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Jonathan Franzen: Crossroads

This book is apparently the first of a trilogy and is sub-titled A Key to All Mythologies, which may or may not be a reference to the incomplete book that the Rev. Edward Casaubon is writing in Middlemarch. Is this trilogy going to be incomplete?

In his recent novels, Franzen has gone for the rather vague one word titles such as Freedom and Purity. Crossroads is equally vague though we come up with a couple of the meanings early on in the book. I have come up with a couple of others. The first, of course, is the basic meaning of the word and indicates that one or more characters are at a crossroads in their life, which is fairly common in many novels and is certainly relevant here.

The second, we soon learn, is that Crossroads is the name of a youth centre run by the young and trendy pastor Rick Ambrose and which is attended by many of the local youth. (This is 1971 so would probably not be the same today.) Ambrose’s success annoys our main character, an older pastor, Russ Hildebrandt, because his attempt to relate to the youth of the parish has clearly been trumped by Ambrose with his trendier clothes and his swearing. What is worse two of Hildebrandt’s own children go to the centre.

The third meaning – and Franzen lays it out in case we do not spot it – is musical. The great blues artist Robert Johnson‘s most famous song is Crossroads. Hildebrandt has a (presumably quite valuable) 78 record of it which he plays. However, the young and trendy are no longer listening to this version. They are listening to the version by Cream, rather underlining how out of date Hildebrandt is.

The fourth possible meaning is my own interpretation, The basic meaning of the song Crossroads concerns a legend that Johnson went to a crossroads where he made a deal with the Devil to get his talent. Do any of Franzen’s characters make a deal with the Devil?

Finally the actual record of Johnson performing Crossroads becomes a key plot device device and quite possibly a symbol for a relationship.

The book follows the Hildebrandt family. Russ is an associate minister (deputy) at the First Reformed Church in New Prospect, Illinois. It is 1971. He is married to Marion, who is concerned about her weight and wants to be a good wife and mother but struggles with both. Indeed, it gradually becomes clear that for Russ his marriage was a miserable thing, held together by habit and vow and duty and, for Marion, she’d lately hated Russ at least as much as she still loved him; there was little reason to keep pretending for his sake.

They have four children. Clem is the oldest. He is bright, very interested in science and not all concerned about being in with the in-crowd. The next is Becky, the only girl. She looks up to Clem and the two form a sort of Eldest Siblings team. She is very much in in with the in-crowd. For some reason, people – both sexes – seem to adore her and she is the most popular girl in the school. Clem and Becky tend to look down on their younger brothers. Perry may well be the brightest and most artistic. However, he has a flawed character – he is into drugs and drink and thinks highly of himself. Becky says he treats their younger brother, Judson, as his pet. Nevertheless Judson looks up to him.

The high school is the high school we have seen in many teenage films. There is an in-crowd, consisting mainly of the well-to-do, athletes and good-looking girls, to which Becky belongs. Then there are the excluded – those who do not want to belong and the geeks and dorks. (Franzen does not use the word geek but he does use the word dork). New Prospect Township wasn’t a Midwestern utopia where everyone was equal, as she might have supposed, but a place where money counted socially and only good looks or athletic prowess could make up for the lack of it.

We have the stereotypical US high school and stereotypical US social order. We can add to that the stereotypical US wife and mother having therapy and popping pills, specifically methaqualone, a drug now banned.

However, to be fair to Franzen, it is not all stereotypical. One interesting approach is in the youth centre where Rick gets them to pair off in what he calls dyads. Each one has to tell the other what they really admire in the other but then something they’re doing that’s a barrier to getting to know them better. When they resort to random pairings by lottery, Perry and Becky draw each other. Becky damns her brother and, to his horror, reveals that she knows all about his drug use/dealing. However, it soon becomes very clear that brother and sister really do not like one another.

Russ had set up a youth centre which worked reasonably well. Then Rick Ambrose joined the church. Rick is twenty-five and the young people relate to him much more than they do to Russ. This is helped by the music that is played at the centre but also because Rick is cooler, dresses and has a hairstyle of a younger person and swears freely. For various reasons Russ is effectively driven out (not by Rick) and Rick takes over. Russ is not surprisingly somewhat bitter and this is not helped when Becky and Perry join the centre. Clem is, by this time, at university. Russ is particularly bitter because one of the things the group does is go to a Navajo reservation in Arizona to help in building projects. Russ has a long-standing relationship with the the Navajo and it is he who got the youth centre involved in helping them.

Regardless of the stereotypes, Franzen does tell a good story. It is a very long book so he goes into considerable detail, mainly with the Hildebrants but also with a host of other characters. The basic story line is that Judson, the youngest, plays a relatively minor role and, what we see of him, he is a fairly well-adjusted, well-behaved nine-year old. However the other five Hildebrandts all fuck up in various ways. By fuck up, I mean they all make flawed decisions, sometimes seriously flawed, which have negative, sometimes seriously negative, consequences. In addition, each of the five causes some hurt to at least one other character, either one of the family or another character or both. They are not evil or wicked by any means but they make the mistakes that many people make out of selfishness, thoughtlessness and, at times, wilful bad behaviour.

Their mistakes are driven by various things. The first, inevitably, is relations with the opposite sex. The second is dependency (drugs, drink, food). The third could perhaps best be described as poor judgement, often about themselves, how others see them and how they think (often mistakenly) others see them. None of these are major crimes, except the drug dealing and that only, with one exception, involves marijuana, a few pills and prescribed drugs, no Class A drugs. In short their mistakes are generally the mistakes that many ordinary people make.

Russ is the key character and, for a committed Christian, his eager adulterous pursuit of a younger widow seems, well, very unChristian. Indeed he seems flawed in other ways, including his relationship with the children, both those in the centre and his own children, his wife and his parents. Indeed, the only time in this book he seems to show how worthy he is is in his relationships with the Navajo.

If there are victims in this book, much of it is self-inflicted. However, Franzen is aware enough (I am not going to say woke) that actual victims include some of the women characters and the Navajo and African-American (a term not used then, of course) community in New Prospect.

I have to say that I did enjoy this book. It might, at times, seem a bit soap-operaish, but Franzen does tell a good story, as always, and gets deep into the dysfunctionality of the Hildebrandts, including quite a lot of back story I have not mentioned. Indeed, one of the themes could well be, can we ever escape or even let go of our past? His answer seem to be that we cannot and he he may well be right. There are many dysfunctional families in literature but the Hildebrandts, by not being too wicked, certainly make for an interesting one.

Publishing history

First published 2021 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux