Sunday, January 16, 2022

Crossroads

Crossroads
Jonathan Franzen
HarperCollins, $32.99

One reviewer commented that Jonathan Franzen, whose 2001 novel The Corrections catapulted him to literary fame, writes long novels about small subjects. Crossroads, at some 600 pages, fits the first part of that; the breadth and depth of the questions it explores, however, set it apart from Franzen’s previous works.

Like its predecessors, Crossroads follows a cast of seemingly ordinary characters, alternating between subjects and avoiding a traditional protagonist. Its characters are five members of the Hildebrandt family in New Prospect, a middle class suburb of Chicago.

Russ, a church minister, is proud to have marched against the Vietnam War, agitated for Black Americans’ civil rights and forged links with Navajo Indians. He faces a growing sense of irrelevancy, heightened dramatically when the charismatic youth pastor usurps his leadership of Crossroads, the touchy-feely and wildly popular youth group at his church.

Russ cares deeply about the urban, impoverished Black church that his congregation supports through donations and working bees, but his weekly ministry trips also serve as cover for the lust he feels for Frances, a pretty young widow who joins the team. Russ has lost interest in his wife Marion, and treats her with a disdain obvious to their teenage children. He is ashamed of “her sorry hair, her unavailing makeup, her seemingly self-spiting choice of dress.”

Marion and the three eldest Hildebrandt offspring also feature, in alternating narratives. Set in the 1970s, beginning a few days before Christmas, Crossroads makes frequent use of long, detailed backstory.

The issues raised in Crossroads are broad and compelling. Russ, whatever one thinks of his personal hypocrisy, is genuine in his search for ways of supporting impoverished minorities when some of their members are unabashedly hostile. In one of his finer moments, he confronts a group of angry Navajo men and addresses their anger not by denial, but by inviting them to visit the youth group and explain the reasons behind their rage.

Perry, 15, struggles with drug use, but also with genuine questions as to how he can be a better person. Clem, while staunchly anti-war, is painfully aware that by avoiding the draft through university, he is condemning someone less privileged to serve in his place. Sixteen-year-old Becky experiences a close personal relationship to God that her own father finds elusive.

Marion visits a psychiatrist under cover of exercise class, and gradually reveals the traumas of her past (sexual abuse, an illegal abortion, a stay in a mental hospital). Partway through the book, she steps out of her downtrodden role in a dramatic metamorphosis.

Crossroads is intended to be the first in a trilogy. Franzen succeeds in creating characters whose inconsistencies, flaws and doubts make them recognisably, albeit infuriatingly, human. Whether he really needed 600 pages of sometimes excruciating detail to do so, however, is debatable; this reviewer believes Crossroads would benefit from judicious pruning.

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books@ssh.com.au

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