In 1972, when Jonathan Franzen was thirteen, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that parents in his town were worried: high school kids in Webster Groves were spending too much time at church. The reason was Fellowship, a rapidly growing Christian youth group, and its edgy leader, Bob Mutton—a youth pastor with a “tormented Jesus” look about him. Emulating his style, his followers grew their hair long, dressed in their most worn-out clothes, smoked cigarettes, and played guitar. They flocked to Sunday evening meetings, where they blindfolded one another and performed trust exercises, palpated one another’s faces with their fingers, and practiced radical honesty in drawn-out sessions of uncomfortable truth telling.
A member for six years, Franzen spent his adolescence immersed in the group. Though Fellowship was affiliated with the First Congregational Church, its members rarely prayed or consulted the Bible. They expressed their spirituality through their actions by cultivating “authentic relationships” with one another and working with the poor. In his 2006 memoir, The Discomfort Zone, Franzen writes of Mutton with admiration, recalling “his violent allergy to piousness” and his gruff authority. But Franzen was less interested in his message of authenticity. He attended mainly for the social scene. And, anyway, he suspected that kids were faking openness through rote gestures and that they used demonstrations of honesty to impress one another and gain popularity.
This could be an origin story for a writer’s all-knowing air. In a Jonathan Franzen novel, there is no scene, no system, no belief that he cannot quickly take the measure of; his compendious, multiplot novels, with their fluency in pharmacology and tech boosterism and the stock market and the creeping logic of gentrification, create the illusion that he’s revealing the world as it really is, stripped of its pretensions. With The Corrections (2001), he appeared to have articulated an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the richest, most powerful country in the world in the decade of its cold war victory. Sam Tanenhaus marveled at the book’s confident “panorama of ’90s excesses”; Michiko Kakutani praised its evocation of the “sullen” mood of the United States “in the waning years of the 20th century.” Few recent novelists have made their readers feel smarter, and few have been as celebrated for it.
Yet there has always been something irritable and overwrought about Franzen’s incarnation of the social novel. He is so intent on documenting society’s ills that his characters often feel like walking examples of hypocrisy: Chip Lambert writes the university sexual harassment policy he will promptly violate in The Corrections; Walter Berglund, who stays up at night worrying about the desecration of the earth, soon accepts a fat paycheck from a fossil fuel magnate in Freedom (2010). Are people ever so transparent? In his 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream,” Franzen wrote that fiction should, as Flannery O’Connor put it, “embody mystery through manners.” But he rarely allows his characters a degree of unknowability. The temptation to lay bare their deceptions and self-justifications is too great.
Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, is both a simpler and a more ambitious book. It begins his most expansive project to date, a trilogy that aims to “trace the inner life of our culture” over fifty years from 1971 to the present. But its setting has a pared-back, nothing-fancy quality. Far from the international conspiracies of Purity (2015) or the shady think tanks and nonprofits of Freedom, Crossroads revolves around a midwestern church and its Fellowship-like youth group, called Crossroads. Perhaps at the expense of a broader social vision, in Crossroads Franzen has narrowed his concerns down to a few fundamentals. The questions that consume his characters are those he largely dismissed in his own youth group days: how to act in good faith, how to be genuine.
When Crossroads opens, in the weeks before Christmas 1971, the family at the novel’s center is ready to fall apart. The father, Russ Hildebrandt, is a pastor at First Reformed church, in a wealthy white Chicago suburb, the optimistically named New Prospect Township. Though he and his wife, Marion, have grown apart, she still writes most of his sermons for him. Their teenaged children fall into roles recognizable from Franzen’s other books: there’s the black sheep, Clem; the favored daughter, Becky; the darkly brilliant son, Perry. (Nine-year-old Judson, the youngest, doesn’t get his own storyline.) They seek some independence in the church’s youth group—run by Russ’s rival, the groovy youth pastor Rick Ambrose—but cannot quite escape the embarrassing specter of their father.
Crossroads, as more than one character notes, is basically an “intense kind of social experiment”—a hive of “teenybopper relationship drama.” The most fun writing in the book concerns the group’s ideas, its social tensions, and its kumbaya stylings: its unofficial uniform of overalls, painter’s pants, and army jackets and the sing-alongs to “All Good Gifts” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” With his “stringy black hair” and “glistening black Fu Manchu” mustache, Ambrose might not pass muster as a guru in other circles, but Franzen renders him irresistibly charismatic, as he preaches: “Are you willing to leave passive complicity behind you?… Do you have the guts to risk the active witnessing of a real relationship?” The youth of New Prospect hang on his every word, competing for his attention and showering him with gifts.
