in the presence of eternity.” Worst of all, perhaps, is “He clasped her delicate head to his chest, and his testosterone manifested itself in his long johns.”
While the narrative feels long-winded, there’s humor here throughout: “There was no telling how long Becky might have stayed in the sanctuary exploring what it meant to have found religion, if she’d eaten anything but sugar cookies the night before.” Or: “The cosmos was unjust. By dallying in conversation with his mother, Perry had made himself too late to procure relief from the disturbance the conversation had caused him, whereas, if he’d skipped the conversation and come to the concert earlier, when drugs were still available, he wouldn’t have been disturbed and could have stuck to his resolution.” An editor’s red pencil would have helped.
Still, the cumulative effect of Franzen’s expansive close focus is compelling. He’s very good indeed at entering the drug-addled consciousness of Perry, the “near-genius” son who spirals out of control. Although most of the action transpires in the Midwest, a portion of it describes—convincingly—the landscape of a Navajo reservation; the scenes set there are strong. After a failed transaction where he hopes to “score” peyoti, Perry burns down a Navajo barn and barely escapes with his life. The interaction of the siblings is believable, even when one of them steals from another, and the dissolution of the family—though rapid—feels foreordained. The American dream and nightmare are two sides, the narrator seems to say, of the same single coin.
What’s new here is a kind of over-arching compassion, a fondness on the author’s part for his characters, warts and all. Frantzen has often shown an ironist’s disdain for the people he describes; here he seems to pity and endorse them each in turn. Even the “villain” of the story—the hapless, testosterone-driven Russ—is full of remorse and doubt and a desire to help others; even the delusional Perry—so rapid-fire in his calculations—makes us as readers yearn to halt his downward slide. Becky the Beauty Queen and Clem the college drop-out claim our attention also, and the tertiary characters are vivid here throughout.
Near the end of Crossroads, Marion makes the case for fiction. “She didn’t expect that she could focus on a novel—it was several years since she’d been calm enough to read one—but she was sucked right in. She read all the way to Phoenix and then, on a second plane, all the way to Albuquerque. She didn‘t quite finish the book, but it didn’t matter. The dream of a novel was more resilient than other kinds of dreaming.”
Resilient, yes, here, too.