Jonathan Franzen, as they say online, is Good, Actually. Long a contentious figure, these days Franzen finds the reading public surprisingly amenable to his outlook. His new novel, Crossroads, is getting positive reviews. His long-held skepticism when it comes to social media now makes him look less like a curmudgeon and more like a prophet, what with Facebook sowing misinformation across the globe and destabilizing elections. Praised for qualities that made him reviled in the past, he has become the Guy Fieri of American fiction, and Crossroads offers a twist on a familiar recipe.
Franzen made his name writing long, engrossing novels that delve into the inner workings of the white, middle-class American family. His early novels overindulged in the heady postmodernism rampant in the 1990s, but The Corrections (2001) got the balance just right. Bringing the detail of the systems novel to bear on family dynamics, The Corrections demonstrated that a family saga, one of the oldest, most traditional novelistic forms, could capture the culture of the moment—and reach a vast readership for good measure. In Freedom (2010), he followed yet another family, this one during the Bush Era, to somewhat lesser but still potent effect. Purity (2015) reads like an ill-advised twist on his early novels, mostly ignoring families in favor of international intrigue. But Crossroads sees Franzen return to all-consuming domestic themes. The result is not just his best novel since The Corrections. It is his best novel, period.
Crossroads does add some new ingredients to Franzen’s menu. To start, it’s a historical novel that takes place in the early 1970s—living memory for Franzen, who was an adolescent at the time. More unusually, it’s a religious novel, or at the very least a novel that trains its powers of attention upon deeply religious characters. Following a youthful brush with Christianity, Franzen left behind faith for literature. But that early exposure to religion must have stuck with him, for he writes about the inner life of faith, its joy as well as its despair, with remarkable fluency. It is this quality that makes Crossroads unusually prescient: by honing in on a religious community fifty years in the past, the novel manages to convey, perhaps without meaning to, the emotional tenor of social media in the present day.
But I’ll get to that in a moment. Crossroads portrays the Hildebrandt family, who live in New Prospect, Illinois, a fictional suburb of Chicago. Russ Hildebrandt is the associate pastor at First Reformed church, but the congregation’s affluence is an odd fit for him after growing up in an austere Mennonite farming community. His sober-minded, service-oriented Protestantism makes him more comfortable aiding inner-city faith communities or constructing school buildings in the Arizona desert. Marion, his wife, is there to help him navigate the social landmines of suburbia, remembering the names of every parishioner and whipping up pies for bake sales. They have four children: Clem, an iconoclastic college freshman; Becky, a preternaturally popular teenager; Perry, brilliant yet unstable; and Judson, the youngest, who mostly remains at the periphery of the story while his family members capsize their lives in one way or another.
The catalyst for the Hildebrandts’ troubles is Crossroads, the youth ministry attached to First Reformed. Rick Ambrose, the youth pastor running it, is a charismatic figure who attracts teenagers in droves. Remember: this is the early ’70s, when the unruly energies of the counterculture were sluicing their way into the square suburbs. Ambrose directs those energies expertly, and he makes Crossroads a place where teens of all sorts, religious and otherwise, come to see what’s going on. Its structure, such as it exists, is fundamentally relational. In highly emotional exchanges facilitated by Ambrose, the teens talk, laugh, and, especially, cry.
Russ’s rationalistic son, Perry, quickly catches on to what he calls “the fundamental economy of Crossroads: public display of emotion purchased overwhelming approval.” His daughter Becky, skeptical of Crossroads at first, comes to see its appeal when a boy named Tanner invites her:
Crossroads didn’t look religious—there was nary a Bible in sight, and whole evenings went by without reference to Jesus—but here again Tanner had been right: simply by trying to speak honestly, surrendering to emotion, supporting other people in their honesty and emotion, she experienced her first glimmerings of spirituality.
For his part, Russ can’t stand Crossroads. Ambrose is everything he is not. Vindictive and bitter, Russ begins lashing out at Crossroads, at times not even fully aware he’s doing so. He starts to neglect his wife, makes the Crossroads girls uncomfortable, and desperately tries to have an affair.
That’s right: Jonathan Franzen has written the Great American Youth Group novel.
Reading Crossroads transported me back to my own youth-group experiences. There are differences, certainly. The youth group I attended in the late 1990s was conservative and Evangelical, whereas Crossroads is mainline and generally liberal. But the affective world of Crossroads is still intimately, painfully recognizable. Adolescence is a time when your emotions are so volatile, so abundant, that it feels like they could overflow at any moment. The Christian youth group, as an institution, has found great success through channeling those teenage feelings in the general direction of the divine. I can’t tell you how many Wednesday evenings I spent trying to keep those emotions at arm’s length, only to break down and raise my hands during the praise chorus.
