It is, finally, our indulgence in a book called Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen, following backstory and run-up to the Hildebrandt family’s major catastrophes present day, 1971.
Crossroads is a novel written in two sections. In the ‘Advent,’ section first, the workings of Russ Hildebrandt’s passion and obsession with Frances Cottrell, a young woman under his ministry, a widow whom Russ wants. So badly does he want her, he ignores many of the signs of his children and wife, Marion, falling apart in their own distinct ways, except for their youngest, Jordan, an intelligent young person we seem to watch the novel throughout of the corner of our eye to see he isn’t somehow getting it as bad as his siblings. His siblings all retain many of their parental dirty laundry through, and it seems genes. Perry Hildebrandt, sixteen and in the throws of experimentation with mind-altering substances, can’t seem to keep his head out of ambition to make money cornering a specific drug market in a small Chicago suburb, New Prospect. God, for Perry, remains an intellectual game as much as his interactions with peers and the youth group Crossroads, where he finds mediocre highs manipulating the group at first, to varying degrees of success, some undone by his social and ‘beautiful’ sister, Becky; eventually using the group’s yearly outing to the southwest, facilitating his highest ambition: to corner the peyote market in New Prospect. He is heavily addicted to cocaine at the point of his narrative departure. In Becky, a need to win the heart of a young man in the Crossroads youth group leads to her first horrific experience on pot, bringing her to her knees before Christ on His crucifix, seeing God, and honing in on Tanner’s heart by sticking with him through his initial, promising music career. Clem, the eldest child, cooly rejects his first love after becoming overwhelmed by her, fearing she’ll trash his grades through her neediness, gives her and school up to give up the idea of her a second time eventually, and resumes his life in Texas working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Before Marion and Russ meet for the first time in Flagstaff and are soon married, Marion’s early obsession with a married man surfaces an uncanny likeness to her daughter’s dogged pursuit of Tanner (Marion’s obsession with over-eating sugar cookies is also Becky’s minor obsession); Marion’s addictive and restrictive personality sheds a husk and becomes the more brilliant in Perry’s drug-addled energy, near frenzy, to seek adjustments chemical and spiritual; Clem’s coldness and eventual abandoning of his family, near one-to-one Marion’s forestalled return to the married man she fell in love within a prior life, whose rejection led her to a psychiatric ward, to her lowest, basest version of ‘evil,’ and in a way kept her from ever finding solace in Russ, a man with whom she raised a large family and maintained the rôle of minister’s wife for thirty years. So, what comes of this close character study of Marion, whom we know has been harmed, will harm, and seeks to resolve her issues from the past in her near future? Is Marion our main character? Is Marion our cool-handed protagonist, as the book jacket says?
In Russ, we know a young man who once had the courage to travel alone at night through rocky reservation land, took warning after warning from an elder not to go, and found what he really wished to find: spiritual awakening through prolonged and intense experiences with the Navajo, a people at once accepting, confusing, and ‘plangent.’ In his soul-seeking and attempt to make himself known unto God, a reluctance to heed the warning, he very nearly dies of dehydration but comes to an epiphany in a sexual revelation within a small dwelling he will return to thirty years later in its battered, undone, and unusable form. Get the picture? Very soon after his epiphany, he meets, in Flagstaff, a young Marion fresh from her travails in a psyche ward, newly divorced (though she won’t tell him this until they’ve consummated their aggressive passion) and soon as stickily in love as we have known her in obsession. In their marriage, we learn of a dire shift in Russ. Almost upon day, he loses the joy he knew after finding himself with the Navajo, joy in Marion. He and she are now trapped in a joyless marriage having child after child, not knowing the way ahead but that their God will guide them.
