Hell Can Wait

Crossroads BY Jonathan Franzen. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 592 pages. $30.

The cover of Crossroads

WHEN, LATE IN JONATHAN FRANZEN’S NEW NOVEL CROSSROADS, a woman, reuniting with an ex-flame after thirty-one years, notes “recent Mailer, recent Updike” on his shelves, the shock of the old is both soft and profound. It’s 1972; the dinosaurs still stamp and bellow. They can’t imagine how much they will lose.

It’s a fate that Franzen, whose prominence is as close a thing as fiction in this time can offer up to equal Updike’s or Mailer’s Cold War stature, seems eager to acknowledge and avoid. His loyal yet aging audience, his millions, and his National Book Award for The Corrections (2001) are scant protection from the indifference of newer readers and critics that sank the postwar phallocrats, and today’s newer readers and critics have not seen much in Franzen. For those under a certain age, confessing proudly to a taste for Franzen’s novels just isn’t done. Slick millennials and zoomer nihilists concur: he’s kind of a dork. Like Norman Podhoretz, Lena Dunham, and Donald Trump, Franzen in the past two decades has been the sort of white who’s seemingly predestined to command attention (cringing condescension) through egregious error. The self-image of the male protagonist in Crossroads’ opening chapter as “a fatuous, obsolete, repellent clown” applies equally to the author’s public image in young eyes, and no one knows it better than the laureate of loathing himself. And after Freedom (2010; good, not great) and Purity (2015; bad), it was clear that the rift dividing Franzen from the fresher generations was largely of his own creation. White millennials in those novels manifested as virtue-sodden muppets destined to inherit their more fleshed-out parents’ most complacent properties. (Which, however unappealing, wasn’t quite unfair.) Nonwhite millennials could hardly have been said to manifest at all. With his cranky admonitions (stay off the internet!) and his corny bird obsession and his one-great-novel-every-thirty-years average, he looked safe to write off as a relic, his sole literary-historical accomplishment, the domestication of the systems novel, maybe more regrettable than remarkable. Even if you granted him a bright awareness of his faded situation and a desire for reparation, what could a boomer in his sixties possibly achieve by commencing, with Crossroads, a swansong trilogy portentously entitled A Key to All Mythologies?

As if to sway newer readers, Crossroads is crammed with adolescents and young adults. Of the five characters at its center, three are teens or twentysomethings in the early 1970s; the other two, their parents, receive extended flashbacks to their own years of discovery, an era when Freud is “Dr. Freud,” the cool kids are still “fast,” and the reporter fresh from rendering Homage to Catalonia (1938) requires introduction as “the English writer George Orwell.” Giving up, for now, in Crossroads, on representing present youth, Franzen has doubled down on representing the white ones’ parents and grandparents as the impressionable, inquisitive, and dynamically flawed young men and women that they once had been. In dreams, as a once-famed tale from the Depression had it, begin responsibilities.

The retrospective mode has always made for Franzen’s forte. Intriguingly enough for an author self-identified as “particularly resistant to historical fiction,” his characters’ backstories have tended to be better, a full order of magnitude more confident and keen, than their stories in the present. To set a novel half a century in the past, as he now does, is something like dealing oneself a full house. In playing to his strengths so inordinately he has unlocked a new, late style, distinct from the well-hewn blocks of prose poetry typical of his first three novels or the mashed-potatoes-and-gravy consistency of his last two. The Corrections was a masterpiece, but Crossroads is his finest novel yet. Unpolished and unsloppy, difficult to quote or fault, his free indirect style sticks to the contours of consciousness and attempts not one thing else. In a quiet and uncanny fashion it is entirely adequate: a prosaic causeway coursing through the swamp at night.

