The times are a-changing in solid, respectable New Prospect, Illinois, where Christmas 1971 arrives in a whirl of sex, drugs and folk music, while the Vietnam war grinds on off stage. Inside the First Reformed church, the worshippers are attempting to ride out the storm, casting about for something rock solid and true. This might be God or family or a fresh myth to believe in, a 20th-century pursuit-of-happiness tale, self-authored if need be.
New Prospect is in a state of flux but Jonathan Franzen remains reliably, defiantly Franzen-esque, tending to his faltering flock in fair weather or foul, and whatever the ructions in the country at large. Crossroads, his splendid sixth novel, comes billed as the first part of a proposed trilogy, A Key to All Mythologies, named after Edward Casaubon’s absurd, unfinished tract in Middlemarch. But, in the best possible way, it feels less like a beginning than like the latest yield of a familiar crop, or a newly discovered branch of a big midwestern family.
Franzen lays on a lavish spread of self-doubt and dysfunction, simmering tensions, heaped indignity, the sort of fraught festive gathering everyone can relate to. Rolling into New Prospect is a lot like coming home. At the head of the table sits Russ Hildebrandt, the First Reformed’s associate pastor, increasingly at odds with his god and in timid retreat from his marriage. Russ used to be dynamic, charismatic, a pillar of the community. Now he has been outpaced and humiliated by the messianic Rick Ambrose, who leads the church’s youth group, Crossroads. The pastor can’t shake the nagging suspicion that he is yesterday’s man. The future belongs to polished frauds such as Rick.
By turns principled and petty, laudable and ludicrous, Russ is broad-shouldered enough to carry Crossroads on his own. But there are no supporting characters in Franzen’s bulging family sagas: these are all-star affairs, and so the focus duly shifts from Russ to his children. We hear from Clem, his disillusioned eldest; popular Becky, intent on carving out an identity of her own; and precocious 14-year-old Perry, who is clearly courting disaster. Russ, in his self-absorption, is determined to frame his wife, Marion, as loyal, docile and straightforward, when in fact she’s as knotted and dissatisfied as he is, a woman who has hidden her history and buried her trauma. The arrival of Christmas – the image of a red-faced Santa in the stores – sparks memories of a calamitous love affair and a nightmarish rooming house out on the west coast.
It was Franzen’s fate to find himself hailed as America’s latest literary lion at the very moment the discourse shifted and the title turned fraught, becoming the proxy for generations of white male privilege. Steeped though it is in the 1970s, Crossroads nonetheless carries teasing flickers of the author’s travails. Rick Ambrose’s wildly popular youth group, with its tribal air and climate of performative truth-telling, could be a harbinger of the social media world Franzen loathes. Pitted against this, meanwhile, is the hapless figure of the associate pastor, a man Franzen appears to take a rueful delight in setting up and knocking down. Russ regards himself as a high-minded progressive, a friend to the Navajo, a bridger of divides. The Crossroads kids view him differently: as a bore and a square, “a white guy with his white God”, borderline creepy in his dealings with troubled teenager Sally Perkins.
Along the way, Crossroads arranges the Hildebrandts like a fabulous Venn diagram, showing the points where their experiences intersect and those where the family members remain separate, secret, a mystery even to themselves. Franzen is brilliant at framing the lies people tell, the stories they spin, elegantly lancing his characters’ self-justifying accounts with evidence to the contrary.
It’s a skill that proves equally effective when played for laughs (Becky’s high school essay, with its crossings-out and revisions) or horror (Marion’s recollection of her nervous breakdown). The Hildebrandts are lost and lonely, picking their way through the dark. The bright public space of Ambrose’s youth group seems an unlikely path to enlightenment. But is it any less honest than Russ’s constant, furtive self-examinations?
Franzen tends to be bracketed alongside the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, the other big lions of American letters. If anything, though, he reminds me more of Anne Tyler. He has the same fascination with the domestic arena (the great drama of small lives), the same keen ear for dialogue and a similar understanding that comedy and tragedy can be natural bedfellows. True to form, Crossroads wins us over with its array of social pratfalls and a cast of warm, well-drawn characters. It is expansive and funny; a pure pleasure to read. But all the while it is nudging the Hildebrandts closer to the brink.
Russ and Marion, we realise, have effectively abandoned their marriage and let their kids slip away. He’s hungering for an affair with a flirtatious young widow; she longs to reconnect with a California car salesman. The trouble is that these people are not built for change. They’re cautious midwesterners, products of the heartland, earth signs adrift in the age of Aquarius. Each implicitly knows that they are straying and sinning and must therefore be punished. The adventure has to end with a joint moment of reckoning. Any other outcome would require too great a leap of faith on their part. Casaubon crashed before completing his manuscript, but one hopes that Franzen’s trilogy will stay the course, chasing the Hildebrandt family through the 1970s, past Watergate and the energy crisis, all the way to Ronald Reagan’s brash new American morning.
Franzen has laid the ground beautifully, and his first act is intoxicating – a luxuriant domestic drama that opens out into politics, running against the grain of the counterculture with its focus on the friction between conservatism and radicalism, Christianity and social activism. Crossroads tells us that life is hard and that families are impossible. Stumbling Russ can no sooner save the sacred Navajo land from development than he can shield Perry from cocaine, or Clem from the draft.
All the same, there is a restless energy here that bodes well for the future. Whipped by the times, Franzen’s 20th-century seekers are flailing and giddy and yet somehow still standing. They are groping for a fresh direction, a new way of being, an ideal to live up to. “Turning and turning,” as Russ Hildebrandt puts it. “Until by turning and turning we come around right.”