The group has inspired the two middle children, Becky and Perry, to transform their personalities. Becky once thought herself too cool for Crossroads. With her “platonic teen-girl hair” and blemish-free appearance, she is “the undisputed queen of her senior class.” She joins the group at the urging of the boy she likes—the tall, long-haired, guitar-playing Tanner Evans—and soon begins to realize how bland and defensive her life had been before. Perry is a more troubled kid: though he’s been a Crossroads member for a while, he has been mimicking virtue in order to get people to like him; all the while he has been running a small business selling drugs to other kids. He hates his behavior. He is on the verge of a manic episode, and the thought that he is “an evil, selfish worm” loops in his head. His resolution is “to be good. Or, failing that, at least less bad.”
As the children gather around Ambrose, Russ stews in resentment. In the first pages of the novel, we learn that he has suffered a public “humiliation” at the hands of his hip, younger colleague and lost his position as an adviser to Crossroads; though the details don’t emerge until later, it’s clear this event has left him shaken, lost, and a bit desperate. He has since turned away from his wife and fallen for an attractive, widowed parishioner named Frances. Now he is sneaking around and lying. His own actions take him by surprise: without meaning to, he tells Frances a “scabrous half-truth” to make himself look good; he brags “repellently” about his record collection. He goes out courting in an absurd sheepskin jacket. Who has he become? His high-minded son Clem is disgusted: “He was weak! weak!” The atheist of the family, Clem has decided to make a show of moral courage. At the end of his first semester of college, he resolves to give up his draft deferment and go serve in Vietnam, like the poorer, less fortunate young men who have already been sent in his place.
While Marion registers the changes in her family, she is busy with her own experiment in honesty: she has started to attend weekly sessions with a therapist. She believes that she has been living a lie since she married Russ, partly because she’s never told him that she had an abortion before she met him. Her current existence feels unreal to her; she has become “invisible.” There are really two Marions, one present and one past. (To emphasize this, Franzen uses the sad cliché that inside the present “fat” Marion there’s a thin Marion waiting to get out.) Past Marion was reckless, slim, and perilously in love with a married man.
These five dramas are so distinct that they could be a set of five related novels, packaged together, rather than a single work. But a few unassuming set pieces force the Hildebrandts into overlapping confrontations: trust exercises at a Sunday night Crossroads meeting; a drinks party at the senior pastor’s house; a Christian rock concert at the church. Events that should be gently wholesome take on a menacing edge—each mention of the coming Crossroads Easter trip seems to threaten disaster. The titles of the novel’s two halves, “Advent” and “Easter,” lose their promises of birth and rebirth, and come to signify—as holidays do in unhappy families—a sense of looming punishment.
The soap opera–like plot of the novel feels almost too gripping—a device to propel us along in a single, weighty inquiry: What makes people want to be good? Religion has two main answers to this: a relationship with God and relationships with other people in the community. Though not Franzen’s focus, there is room for the first answer in Crossroads. He shows Becky in the moment of a born-again epiphany, when she comprehends for the first time that “God was pure goodness, and the goodness had been there all along…. Goodness was the best thing in the universe, and she was capable of moving toward it.” Russ’s relationship with God does not point him so clearly in the right direction. He knows that he should stop trying to seduce Frances, but the remorse he feels about sinning brings him closer to God, which must be good: “Writhing with retrospective shame, abasing himself in solitude, was how he found his way back to God’s mercy.”
Franzen is most interested in the second answer: the way that membership in a group gives people a heightened sense of what they owe one another. Perhaps ominously, considering that the trilogy is titled The Key to All Mythologies, the youth group inspires Perry to formulate a “theory of how all religion worked.” He has little use for the supernatural, though his religion is no less miraculous for that. In his understanding, interpersonal relationships hold the deepest truths about who we are. “Along comes a leader,” he thinks,
who’s uninhibited enough to use everyday words in a new and strong and counterintuitive way, which emboldens the people around him to use this rhetoric themselves, and the very act of using it creates sensations unlike anything they’re used to in everyday life.
Under Rick Ambrose’s leadership, the Crossroads kids develop a distinctive way of thinking and talking. They sit down in pairs to tell each other “something we really admire about them.” They insist on being direct (“That took real guts”) and call bullshit on evasive politeness. When you start “running away,” it’s “because you’re too chicken to face the goodness in your heart, too chicken to take responsibility.” They constantly seek to hold themselves to account, including Ambrose, who makes himself vulnerable enough to confide that he’s “frightened by the size and intensity” of the group he’s created, that it could give him too much power.
The group’s earnest tone feels liberating. Perry discovers the selfless pleasure of taking Becky’s place at a family event so that she can see Tanner’s band play. And for her to accept her brother’s kindness is “a strange sensation.” As the characters dare themselves to open up, Franzen seems to be doing something similar as a novelist, resisting the temptation to smirk at their good intentions. If his earlier books were steeped in ironic social observation, Crossroads is an experiment in sincerity. He notes the change in Becky as she embraces the Crossroads teachings: “Simply by trying to speak honestly…she experienced her first glimmerings of spirituality.”