New Prospect Township, a well-off (and wholly fictional) suburb of Chicago, is witnessing a spiritual crisis of drastic proportions. A family is breaking up. The patriarch, Russell (“Russ”) Hildebrandt, associate minister at the local First Reformed Church, is beginning to dream irresponsibly. Born and raised inside the Christ-devoted confines of a colony of Mennonites in Indiana, his horizons stretched by a spell of World War II civilian service with Navajos in the Arizona desert and seminary study in electric postwar New York, Russ finds himself, after four children and two decades of lowly postings back in the Midwest, frustrated by a lack of progress. A lonely exponent of “modern Christianity’s renaissance in social action” and “the vision of a nation transformed by vigorously Christian ethics,” he incarnates a dimension of US life now largely lost to memory, the high-minded Christianity of white social-justice warriors whose nonviolent battalions helped desegregate the US in conjunction with King’s own army. It being 1971 and the Reverend and his movement being three years deceased, Pastor Hildebrandt finds himself not only demobilized and defeated, but demoralized. Ostracized and ousted from Crossroads, the church youth group he led, he now lives a marginal existence. He repeatedly worries he’s losing his “edge”: socially, spiritually, culturally, sexually. Nostalgic at forty-seven for the awakening of his years in Arizona, he nakedly, naively pines after Frances, a tantalizing, cute parishioner ten years his junior.

Three years older than her husband and sharp enough to know she’s being spurned, Marion Hildebrandt begins being gnawed on by her own nostalgia for an intensity long gone—a spiraling frenzy of lust and jealous wrath in 1940s Los Angeles that climaxed in barbiturate abuse, intercourse seen as Satanic, an aborted child, and being involuntarily committed to a mental ward. Native to the lower-upper class of San Francisco, inheritor of her Jewish father’s intellect and obsessive tendencies—and also, it turns out, her mother’s practicality in disaster—Marion is naturally armed with a “feral intelligence” as well as an unwavering consciousness of guilt faced with God and man. “She’s a sinner, and she’s honest with God about that.” As a form of atonement, Marion has borne the burden of a woman’s labors (child raising, house cleaning, writing Russ’s weekly sermons) without complaint. Having concealed from the earnest young Russ, during their Arizona courtship, the full degree of sin into which she had fallen, she considers it her duty to maintain, as best she can, a family founded on a lie. Yet as her husband’s interest in her fades, she finds herself drawn, assisted by a psychiatrist who doubles as a quaalude dispenser, back to her days of being wild, “the vividness of memory and fantasy,” cherishing the image of herself as continuously verging on a rapture of the soul and body with another. For decades she has served as Russ’s better half: an ideal helpmeet, better read, more attuned to interactions social and divine. As he loses sight of her, she ceases looking out for him—ceases, too, naturally, to keep a careful eye upon their offspring.

While parental supervision flags, the three oldest Hildebrandt children choose to bear their growing pains alone. Clem, a Camus-besotted sophomore at the University of Illinois, must square his plans to sacrifice his draft deferment in the name of a strong-willed, self-fashioned ethics of responsibility with his attachment to a lusty girlfriend that leaves him helpless to desire anything beyond gratification of his “animal self.” Becky, chaste and sober queen bee of the high school seniors in “a place where money counted socially and only good looks or athletic prowess could make up for the lack of it,” is drawn into a romance with a handsome guitarist that leads, over time, to a marijuana freak-out, close encounters with some of the most sinister Eurotrash ever committed to literature, and an unplanned pregnancy. Two classes under Becky, Perry seeks relief from the overlapping pressures of a 160-IQ mind and a terror of the impossibility of being truly good. (“If you’re smart enough to think about it, there’s always some selfish angle.”) Beginning with liquor and weed, he graduates to crankier, more reckless substances. Though Franzen foregrounds sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll as active sources of temptation for the Hildebrandts, his treatment of TV in Crossroads is curiously scant considering his former depictions of it as a “powerful narcotic,” an Ur-temptation draining wills of literary authors, characters, and readers alike. Has he made his peace after having novels optioned and Oprahed? Or has he renewed his old critiques in a subtler format—the singular arrogance of the Hildebrandt children (the first generation ever raised on TV) contrasting sharply with both their parents’ humility and New Prospect’s humiliatingly conformist society as if to index, silently, the arch-consumerist medium’s slow dilation of young selves to humongous scale? Only further novels can resolve this question, but the discrepancy bears noting.

