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Celebrated Novelist Tackles Faith And Family, With Thought-Provoking Results


Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Crossroads will make readers cry. This novel goes for the emotional jugular and never once lets go, making 2001’s The Corrections look tame in comparison. Published earlier this month, Crossroads is part of a trilogy called A Key to All Mythologies, with the remaining two titles still to come.

Crossroads is already being hailed as Franzen’s best offering yet, and has even been called “Tolstoyan” by Booklist. It deserves that title. That said, this book isn’t, per se, an “enjoyable” piece of literature, nor does it appear intended to be.

Crossroads hurts, and it’s clearly meant to hurt. But it’s also fascinating.

You know there’s a lesson to learn from the generational pain and heartache the author lays bare, but by the book’s end you’re still doubled over in emotional turmoil unraveling precisely what that lesson might be. There’s clearly a lot in here about sexual shame, God, and moral truth. But what does it all add up to? Is this book a hit piece on the family, or is it a love song?

At its worst, Crossroads edges towards maudlin psychobabble and daytime soap opera territory; at its best, it approaches the truly profound and transformational kind of writing that can change lives.

Familial Dysfunction

Crossroads is about liberal Christian pastor Russ Hildebrandt and the intense, consuming struggles he and his family are going through. Hildebrandt and his wife Marion live with their kids in 1970s suburban Chicago with their university-age son Clem and teenage kids Becky and Perry. Clem, Becky, and Perry are navigating the trials of life while their two parents undergo their own volatile crises and temptations.

On the outside, the Hildebrandts are a happy American family. Under the surface, they’re coming apart at the seams. The only “pure” character seems to be the youngest child, Judson, although with two books left in the trilogy, Judson’s status as the golden boy is very likely to be problematized as well.

As for the rest of the clan? Well, Russ wants to cheat on his wife with a younger parishioner but feels bad, his wife is intensely troubled and morally conflicted about her past behavior, his daughter is in love with a guy who has a girlfriend, Clem hates his dad and his life and wants to get drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, while Perry is a bipolar drug dealer on the road to perdition.

It’s all set against the backdrop of the First Reformed Church, where Russ serves as associate pastor and disgraced former leader of a popular youth group called “Crossroads” that’s now led by his arch-nemesis: a hip, younger preacher called Rick Ambrose.

The flock has drifted to Ambrose’s brusque style of confrontational leadership that prizes vulnerability and expressions of emotion. This seems to be a dig by Franzen against woke culture and the left’s equation of victimhood with moral worth. In any case, Russ has been voted off the church island, and is now a “square” outcast with no street cred among the liberal youth.

As Russ growls at one point in confronting Ambrose:

I hate you so much that I start hating all of humanity, including myself. The idea that you and I are in any way alike—it’s disgusting…

I hate you so much, I’ve started hating God!

For the most part, the Hildebrandts are lost in patterns of toxic shame and inner conflict. They equate sin and guilt with drawing close to God, and crave sadness and failure as the keys to the kingdom, doing moral calculus about paying for sins or reaping rewards as their lives go off track and succeed.

“The sense of rightness at the bottom of his worst days, the feeling of homecoming in his humiliations, was how he knew that God existed,” Russ reflects at one point.

But lest you say the book is just a hit on religiosity, think again. It’s ultimately much harder on secularism and skepticism, presenting a perspective on the atheistic as hardened and callow.

“Maybe you should go ahead and marry him. Pop out a kid, forget about college, join the Baptist church. Nobody will expect you to be smart there. I’ll be roasting in hell, so you won’t have to worry about me,” Becky’s brother Clem explodes at her at one point.

“You’re the pathetic one,” she responds. “You think you’re so superior and rational, but your soul is dead.”

Of course, Franzen isn’t necessarily saying this, but by giving a strong voice to characters who do say such things, and treating Marion and Russ’s religious quests with frank sincerity, he demonstrates that religious points of view are not laughable to him. Franzen’s primary concern through this work is how the inner moral universe and outer deeds of characters intersect, collide and diverge. He also cares a lot about what they believe and why.

Furthermore, perhaps the most touching passage in the book is Becky’s prayer when she’s speeding in a stranger’s car and worried she might die – and that she might be pregnant:

Dear God, she prayed, if this is the final test, I accept the test. If my time has come, I’ll die rejoicing in you. But please let it be your will that I live. If it’s your will that I live, I promise I will always serve you.

If it’s your will that I be pregnant, I promise I will never harm my baby. I will love her and cherish her and teach her to love you, I promise, I promise, I promise, if you would only let me live. Please, God. Let me live.

Certainly, Franzen is examining the psychology of belief and its relation to fear of mortality here – and not with an uncritical eye – but at the same time, this kind of passage shows you the moral seriousness of Crossroads. Unlike so many popular figures in American culture today, Franzen is not messing around with signaling a certain cachet or ironic detachment from the earnestness and intensity of existential struggles: he’s saying exactly what he wants to say.

The truth is that Crossroads can’t be easily labeled in any political or social category. It brings up relentless questions about family, God, mental illness, identity, patriotism, pacifism, religiosity, sexuality, and race. It doesn’t shy away from these topics or treat them with velvet gloves, either – it’s closer to the opposite.

If you’re easily offended, avoid Crossroads. But if you want to see a 15-year-old bipolar drug addict argue with a rabbi and priest at a Christmas party, and peel back the floorboards to see the termites crawling under an outwardly normal marriage, pick up a copy.

Authenticity and Self-Delusion

As Franzen details the tortured convolutions and conflicts of Hildebrandt’s splintering family, he presents characters lost in self-guilt, inner conflict, moral confusion, and a burning desire to be morally good without the necessary attendant willpower or knowledge of how to do so.

Like the myth of blues icon Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, each of the Hildebrandts is at a moral and spiritual crossroads, and society opening up in the 1970s is only making it more confusing for them to choose which way to go.

Despite his popularity among progressives and high status in the literary world, Franzen is not afraid to criticize liberals and the left, and has taken them to task several times before for existing in a self-righteous “silo.” Crossroads scorches liberal religion and spirituality in various ways, mocking and lamenting the self-righteous fixation and unctuous tendencies of white progressives.

With his morbidly intense hit The Corrections and the follow-ups of Freedom in 2010 and Purity in 2015, Franzen has tackled tough subjects about family breakdown and interpersonal conflict. He takes a morose look at how the Pill and talk therapy changed America forever, but also at how the light and dark of the human soul hasn’t really changed at all.

Franzen’s books aren’t stylistically or thematically simple, and they don’t offer easy-outs: They present family as a crucible of both potential authenticity and self-delusion for the individual. Crossroads hews to that same pattern, but with even more gusto and unrestrained verbal savagery than his past work.

By the end of Crossroads, emotions are overflowing and redemption or damnation is unfurling on the horizon. Can bridges be unburned or is the past too damaging to be overcome?

In the ensuing books of A Key to All Mythologies, we will see just how far the Hildebrandts unravel, but knowing Franzen, this family’s fabric is going to be ripped to shreds. One way or another, this literary master will have his say about the ties that bind and the forces — internal and external — that hack them apart.

As the character Felipe Cuéllar says near the conclusion: “Nothing is more important than family.”