Interestingly, it is God who seems to lead them to their least complicated selves. I hadn’t expected this from the first half of the novel, but in our embrace of Franzen’s close-third, his adeptness at keeping a character’s voice ‘on’ while narrating their shifts and reversals, we see an obvious distinction, a clarity, in how each character chooses to use God as their propulsion-pack through the murk and drear of suburban Chicago in 1971, a time when it was clearly a shift in society was leading to a powerful undermining of the value of faith, the family unit, and justice. For Franzen, it seems, even the thought of Clem giving himself to the Vietnam War is met with a shift and reversal. The shifts through society, church, self, and government have wrought in stone the epidemic of ‘me,’ ‘I’; where once ‘we,’ ‘us’ had brought home Russ’s generation from World War II to accept the complacent motion of family building and society engagement. It is a moment of psychiatry, psychology, and a turning away from the church to therapy. We see Marion falling into her own therapy hole with a therapist who seems to set Marion off on a rambunctious course of action. It must be understood here, Russ is from a strong Mennonite background forging ties with God and family, but in their stricture, he lost a key figure, his grandfather, to an affair Russ will ultimately revise and imitate. Marion is from a mixed Catholic and Jewish background, her father is a non-practicing Jew who leaves her early, and her mother is an arm-pinching Catholic. She must hide her mental illness and therapy from all. Marion is sheltered after her catastrophe in young adulthood by her gay uncle and his partner, Antonio. I believe it is through them, as a lens of contact, we begin to see Marion’s shift toward her better self, near thirty years after her horrible experiences. Through her initial contact with Russ, we see Russ’s ‘beginning to accept gays,’ a kind of subtle undertow of a better culture to come unburdening Russ and Marion of certain types of hate and exclusivity. Marion comes to believe she herself is incapable of healing. “Potentially irreparable,” she believes she has dirtied Perry, her most disturbed child, through her own disease. We are fastened in from the moment we read the narratives of these characters chasing one another through the streets of New Prospect as though we’re reading a tuned-up thriller.
Anymore, we are a simple-natured beast when it comes to narrative design, and much of our reading of Franzen’s work has been grouped in with contemporary, big, social novels. I stress that this is a historical novel, new as it is for Franzen. His reining in his own particular list of interests should be understood as the personal development of a novelist seeking an acute and sophisticated form within a historical context and characters requiring as much research as rendering. In a moment of character portrayal early on, I found Franzen’s best-portrayed character of the novel, who came across as quick and as graceful as he was gone, a south-sider preacher, Theo Crenshaw.
“He was dressed in a saggy velour pullover and ill-fitting stretch trousers. He seemed immune to the vanity that had led Russ to wear his favorite shirt and his sheepskin coat for Frances. The poignancy of an urban preacher, beloved on Sundays to the women of his congregation but otherwise so very alone in his church, with no support staff, no associate, his annual salary paltry, his primary sustenance spiritual, was especially keen on a raw December evening.”
Jonathan Franzen has many excellent portrayals and moments of high prose in Crossroads. This is the easiest to access should say something about the inter-meshing of characters’ insights and awareness of others. Franzen nails some Chicago truths in passages we should expect from a researched novel, like Mayor Daley’s racist city works, the ill-functioning child-protection system in Illinois, all as some dreary backdrop for the Crossroads group be a sanctuary. We find a key antagonist to Russ in the youth group, whom we must eventually accept as our protagonist (though we can see Marion as central if we tilt our heads to listen). In Rick Ambrose, we find a near-chemical opposite to Russ. Rick is among the youth of New Foundation, the church, and the youth group, where Russ had been voted out in an embarrassing show of hands. Rick speaks particularly damning truths to all while Russ squirms under Rick’s power. In scene after scene between the two, we understand a prior deep friendship soured between them, turned hateful and ultimately resolved in a now-known hatred, but not before we witness the height of Franzen’s novel, wherein hate mounts to the precipice of verbal and near-physical blows interrupted, to the nth-breathless degree, by Rick leaving the room and returning with a collection pate. He will wash Russ’s feet. “Just shut the fuck up,” Rick says. It is a defining scene from a strong first novel of a tryptic Franzen intends to construct in the coming years.
Undoing his commitment to steer clear of historical fiction, mainly, I believe, inspired by his encounter with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, one of the finest wrought of the genre, and the energy, Perry Hildebrandt’s, he may have found in the Patrick Melrose novels, Franzen returns to us with a historical novel in a dialect shifting from character to character high to moderately high, in a book we anticipate will set off a great trilogy.