Hovering on the threshold between setting and plot, social and spiritual, cult and religion, the Crossroads group is a locus of brutal confrontation, a waystation through which all of the lead characters, God-bearing Marion excepted, are routed and rerouted. Commanded since Russ’s cancellation by a cold yet bluntly charismatic young pastor named Rick Ambrose, Crossroads foregrounds the personal relationships between congregants while glossing over all overtly religious discourses regarding Christ, God, the Bible, and salvation. An ethos of unsparing candor dominates. Members are encouraged to expose their innermost thoughts before one another. Collective responsibility is continually stressed. Faithful readers of Franzen’s five nonfiction books—which together arguably comprise the twenty-first century’s most elaborate and revealing memoir to date—may observe that Crossroads is as much a product of the author’s past as his imagination. Its protocols, theology, and folkways are essentially those of Fellowship, the suburban St. Louis church youth group Franzen credits in The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (2006) with his first tastes of social popularity and feminist awareness. Both Crossroads and Fellowship conduct an annual trip to Arizona over spring break for the purpose of working with the Navajos. Rick Ambrose’s Bible-free, no-bullshit attitude, and its galvanizing effect on larger and larger swarms of young misfits, closely resembles that of Fellowship leader Bob Mutton, “mobbed by troubled kids who couldn’t tolerate their parents but still needed an adult in their lives.”

Walter Ohlson, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, 1959, poster, 30 × 40". From Jim Shaw's “The Hidden World," 2013–.
Walter Ohlson, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, 1959, poster, 30 × 40". From Jim Shaw's “The Hidden World," 2013–.

The muddy confluence of dissipating counterculture and disintegrating liberal religion, fixed in Chicagoland’s forbidding atmosphere, turns out to be the ideal site to summon God and Satan as supporting characters. Excepting the staunch materialist, rationalist, and atheist Clem, the Hildebrandts define themselves through their relation to God no less than through relations with their peers. They pray to God, they wonder what God wants them to do, they negate God’s reality, they have mystical experiences of “golden light” that they ascribe to God, they hate God, they believe they are God: real, simulated, or imagined, God orients and drives them. And excepting Russ, whose lofty liberal theology seems to rule out the existence of genuine evil, let alone intelligent and ultimate evil, the Hildebrandts are haunted by impressions of some wise, profound malevolence: ferocious animals resonating with animal selves, feral intelligence in collusion with unleashed temptation. (This is the decade of The Exorcist, after all.) They see evil in themselves and others and it tends to scare them senseless. The final episodes of Marion’s madness are particularly chilling: with regards to the intensity of California horror, and without resorting to the film director’s more authoritarian arsenal of stimulations, they match the worst scenes in Fincher’s Zodiac and Lynch’s Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive.

To be clear, all of Franzen’s prior works are monuments to the same genus of finely calibrated darkness that manifests within his new one. A Franzen novel minus its malign conspiracy is like an apartment stripped of furniture or New York City without friends: nothing to go to, no reason to stay. Like the Probsts in The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), the Lamberts in The Corrections, and the Berglunds in Freedom, the Hildebrandts are a white Midwestern family subjected to what might be called a covert, exceedingly clever, and thoroughly relentless antitrust action. Once again the individuals of the family and the family unit itself are tenderized by the infernal machine of a capitalist society that drives the selfish processes of competition, acquisition, and consumption to their logical finish, sparing neither privacy, nor morality, nor health, nor peace till it achieves its ends. Once again the dissolution of the family takes place in the course of interactions with figures who bait, with preternatural cunning, each member’s deepest inner vulnerabilities. (For the record: Russ and Becky’s envy; Clem, Becky, and Perry’s pride; Marion and Clem’s lust.) And once again, your appreciation of the Franzen novel will correlate powerfully with your awareness of histories personal, economic, and national. You can dismiss his narratives as untrue to reality and realism—life can’t be that cruel, can it?—discount the possibility that his frequent praise of Kafka’s expressionism points to something in his own work, and pass on none the wiser, as I did for quite some time.

Yet the divergence with the former work is critical. The introduction of an overt religious dimension in Crossroads—a dimension collapsing and/or being collapsed into the social as the novel and the ’70s progress, but a dimension nonetheless—introduces with it troubling questions, questions foreclosed by the thoroughgoing secularism of Franzen’s previous, more up-to-date protagonists. The Hildebrandts are not simply materialists in a material world. Insofar as they assess reality in terms of good and evil, God and Satan and Jesus Christ, the reader must as well. Within this obligation is inscribed a freedom: one must decide for oneself precisely how to position oneself with and against the family’s system of spiritual coordinates. When the members of the family preside, as they so frequently do, over judgments of their own and others’ moral worth, the reader must follow suit: judge those judgments, and perhaps judge one’s own.

