Franzen dreams big and goes deep, with ‘Crossroads’
“Carrefour” by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Jonathan Franzen dreams big. His latest novel, “Crossroads”, arrives with a thud on the doorstep of readers and will easily keep those doors open at 580 pages. The themes are monumental – from the existence of God to our obligations to family to the morality of war. It is also the first of a trilogy entitled, by aspiration, “The key to all mythologies”.
But don’t let all the hype surrounding a Franzen novel overwhelm you before you read it. In many ways, this is Peak Franzen, with richly created characters, conflict, and plot. “Crossroads” introduces readers to the Hildebrandt family in the early 1970s. The patriarch, Russ, is a middle-aged associate pastor in a church in suburban Chicago, with less than pure thoughts on a widowed parishioner of his. congregation and a younger rival in the clergy, Rick Ambrose, whose thriving youth group gives the novel its name. Russ’s wife Marion wonders if all the sacrifices she made to be a pastor’s wife were worth it. And their four children, from oldest to youngest – Clem, Becky, Perry and Judson – are all taken in one way or another by the swirling cultural winds of the decade. Despite their religious upbringing, or perhaps partly because of it, there are temptations around every turn, from drugs to premarital sex.
And in typical Franzen fashion, we dig deep into the heads of all the characters (except Judson, who at age 9 is mostly spared from the inner monologue) as they navigate their lives. Introspection is sometimes dizzying. Just when a character convinces himself to do something, he reconsiders and the plot takes a new direction. That’s not to say that it all seems arbitrary. Franzen has a story to tell, it’s just a story about characters who aren’t always sure what they want. The title of the novel is more than just the name of the church youth group, after all.
The writing is a marvel. Despite the super omniscient third-person narrator, Franzen also delivers economic lines like these, as we get Marion’s story before she met Russ: “Her first Christmas alone wasn’t that bad. ‘he didn’t look good later. ” You feel like you’re in the hands of a very confident storyteller throughout, and the joy of the novel accompanies the journey with each character as they make choices and live with the consequences.
You also feel when you are done that the story has only just begun. We are told on the cover of the book that the trilogy will “span three generations,” which means the kids will likely be adults in the next volume, and then we’ll tackle the present with their kids. It’s reminiscent of Updike’s “Rabbit” novels in this regard, except that its scope is even broader. Russ gets the most pages in the number one novel, but it really is a family saga. Her lifestyle choices and the impact they have on the rest of the family will set the stage for what happens in books two and three. And that’s the hard part. An audience accustomed to over-watching will have to wait years for the Hildebrandt story to unfold. But isn’t that a moral in many mythologies? Good things happen to those who wait.