What would the young Jonathan Franzen – an acolyte of Gaddis and Pynchon who identified with Kafka – make of the novels he would go on to write? That man was determined that ‘Franzen’ should connote ‘high art’, his own portmanteau of ‘high modern’ and ‘art fiction’. For years he dedicated himself to the conspiratorial plot of the ‘systems novel’, which would ‘capture the way large systems work’ so that readers would ‘understand their place in those systems better’. Pleasure was beside the point. In essays and interviews, he acknowledged that his over-full sentences and abstruse metaphors were intended to impress graduate students and his father. Money, fame, the imprimatur of Oprah’s book club: all were to be disdained if they required the approval of middle-aged women who read novels on planes or while recovering from knee surgery – women like his mother. He wanted to write books that would be too angry for most readers, too chilly, exhausting and self-conscious. To do otherwise would produce fiction ‘simply inadequate to the social and technological crises’ he saw developing all around him. Which was a shame, because he also thought that mass readership of his work would lead to ‘better political decisions’: in the case of his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), to reformations of city and county governments, through a better understanding of regional economics.
What thwarted Franzen’s career as a cult novelist – or saved him from it – was pride. He told the Paris Review that discovering he could ‘write better about something as trivial as an ordinary family dinner than [he] could about the exploding prison population of the United States, and the corporatisation of American life … was a real revelation’. And he admitted – first to himself, then in the New Yorker – that he hadn’t actually been able to finish Gaddis’s JR; he preferred the Brontës. He found new masters. From Proust he learned to let a story extend slowly over long stretches of time. From Edith Wharton, that a ‘good way to write a book is to define a character by what he or she wants’ – something that hadn’t occurred to him before. His sentences became less crowded and he cut down on the puns. The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) are both made up of multiple short novels, from the perspectives of different members of a nuclear family, ‘building to a crisis in which the main character can no longer escape reality’. Franzen wrote and rewrote versions of his child and adolescent selves, his parents, his brothers, his own failed marriage. Although his characters often travel abroad, he decided that true cosmopolitanism was incompatible with the novel: novelists need particularity and for him this meant writing about the Midwestern suburbs of his boyhood.
And yet the impulse to write about the systems underpinning modern life never entirely left him. A jettisoned book about the American prison-industrial complex is reduced in The Corrections to a description of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia: the ‘world’s first modern prison, opened in 1829, solitary confinement for up to twenty years, astonishing suicide rate, zero corrective benefit, and, just to keep this in mind, still the basic model for corrections in the United States today’. A man in Freedom can’t read a menu without confronting the ‘horrors of bovine methane, the lakes of watershed-devastating excrement generated by pig and chicken farms, the catastrophic overfishing of the oceans, the ecological nightmare of farmed shrimp and salmon, the antibiotic orgy of dairy-cow factories, and the fuel squandered by produce’. The ‘long-term toxicity’ pooling in a marriage is ‘like the coal-sludge ponds in the Appalachian valley’. Franzen’s anger often gives his sentences their energy on the page, so it’s fortunate he’s always found plenty to be angry about: social media, outdoor cats, MP3 players, the underacknowledged dangers of radioactive waste as opposed to global warming. (‘If you’ve got climate change spread over a hundred years, a fragile ecosystem has a fighting chance. But when the reactor blows up, everything’s fucked immediately and stays fucked for the next five thousand years.’)
His last novel, Purity (2015), featured a Julian Assange-ish anti-corruption activist, which allowed Franzen to go whole hog on the rottenness of techno-capitalism. When James Meek reviewed the novel for the LRB (24 September 2015), he argued that too much of it read like ‘extracts from workaday op-eds’ and regretted that Franzen was more invested in the Assange-ish character than in the storyline about a young woman trying to separate herself from a mother who lives only for her. This was partly because Meek recognised that Franzen is at his best when he writes about families, and also ‘because the family remains so potent and so artistically neglected an influence on the way society works’. I thought Meek was right, but that Franzen’s dissatisfaction with our ‘media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment’ was what propelled him to write. The op-eds couldn’t be amputated without killing the patient.
Not so. Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, is once again about a family (mom, dad, four kids) in a Midwestern suburb. Unlike his previous novels, which were all set as close to the present as he could manage, Crossroads takes place between 1971 and 1974. The narration – an almost infallible free indirect style – is unconcerned with the political events of the period, except as they encroach on the wellbeing of the Family Hildebrandt. None of the characters holds forth with Franzen’s hyperarticulacy on the state of the culture – there’s no need. They’re the fortunate denizens of what he’s described elsewhere as a golden age: the years of his own adolescence (he was born in 1959), before the ‘banal ascendency of television, the electronic fragmentation of public discourse’. This was a time when novelists like Franzen still featured on the covers of American magazines and the man on the omnibus had ‘some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever’. In Crossroads, a man ‘in the vitamin business’, Franzen’s idea of a regular Joe, buys ‘the recent Mailer, the recent Updike’. Free from the ‘total electronic distraction of our time’, Franzen’s people keep their minds on higher things. They even pray.
