If you are of a certain age, you might remember JONATHAN FRANCOIS, even if you haven’t read his work yet. Think back to 2001, when Oprah selected Franzen’s “The Corrections” for her book club. This made the literary author decidedly uneasy. He has publicly stated that he considers himself to be in the “high art literary tradition” and that so many of Oprah’s selections were “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional”. Displeased, Oprah quickly disinvited Franzen from appearing on her show. The story became fodder for cable news, so sales of Franzen’s books were always assured. (An excellent novel, it would go on to win the National Book Award.)
His latest novelCROSSROADS“, is approaching masterpiece status. Franzen is brilliant and has clearly refined his writing in order to shed what many thought were show-off elements of his previous novels. Still, this n It’s not for everyone, and I’m not sure it was for me.
It is set in a fictional suburb of Chicago in the early 1970s. Russ and Marion Hildebrandt have four children, with their ages running the gamut. Russ is an associate minister who was reassigned within his church after being ousted from the leadership of the youth group he started, Crossroads. To add to his humiliation, two of his children later join the group. Russ, who wants nothing to do with his wife, sues a widowed church member; it’s a bit comical while being sad at the same time.
Each of the children struggles in their own way. Clem, gone to university, is about to drop out to try to enlist in the Vietnam War. Becky, as popular as high school can be, is increasingly intrigued by the counterculture. Then we have Perry, a high school sophomore, genius, drug dealer, and drug addict. His “manners are apparently frank and respectful, but somehow.”
Perry joins Crossroads as an artifice, moving in group sessions. “Because it was a game, he was good at it, and while it was hard to feel good about the intimacies achieved through the theoretical calculus of the game, he felt that other people were genuinely moved by his emotional manifestations. .” Becky sees through his scheme and quickly calls him out not only for manipulating the group, but also for being a borderline disgusting person.
Marion, who has her own history of mental illness, is certainly worried about Perry’s mental well-being and for good reason. Russ, meanwhile, has delusions of grandeur thinking he can save Navajo land. Yet he’s the same guy whose family is disintegrating before his blinded eyes.
In his novels, Franzen brings it to the people of the Midwest. (He was raised in St. Louis.) For all the “dontcha know” and “whelp!” jokes meant to underscore a sort of Midwestern innocence, Franzen always hit back with a darker take, where pent-up feelings are dangerously mixed with quiet hatreds; also add the prevalence of drug use (think methamphetamine).
But that’s not to say “Crossroads” is a satire of Midwestern church families. The characters go through real moral crises. By treating them with care, Franzen makes their respective anxieties real.
Perhaps too real for this reviewer. Make no mistake, Franzen is in top form as his intellect completely surrounds the characters he builds and then knocks down. Don’t get me wrong either, you feel the plight of the characters. Franzen’s writing makes sure of that. It’s like lying on the grass on the nicest days with your hands behind your head, watching the clouds go by for hours. It’s gorgeous in its own way, with its grand display. But every once in a while you come across a clap of thunder that heightens the devastation. Here’s Clem asking Russ, “Do you have any idea how awkward it is to be your son?”
Readers of John Updike may remember “In the Beauty of the Lilies”, a beautiful multi-generational novel, where the reader sees how a decision made by one person in one generation affects the next. There’s definitely an Updikean feel to “Crossroads.” However, here, the family members live their lives in an uneasy whirlwind, and it’s an unnerving (if sometimes humorous) slow bleed.
Apparently, “Crossroads” is the first in a planned trilogy titled “A Key to All Mythologies.” (Readers of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” will probably recognize the reference.) Knowing that, I might try the second volume. Because even if I found “Crossroads” heartbreaking, there is hope for the Hildebrandts. There are a lot of wounds that lead to various family cracks, but they don’t let go. Plus, Russ finally sees it: sometimes we get it wrong, and we get it wrong a lot, but we keep trying.
“Twist and turn,” he says. “Until turning and turning, we came back to the right.”