The spiritual cannot yet be reduced to the social, and each Hildebrandt insists the two must somehow be related. Since the correspondences they draw between the will of heaven and the norms of Earth so plainly interfere with one another, the dissonance can only be resolved by the reader freely rendering one’s own notes, one’s own corrections. What, exactly, is wrong with this family? How much are they, and how much are the temptations of society at large, to be blamed for their outrageous failures to sustain each other? Given that the energy that courses through New Prospect is so predominantly dark—and given that New Prospect is one of the most prosperous and desired sectors of the most powerful nation on Earth—how does one reconcile its existence with that of a just and loving God? If such a divinity does not exist, what is to be done with humankind—so frail, so lost, so steeped in the misery of selfishness? Though no serious fiction writer would impose their own belief upon their readers, what Crossroads does make clear is that Franzen, through his characters, has rendered it impossible for readers not to be engaged by the most momentous questions of faith. Concordant with your own opinions regarding atheism and Christianity, the Hildebrandts either come off as pathetically deluded masochists, the disasters that befall them a direct product of their abasement before a phantom deity’s unknowable demands; or they are dragged down precisely insofar as they fail to heed their higher conscience and transcend their sinful nature.

It testifies to Franzen’s artistry that both readings are equally plausible. His ambition in this novel is not only to mirror society, but to return the individual reader to themselves, to grind a lens in which the major questions structuring our single lives on Earth retain their focus and integrity. All of this sounds Dostoyevskian because (with the requisite adaptation for American environs) it is. What David Foster Wallace once vaunted in the Russian champion (“passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not permit ourselves”) can now be celebrated in Franzen with Crossroads. Wallace’s presence is palpable throughout his best friend’s novel, which takes up the themes abandoned at his death—and, to some extent, the life abandoned by his death as well. What Franzen describes in the title essay of Farther Away (2012) as Wallace’s “secretiveness and solipsism and radical isolation and raw animal craving,” his obsession with being good and the impossibility of being truly good, find potent parallels within the lucubrations of Perry Hildebrandt, who is, as Wallace was, a bonkers-level white teen genius addict trapped in ’70s Illinois.

The development of spiritual range transforms the portrayal of strangers no less than companions. Prior to Crossroads, nonwhites in a Franzen novel were fortunate if they were drawn as two-dimensional. Beneficent or nefarious, their profiles readily reduced to vectors: they were components of the plotline, nothing more. The dismal, almost laughably racist presentations of South Asians in The Twenty-Seventh City and East Asians in Strong Motion exposed the author moonlighting as edgelord, his aspiration to critique the whole of capitalist society doubling as carte blanche to flip birds at the flimsy prohibitions of political correctness. Later novels could hardly have done worse; they did better without doing good. Yet through the mind of the do-gooder Russ Hildebrandt, committed to social equality under God, just proportions finally show across the color line for Franzen as well. For all his personal lapses of awareness, Russ in Black Chicago and among the Navajos is ever-vigilant regarding the difficulty of transcending racial hierarchy. Even at his kindest and most understanding he observes how “the very act of caring was a kind of privilege, another weapon in the white arsenal. There was no escaping the imbalance of power.” Primarily opaque but undeniably possessing souls in speech and action, the nonwhites of Crossroads are as convincing as they ever can be in a white author’s words.

Franzen’s aspirations to critique the whole of capitalist society haven’t changed since his debut, but over time his methods have become impressively refined. In the place of polished, sullen jeremiads he calmly notes the self-deceit and torments of the Hildebrandts as they swap out thoughts of heavenly responsibility for variations on the pitch of The World Is Yours. Having ditched the arid cant of white-male vanguard fiction and evaded the puerility endemic to the systems novel, he has arrived at last as an artist whose first language, faced with the society of greed, is not ideological but emotional, and whose emotions, fused with his characters, tend more toward sorrow and compassion than rage and self-contempt. Like his Gilded Age precursor Dreiser, Franzen joins a thorough, chill accounting of the economic structures of America with a profound appreciation of the inner life—hearts fired by the urge to have and be more. (Perhaps in homage, Russ Hildebrandt shares Mennonite and Indiana backgrounds with the titan of the Midwestern novel.) Crossroads is Franzen’s greatest and most perfect novel to date, but more importantly, it is his most promising: an inexhaustible resource for future novels, and not only his own. What impresses most is the sense that its successors, hopefully present soon, will all but certainly exceed it.

Frank Guan lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He is engaged on a novel.