When the novel begins, 45-year-old Russ Hildebrandt is an associate pastor at a large liberal church for well-to-do suburbanites near Chicago. He ministers to the sick, leads community service projects, delivers sermons to ‘bankers and the bridge club’. What Russ no longer does is run Crossroads, the church’s youth group, which is a clone of Fellowship, the youth group that appears in Franzen’s essay collection The Discomfort Zone (2007):
We met on Sundays at five-thirty. We chose partners and blindfolded them and led them down empty corridors at breakneck speeds, as an experiment in trust. We made collages about protecting the environment. We did skits about navigating the emotional crises of seventh and eighth grade. We sang along while advisors played songs by Cat Stevens. We wrote haiku on the theme of friendship and read them aloud … It was unsettling how much the kids looked forward to Sunday nights, saving their favourite, most worn-out clothes for the occasion and throwing fits if they missed even one meeting.
When I first read the essay (an earlier version appeared in the New Yorker) I kept waiting for something terrible to happen. Surely the group leader – handsome like Charles Manson, ‘a beacon of authenticity’, ‘mobbed by troubled kids who couldn’t tolerate their parents but still needed an adult in their lives’ – was a little too charismatic? ‘Some parents, both inside and outside First Congregational, thought that Fellowship might even be a cult.’ But it’s all as benign as it seems. After a few members of the group are caught smoking marijuana, Franzen worries that his parents will make him quit, but – relief! – they don’t, and when he’s selected to be a student leader, ‘all I could think of was how happy I was.’
In Crossroads, this material has been reworked in the service of a better story. It’s been three years since Russ’s ‘humiliation’, when he was persuaded to resign from the group; his ‘daily shame’ when he walks by the office of the man who took his place, Rick Ambrose, or takes a ‘craven detour’ to avoid him, connects him ‘to the sufferings of Christ’. Without Russ, the group has exploded in popularity, and – in a ‘brutal betrayal’ – has recently come to include his son Perry, as well as his only daughter, Becky, who is ‘rather too obviously’ her father’s favourite child. (His oldest son, Clem, is away at university, and the youngest, Judson, isn’t old enough to join.) As the leader of Crossroads, he’d felt powerful for the first time. And though it would become ‘painful to recall’, he had ‘loved Rick Ambrose’, who once seemed to look up to him. Russ had failed to notice ‘that he and his young associate had been engaged, from the beginning, in a competition of which only one of them had been aware’. There’s a lengthy flashback to a debate over whether Russ or Ambrose should be the one to ride on the ‘cool bus’, with the group’s most popular kids, on a retreat to Arizona. Midway through the journey, after ‘feeling exiled’ on the ‘unpreferred bus’, Russ insists that they switch places, a scene which Franzen shows from both his perspective and from his son Clem’s:
Theoretically, there was nothing wrong with this. His father was the leader of the group, and it was arguably correct to share his ministerial presence with the other bus. But when Clem saw how eagerly his father bounded onto it, without a backward glance, something shifted inside him. He sensed, in his gut, that his father hadn’t switched buses because it was right.
The stakes seem almost comically non-existent – but, Franzen suggests, that’s life. Russ doesn’t realise that his obsession with Ambrose, as well as his growing infatuation with a ‘gut-punchingly, faith-testingly, androgynously adorable’ young widow, are distractions, keeping him from noticing that his brilliant, moody son Perry is getting addicted to drugs, and that his wife, Marion, might be losing her mind. The chapters from Marion’s perspective – particularly the sixty or so pages set during a long double session with her therapist (she tells her family that she’s at an exercise class) – include some of the best and strangest writing that Franzen has ever done. Outwardly she’s an exemplary pastor’s wife. She remembers the names of parishioners and gives ‘moderate, sensible, incremental’ advice. But Perry’s suffering reminds her too much of her own; it must be punishment for the time she had sex with Satan.