The hyper-emotionalism of my youth group experience embarrasses me today. There were times when I had to read Crossroads through my fingers, cringing at the religious sincerity of it all. It’s a testament to Franzen’s commitment to his subject matter that he recreates those emotions without condescending to them. But as I kept reading, I wasn’t just transported back to my adolescence; I also picked up on a way the novel’s youth-group emotionalism resonates with the present, one Franzen may not even have had in mind. Crossroads, seen from a certain angle, looks like a creation myth for social media as we experience it today.
The displays of emotion at Crossroads, as Perry accurately perceives, function as a kind of currency. The more you show, the more attention you receive. Making yourself vulnerable, anathema in the halls of high school, becomes, at Crossroads, the mechanism by which you can raise your social standing. Sound familiar? Log on to the social media platform of your choice and you will find teens, as well as adults acting like the teens they once were, baring their souls for the sake of “engagement” and clicks. I’ve noticed this phenomenon for years, watching social media posts hit the exact same emotional beats I heard during youth group when my peers “gave their testimony,” to use the Evangelical term for constructing a public narrative out of one’s personal experience with God. With its descriptions of the prototypical emergence of emotional currency within a religious marketplace, Crossroads affirmed this perceived affinity, at least for me. God, like Facebook, makes teenagers of us all.
The characters in Crossroads really do act like teenagers, especially the adults. Russ sulks and mopes his way through the novel, angry at his church and bored with his wife. His fumbling attempts to initiate an affair with Frances, the mother of Perry’s friend, are pathetic and hilarious in equal measure. He dons his old sheepskin coat and tries to impress Frances with his knowledge of old blues records, every inch the knowledgeable yet inexperienced youth. When he gives in to grooviness and smokes a joint with her, he inevitably freaks out.
If Russ is an earnest square, then his wife Marion is downright goth. In her youth, she became pregnant after an affair with a married man. She terminated the pregnancy, but another man, who procured the abortion for her, abused her in the process. Wracked with guilt, she drifted toward the church. But it was not the grace of God that drew her; it was his wrath. Marion feels she deserves every bad thing that has happened to her, up to and including Russ’s attempts at infidelity, and she gives praise to God for meting out the punishment she believes is rightfully hers. A different kind of novel might have depicted Marion’s longing for punishment as a pathology, with religion enabling her worst impulses. But Crossroads takes her motivations seriously without necessarily condoning her actions. The cautious reconciliation she and Russ eventually achieve is the result not of setting aside her longing, but of seeing it through.
The actual teenagers in the story come off as more principled than their adult counterparts, if not any more mature. Clem becomes convinced that staying in college to evade the draft, as pacifist Russ wishes, is an immoral position. Those shipped over to Vietnam are the under-privileged, after all, including Black and brown Americans several rungs down the ladder from the suburban Hildebrandts. Clem drops out of school and sends a letter to the draft board, letting them know he is available. Predictably, Russ is infuriated. But even Clem’s attempt at principled rebellion fails to lift off when his draft number doesn’t get called. Directionless, he runs off first to New Orleans, then to the Andes in Peru, fleeing his privilege at every turn.
Becky, desirous of safety and stability, throws herself into Crossroads, finding God in the very place Russ spurned. Her burgeoning relationship with Tanner, the guitar-strumming golden boy of Crossroads, nails the dynamics of teenage romance in such a pious setting. Like an influencer checking her follower numbers, Becky pays perhaps even more attention to how their relationship appears to the larger community than she does to Tanner himself. She repeatedly envisions them walking into First Reformed on Sunday morning, arm in arm, proving to the community that their relationship is more than a fling, that it’s something with depth and longevity. The approval of a community is a powerful motivator, as anyone who’s ever posted a selfie can attest.
Perry proves himself to be that supreme product of ’70s suburbia: the stoner kid too smart for his own good. Self-actualization isn’t the only countercultural product making its way into New Prospect. Quaaludes and marijuana are newly available to the local youth, and Perry is an avid consumer; an attempted drug deal gone wrong and the explosion of a long-simmering mental instability leaves him in ruins. Russ and Marion find new purpose in caring for their needy son, while Becky, ever the principled, practical one, sees her parents’ newfound stability as nothing more than a façade. The novel closes with Becky distancing herself from the rest of her family in an attempt to create a domestic sphere of her own, one where the household members are honest with each other, rather than dishonest like her parents. It remains to be seen how that will turn out.
Franzen has said that Crossroads is the first volume of a planned trilogy called A Key to All Mythologies. The subsequent volumes presumably will follow the ensuing generations of the Hildebrandt clan into the present day. It would be fascinating if Franzen were to continue focusing on Christianity as it plays out in his chosen milieu of the Midwest. Such communities are frequent topics of discussion nowadays. Reporters parachute into small-town diners to take the pulse of Middle America, but it’s far less common to see such communities dramatized with the kind of attention Franzen brings to his subjects. Maybe, in the concluding volume, a later member of the Hildebrandt clan will log onto Facebook for real, and find it familiar in a way they never would have imagined.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$30 | 592 pp.