Jonathan Franzen’s new book will delight readers who still prefer The Corrections.
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Jonathan Franzen’s novels don’t come often, but they always arrive embedded in a pile of parallel baggage fomented on social networks. With all due respect to the supporters of Franzen’s irritated speech (which, in my opinion, is not a parcel of respect), I’m just going to skip the long, tedious prologue that many critics seem to find obligatory, addressing the character of Franzen, his publisher’s advertising campaigns, how he doesn’t have “the internet” and so on. Do you really need to read more of this? I did not mean it.
The superb last of Franzen, crossroads–the first volume of a dashing trilogy A key to all mythologies, after the tome the desiccated scientist M. Casaubon works in Half-March-mostly takes place in the closing months of 1971, with each chapter being told from the perspective of one of the five members of the Hildebrandt family. (The inner life of the sixth and youngest member, Judson, born around the same time as Franzen himself, remains unknown to the reader.) Everything about the Hildebrandts is average. They are underprivileged members of the white middle class living in a Chicago suburb, where Russ Hildebrandt is associate minister at First Reformed Presbyterian Church. Beneath this bland surface, however, stirs passions, antipathies, rivalries and hatreds. For example, Russ, who is in charge of the first chapter, has lost interest in Marion, his wife; covets a pretty widow; and hates the man who now controls Crossroads, the youth group Russ founded.
“Crossroads” is exactly the kind of slightly groovy and serious name that a group of young Protestants would have had in 1971, but it also refers to the title of a song from the legendary early 1920s.e-the bluesman of the century Robert Johnson. The lyrics depict Johnson falling to his knees, begging God for mercy, but he also allegedly sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for becoming a master guitarist. Each of the Hildebrandts is presented with a dark affair of some sort during the course of the novel. Each of them struggles to be “good” as they see fit, and some of them believe in God. crossroads is a novel that takes the religious beliefs of its characters seriously, never forgetting how easily faith can turn into nonsense.
The social change that rocked America in 1971 only slightly shapes the crises that beset the Hildebrandts. Unlike Franzen’s two previous novels, the 2010s Freedom and 2015 Purity, crossroads is light on the curmudgeonly social commentary. (Readers who prefer his 2001 novel, The correctionsFor Russ, who organizes volunteer work in the downtown core and on a Navajo reservation, the ’70s brought a humiliating change of identity. Not so long ago, while living in New York, he and Marion formed “the It couple, in the apartment of married students from which other young seminarians flocked three or four evenings a week to. smoke their cigarettes, listen to jazz and inspire each other. with visions of the rebirth of modern Christianity in social action. But the young minister who usurped him as head of Carrefour takes a more “psychological and street” approach, focusing the youth group on heartfelt confessions and discussions of intragroup relations, an indication of the decade between now and then. to come.
As in the best of Franzen’s fiction, the characters in crossroads are held up to the light like intricately cut gemstones and turned to reveal facet after facet. Russ, whose wriggling attempts at adultery encourage reader’s contempt, approaches his relief work with compensating maturity. “What Russ liked most about Theo,” the black pastor whose congregation he helps, “was his reluctance, which spared Russ the vanity of imagining the two might be interracial buddies.” On the other hand, this humility is also entangled in narcissistic self-loathing. Listening to Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” Russ thinks to himself that he is “a stranger, a last-day parasite, a fraud.” It occurred to him that all the whites were impostors, a race of parasitic ghosts, and none more than him. Sometimes the lust he feels for his parishioner seems to be a pretext to punish himself as a perverse validation of his faith. “The feeling of righteousness in the depths of his worst days,” Russ thinks, “the feeling of coming home in his humiliations, was how he knew God existed.”
Though they don’t realize it, Russ and Marion, the novel’s most beautifully directed character, share this attraction to the masochistic side of Christianity. They met in Arizona. He worked for the Navajo and she was going through an ecstatic Catholic stage following a disaster that she only partially admitted to Russ, an affair and breakup and a transaction with someone she firmly believes to be Satan. The affair, with a married salesman at the Los Angeles car dealership where Marion worked, haunts her. It was both the best and the worst time of his life, and it is the emotional epicenter of the novel. crossroads feels purged of showy writing and stylistic backdrops, but the long flashback recounting this interlude feels whitewashed by the merciless glow and punitive downpours of winter afternoons on the tree-less boulevards of the south of the California. The way Franzen conveys this atmosphere without drawing attention to the way he conveys it is in tune with the deferential spirit of the novel.
The characters in crossroads are held to the light like intricately cut gems and turned to reveal a facet after facet.
Of Russ and Marion’s three oldest children, Clem is the least lively creation, a student whose sexual arousal triggers an idealistic rejection of his postponement of the project. Becky, the Hildebrandts’ only daughter and a virginal cheerleader, expertly navigates her high school social hierarchy until a guitarist belonging to Crossroads catches her eye. He has a girlfriend, but Becky realizes that dating the musician would be “the crowning achievement of his status,” and she sets out to steal him. Of all the Hildebrandts, Becky enjoys the purest experience of religious sentiment, a “golden light” that permeates her the first time she gets fucked hard. crossroads is structurally supported by a network of oppositions like these. The suffering associated with Russ and Marion’s versions of faith certainly seems unhealthy, but the self-indulgent glow of Becky’s revelation seems, at the end of the novel, to lead her down a more perilous path.
All of the character’s moral puzzles seem to converge in Perry, a 15-year-old genius who, when he first appears, relishes his mastery of “Crossroads’ fundamental economics: the public display of emotions bought overwhelming endorsement. . To be assertive and fondled by a room full of peers, most of them older, many of them cute, was extremely pleasurable. A disguise from Becky, however, inspires him to try to be “good,” a condition the very nature of which puzzles him. How is it possible, Perry wonders, for someone as intelligent as him to do a good deed, when he is “helpless not to calculate the selfish perks flowing from his charitable act.” Suppose his mind is working so quickly that even while performing the act, he is fully aware of these benefits. Is not his goodness thus entirely compromised?
These were the concerns of Franzen’s late close friend David Foster Wallace, with whom Perry also shares a voracious susceptibility to addiction. At a particularly wacky Christmas party, Perry even embarks on a debate on the foundations of morality with a rabbi and a priest, and holds out until the astute hostess, realizing that the child slipped him glasses of his powerful glögg, put him outside. But of all the mind-boggling issues plaguing Perry, he never wonders if he’s calculating because he’s an addict or if he’s become an addict because he sees people as a means to an end. As intelligent as he is, Perry, like all Hildebrandts, remains oblivious to the most essential questions.
Like all Hildebrandts, and like most human beings. The power of this enveloping romance, aided by carefully crafted plot elements, will Russ win the Widow? What will happen when Marion returns to LA? Will Perry survive an insanely stupid attempt to buy a bag of peyote buttons in the Navajo reservation? It’s easy to look down on Russ for her indifference to Marion and the matronly weight she puts on to support and raise her children. After all, he despises it, noting that “Hating her appearance was another of the jobs she quietly and skillfully took on for him,” a line as blunt as Franzen ever wrote. But as the couple’s full story emerges, it becomes clear that the real Marion, the one he married, has locked herself into something less material but far more deafening than the adipose, a layer of Midwestern cuteness that suffocates her and keeps her alive, even as it eats away at her marriage.
Real people are tricky puzzles, volatile mixtures of self-knowledge and blindness, full of endless surprises and contradictions. Literary characters rarely reach such unpredictable complexity as they are, after all, artifacts made by equally blind human beings, and furthermore, they are the means to an artistic end. Franzen did not always give his readers characters as imperfect and persuasive as the Hildebrandts. He hasn’t always tried. But in crossroads, his satirical and didactic impulses largely mastered, his softened touch, Franzen has created characters of an almost disturbing authenticity. Is there anything else a great novelist should do? I did not mean it.
By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.