That is not to say that all of the characters act in good faith. Perry notes how easily a commitment to radical honesty can shade into a culture of virtue signaling:
Instead of comforting a friend with fibs, you told him unwelcome truths. Instead of avoiding the socially awkward, the hopelessly uncool, you sought them out and engaged with them (making sure, of course, that you were noticed doing this). Instead of choosing friends as exercise partners, you (conspicuously) introduced yourself to newcomers and conveyed your belief in their unqualified worth. Instead of being strong, you blubbered.
Franzen’s description of these dynamics is as close as the book gets to commenting, even indirectly, on the present—examining the “moral absolutism” of young people without fulminating about cancel culture or current sexual politics. Russ makes the familiar complaint that “kids today think they invented radical politics,” even though “most of them have never even heard of Eugene Debs, John Dewey, Margaret Sanger, Richard Wright.”
Russ’s true beef with the young, though, is that they have rejected him: his humiliation began, we learn, at a Crossroads meeting when he made the mistake of greeting a girl “with a hug that she did not return.” He didn’t realize how creepy he must have looked until it was too late. He had thought he was simply enjoying the same rush of openness and vulnerability as everyone else: “He took the risk of rapping about his feelings, he opened himself to new styles of music…. He let his hair grow over his collar and started a beard.” As the group turns its radical honesty on him, you get the feeling some of these idealistic, censorious kids are, in fact, millennials in period dress. They won’t stay if Russ stays, they announce. They are no longer comfortable around him.
Crossroads is full of such humbling reversals. Crises compound crises, and the characters’ spiritual failures bind them closer together. But, for the first volume in a three-part survey of American culture, its vision is surprisingly narrow, largely limited to the social dynamics in a single church in a single suburb. Can the inner life of New Prospect tell us much about the inner life of the whole country?
The big Easter trip in the novel’s second half brings Franzen and his characters into contact with a tradition they never really try to understand, despite claiming a deep connection to it. Each year Crossroads visits the Navajo Nation in Arizona to work on construction projects with the locals. Russ acts as a guide, having clawed his way back into the group. On his arrival, he recalls his first visit in the 1940s as eye-opening: living with the Diné, he realized that there are many ways to express spirituality. All to the good. Yet he appears to know little about the Diné when he romanticizes the poverty imposed on them. “It was better to have nothing,” Russ muses.
Better to be like the Navajos, the Diné, as they called themselves…. The Diné had nothing. In their hogans, they lived with almost nothing…. But spiritually they were the richest people he’d ever known.
Russ is the kind of condescending white visitor no one wants around. His unwelcomeness does not bother him, even when Clyde, a young Diné man, calls out the Crossroads group for coming to “have their little Navajo experience.” Russ is convinced that the Diné are an essentially mysterious people, and he is obsessed with their silences: “The thing about a Navajo silence was the sense that it could last indefinitely—all day.”
Russ moves from stereotypes to sexual fantasies. The first of these is a flashback to the 1940s, when he learned how to masturbate by thinking about a fifteen-year-old Diné girl who danced for him the night before: “He was a white man alone among the Indians, hearing the women sing and chant…. She was like a threatening animal.” The second is on the 1972 Easter trip, when Russ picks a fight with Clyde in front of Frances, who is finally showing an interest in him; on the way back to camp, they stop to have sex, fired up by “the desire he’d turned on with his taming of Clyde.”
How to read all of this? Franzen holds Russ up as a self-centered, often craven man. But it’s hard to tell how much of Russ’s behavior Franzen is trying to show from an ironic distance. How much is a critique of Russ, and how much is the story of his sexual awakening told for its own sake? When Franzen describes, for instance, “the pleasure that tore through” Russ after the girl’s dance, he is presenting a moment of liberation, without irony, at least to my ear: “For the rest of his life, he associated the mesa with the discovery of secret pleasure and permission.”
What makes this section of the novel more than Franzen’s own “little Navajo experience”? He stages several of the novel’s most climactic episodes against the backdrop of Diné culture but brings Diné characters into the story only to tell us something about the white visitors: Russ’s friend Keith Durochie is there to welcome him and give him clout with the older Diné; Clyde is there to oppose him; a council administrator named Wanda, to defend him. In all this, Franzen never imagines them in detail or gives them the complex inner lives that he gives the Hildebrandts.