In Purity, nearly all of the characters have a secret they’re trying desperately to protect. In Crossroads, the Hildebrandts have secrets plus moral dilemmas, which their faith only complicates. For Russ, contemplating whether to have an affair, not even the commandments are indefeasible: wasn’t the message of the Gospels that ‘the callings of the heart amounted to a higher law’? For his teenage daughter, Becky, the strongest argument in favour of losing her virginity is that she’s become ‘proud’; she thinks that her chastity makes her better than other girls. ‘Might it not paradoxically be more Christian to humble herself, accept that she was one of those girls, and yield up her jewel?’ As for Clem, he doesn’t want to be a soldier, but he can’t stop thinking about his low draft number. As long as he’s at university he won’t be called up, but ‘his heart went out to the uneducated kid who was serving in his rightful place.’ When he eventually tries to enlist, he does so on account of his conscience – at least that’s what he tells other people. Franzen is very good at mixed motives: his characters can’t have too many. Clem also wants his girlfriend, Sharon, to ‘admire the rightness of his action’. And he’s been angry at his father since the bus incident: he wants to prove to himself that he’s the better man. For almost any other novelist, that would be sufficient psychologising. What makes Clem’s decision-making particularly Franzenine is that the ‘most salient attraction of forfeiting his deferment had been to avoid going to France with his girlfriend and his sister’. He knows he’s being ridiculous, but the trip is all planned and he doesn’t see how else to get out of it.
He hated to imagine himself, condemned every morning to lie in a heavily fucked-upon French bed where everything was hot and red and sleep-depriving, with crusted semen on the sheets, condemned to wishing he could be wherever Becky was instead, maybe downstairs in a breakfast room with fresh napkins and baguettes, she and their mother having some lively conversation that he would have liked to be a part of. Becky he never regretted being near, because nearness was all he wanted from his sister … The glowing image of Becky receded and faded like an angel’s … The more Sharon was in the picture, the less Becky could be.
Franzen has long suggested that you can’t have honest fiction about the family without acknowledging the family romance. In The Corrections, Denise has sex with a man who’s like her father and with a woman who’s like her mother. In Freedom, we’re told that Patty ‘loved Jessica’, her daughter, ‘an appropriate amount, but Joey’ – her son – ‘she loved way too much’. The opening pages of Purity are about the ‘unsettling’ attraction a woman feels towards her mother’s body (‘solicitous even of her mouth chemistry’). She later comes within inches of unwittingly having sex with her father. But now the frisson of incest is powerful enough to send a character to Vietnam. Or not. After Clem gives up his deferment, almost any other novelist would have followed him to war, where he’d be undone by what he’s made to do, injured or killed off. When Russ tries to persuade Clem to change his mind, he imagines the plot of the novel Franzen isn’t writing: ‘I know how devastated you would be, how utterly shattered, if you had to see a child burned up with napalm, a village bombed with no reason.’ What novelist wouldn’t want to write that scene and win a Pulitzer? But we’ve read it before. And Franzen’s characters don’t have to leave Illinois to devastate themselves. After Clem posts his letter to the draft board, he’s so excited that he gets an erection. But the summons to report for basic training never comes. It’s late enough in the war that American soldiers are starting to come home: he’s surplus to requirements. He’ll have to find another way to avoid going to France.
For Russ, Clem’s grand gesture is an attack on his own history: instead of serving in the Second World War, he’d been ‘improving the national forest’ in a gorgeous part of Arizona as a conscientious objector. To make himself less embarrassing to his children, he’s willing to stop cowering in his office and rejoin Crossroads. And if he should end up chaperoning its next retreat to a Navajo reservation in Arizona – ‘Arizona was his place’ – with the Widow Cottrell (forget the popular kids), well, might not that be part of God’s plan? Other Hildebrandts have their own reasons for wanting the trip to go ahead. For Perry, it’ll be an opportunity to buy peyote from the Navajo. For Marion, Russ’s absence gives her a chance to fly to Los Angeles, where she lived before her marriage. An old boyfriend of hers is still there, and if ‘anything her desire for Bradley felt stronger for the thirty-year rest she’d given it’. Just the sight of his last name printed in a phone directory is ‘one of the most erotic things she’d ever laid eyes on … she couldn’t be sure it was Bradley, but there was no reason it couldn’t be.’ And with both Russ and Marion out of the house, Becky can humble herself – if God wills it – by having sex with a ‘bell-bottomed dreamboat’.
Not all the ends tie up. Despite its nearly six hundred pages, Crossroads seems unfinished – because it is. It’s the first novel in what Franzen promises will be a trilogy about the Hildebrandts to be called – with simultaneous megalomania and self-deprecation – A Key to All Mythologies, a reference to Mr Casaubon’s doomed project in Middlemarch. I don’t think Crossroads is very Middlemarch-y, and not only because it’s unconcerned with community life. But Franzen certainly did what we wanted him to do: Crossroads is a family story that’s interested in people, not systems. It’s engaging, and probably the easiest of his novels to read. I cared about the characters, particularly Marion and Perry. Franzen told the Wall Street Journal that it might be the first book he’s written his mother would have liked.