Franzen’s tendency to fall back on sex when he runs out of ideas is not limited to the Easter trip. There is no difficulty that a Franzen character can’t try to work out through adultery. Of the six Hildebrandts, three contemplate some form of cheating and a fourth callously deserts his lover. It is an awkward fit for a novelist who once wrote that he had “come to dread the approach of sex scenes in serious fiction.” This doesn’t mean that Franzen avoids the subject of sex, just that he describes it in some very mangled ways, full of squeamish syntax and punctilious terminology. My favorite: “He clasped her delicate head to his chest, and his testosterone manifested itself in his long johns.” And a close second: “It was astonishing…how comprehensively his genital nerves now felt connected to her.”
In their contortions, Franzen’s characters imagine that sex will open up new vistas of meaning in their lives, though of course it doesn’t. He makes sex an oddly self-serving, even solipsistic act. When Clem has sex with his girlfriend, Sharon, she may as well be a pure abstraction: “The imperative stormed back to life, and he unthinkingly obeyed it, with a thrust.” A major feature of Sharon’s personality is that she’s short: “She was little, and female, but her thoughts were original.” Clem marvels at being able to walk around with her “impaled on him.” Frances is another little woman: she wears a jaunty hunting cap and entices Russ with coy effusions (“Why, Reverend Hildebrandt, the things you do say,” and later, in the act, “My goodness, Reverend Hildebrandt. You’re rather large”). When they finally get together, Franzen describes Russ’s penis entering her vagina in quarter- and half-inch increments.
Bodies are unruly, but it seems unfair that Marion’s story is wholly bound up with her weight. She is introduced as “the overweight person who was Marion.” Even though she has so many other concerns—haunted by her past and facing the breakdown of her marriage—her central goal is to lose thirty pounds. Her sister’s recent death from lung cancer does not stop her from taking up smoking, as an appetite suppressant. Struggles with body image can be all-consuming, yet Franzen describes Marion’s as if her self-loathing were justified. He has her “waddling” down the street; in one scene, her hip falls asleep because of her “heaviness.” “Sexually,” he writes, “there was no angle from which a man on the street might catch a glimpse of her and be curious to see her from a different angle, no point of relief from what she and time had done to her.”
Franzen’s focus on Marion’s weight even undercuts the form through which she reveals her story: her weekly therapy sessions. Her therapist has a name—Sophie—but after being sketched as “a chair-filling dumpling of a woman,” she is mostly “the dumpling” for the rest of the novel (“the dumpling inclined her head suggestively,” “the dumpling seemed preoccupied,” “the dumpling was relentless”). In a novel so concerned with goodness, it’s a strangely cruel play for laughs.
It’s as a historical novel, however, that Crossroads feels most superficial. Franzen’s champions have, possibly, overstated his preternatural ability to take the measure of his times. Though he made his name as a chronicler of turn-of-the-millennium excess, twenty years later the concerns he voiced then appear unusually dated. His prophecies of decline in “Perchance to Dream” are anything but prescient:
I saw leaf-blowers replacing rakes. I saw CNN holding hostage the travelers in airport lounges and the shoppers in supermarket checkout lines. I saw the 486 chip replacing the 386 and being replaced in turn by the Pentium so that…the price of entry-level notebook computers never fell below a thousand dollars.
Omnipresent TV, slightly better laptops, the mechanization of yard work: these developments, I propose, did not prove the worst of the 1990s.
His vision of the 1970s is no more penetrating. Crossroads is set in an era of political corruption, strikes, and marching social movements—though you wouldn’t know it from the book. Franzen makes little attempt to trace the currents of American life today back to their sources in an earlier era. The Hildebrandts have a way of letting history simply pass them by. While the novel unfolds between December 1971 and Easter 1974, Watergate passes with scarcely a word. Nixon is a faded bumper sticker. Clem worries about the Vietnam War but is never deployed—by the time he gives up his deferment, he is no longer needed. Russ refers to his civil rights movement bona fides only in passing; Marion doesn’t care for “women’s liberation” and doesn’t want to discuss her marriage in the language of feminism.
The historical setting of the book seems, at times, designed to let Franzen avoid the toxic politics that would envelop a story set in the present. Certainly, it would be hard to tell a story about a wealthy white Protestant church in the 2020s without engaging with its politics. But when Crossroads takes place, the worshipers at First Reformed haven’t yet witnessed the ascendance of the Christian right and its polarizing dynamics, and Franzen doesn’t suggest anything about their political leanings.
Instead, the novel’s version of historical consciousness is a costume drama: the family car is a Plymouth Fury wagon; the clothes—sheepskin jackets, suede fringes—are almost characters. The details that Franzen lingers on have a strong flavor of childhood memory: Becky’s perfect hair, Tanner’s soulful musicianship and “dreamboat” looks. To read about them is a nostalgia trip. For all its sagas and morality plays, the past is a refuge—a time when nothing mattered so much as the style of the coolest, most enviable kids.