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Review: Jonathan Franzen (2021) Crossroads. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

What do an uncool pastor, a failed actress, a wunderkind with a 160 IQ and drug addiction, a popular girl, and a toddler have in common? Not their common humanity, though that is true enough as far as platitudes go. In Franzen’s first novel in seven years they all belong to the Hildebrandt family unit. They are also all, excluding Judson the nine year old, grappling with the tension between their desire to be good and their recurrent failure to measure up to that axiological standard. Unlike a straightforward postmodern novel the book doesn’t purport to show that the moral performances of the characters are irremediably nugatory. Instead in adopting an expansive gesture only available to someone not a casualty of terminal irony poisoning, Crossroads: A Key to All Mythologies shows that it is hard but possible to know, do, and be good. The key handed the reader in this secular theodicy set in a religious Midwestern suburb might be the insight that no one can be good to everyone all the time, but everyone can be good to someone some of the time. To make things only as simple as they are and no simpler, it also shows the reader goodness is often an accidental consequence of human actions rather than a product of their considered and concerted efforts. Fittingly, the book opens with Russ Hildebrandt, associate pastor at First Reformed Church, pursuing and luxuriating in a prospective act of adultery with widowed parishioner Frances Cottrell. A man delirious over the prospect of failing to do good. Also fittingly, it ends with a conciliatory elder brother, Clem, trying to get his sister Becky to forgive their parents and invite them for Easter dinner. A man, knowing well it isn’t his place, exhorting another to do good.

These are compelling stories because failures are more narratively compelling than successes. They are also preponderant. But the telling here is graceless, quotidian, and unrelentingly lacking in any semblance of aesthetic ambition. Franzen, a previous winner of an award for bad sex scene writing, is content to tell us Clem’s somewhat experienced first lover “really, really liked to have her vulva licked” (Franzen 101). Not for Franzen the frisson of not repeating an intensifying adjective: really twice is really, really better than really once. Why should a young lady studying literature, “never in a hurry to be somewhere,” and possessed of “a serene indifference to the clock” (Franzen 102) enjoy the flower of her youth being lapped by the hungry bee of her lover’s trembling mouth? No, no, messieurs and mesdames, this French siren simply really, really likes to have her vulva licked. The modus operandi of a Franzen joint is to introduce and develop characters, typically entire families, with their complex of evolving motivations revealing the grain of their souls as the plot buffets them with their due of dysfunction, heartbreak, and growth inducing abasement. He has never been a prose stylist, though he has shown himself capable of delicacy when writing about birding or less than pleasant childhood memories as in The Discomfort Zone. In Crossroads Franzen flaunts his complete abandonment of any pretence to style; substance and form have fought each other, and substance stands undefeated, gloating, on the corpse of form.

Clem Hildebrandt’s long ago decided that making himself of service to others is the only way to make something useful out of the otiose, even slightly embarrassing, thing that is the self. When he sees his father’s attempts to serve the community are so many poorly disguised manoeuvres for clout he is shaken out of the complacent idea that one can serve in whatever capacity or station in life one finds oneself in. It is galvanizing enough to see Russ ineffectually trying to earn the respect of the youth group and getting the charismatic Rick Ambrose onboard to shore up his own failures, but when Clem sees his father trying to get into the pants of Frances Cottrell he realizes the man is both craven and unprincipled. He’s now convinced he needs to take drastic action and put himself in the line of fire if he really hopes to accomplish anything good. To this end, and to distinguish himself from his father who had been a conscientious objector, Clem gives up his deferment, abandons his college program and signs up to serve in Vietnam. When he’s sent back because the war in Vietnam has ended and he needs to a find a new outlet for his messianic energy, and process his disappointment with his father, Clem decides to go to Peru and work for his keep with a poor farmer’s family. The Oedipal quest to kill the father within, and grow immune to being seen as a motherfucker, begins with a long detour in the peripheries of the narrative world. Why this chosen modality of individuation is better than alternatives like staying back home and working on a separate project, or even starting a rival youth group, is anybody’s guess. One is tempted, along with Schulz in The New Yorker review, to accuse Franzen of being a creature of habit when it comes to using the trope of a long sojourn in a developing country as a crucible for character development.

Russ, the patriarch, is not excused from his share of personal suffering simply on account being involved in frustrating the idealization of his personality on part of his wife and his children. His desperate attempts to connect with the youth group managed by Rick Ambrose are the actions of a father trying to force a friendship with a daughter who is comfortable with her easily achieved and unquestioningly accepted social success. They are equally the actions of a man struggling to keep up with the times, and selling out in order to be seen as with it by the cool kids. It is true he hadn’t intended to come on to seventeen year old Sally Perkins of “breast-accentuating argyle sweater” when while trying to counsel her through her parents’ divorce he levelled with her about the thawing of sexual interest in his own marriage (Franzen 227). But it is also true that he had been titillated by the idea when it was brought to Ambrose as an accusation against him. Though far from laying a hand on a child scarcely older than his own daughter in his vanity Russ was not above being inspired by a dream into paying “an onanistic visit to the bathroom” leaving “concrete substantiation of Sally’s complaint with him” in the sink (Franzen 227). Marion’s rewriting of his sermons, which had once been an intimation of her burning intellect, is now an affront to his adequacy even as a pastor. Her pampering of their son Perry, who he also subconsciously detests as a rival because he fears his fierce intelligence, is to him a betrayal of their pact to parent their kids with a unified front. His failure to thrive in the parish is an outgrowth of his own inadequacy as a person. But as he sees it he’s become this person only because he took on the responsibility of being a husband to Marion and father to their children at such a young age.

Becky Hildebrandt, Russ’ daughter and quintessential cool girl, is so cool that she gets dibs on all social opportunities that would otherwise be available to her siblings Clem and Perry. Clem who dotes on his baby sister doesn’t resent this. When Becky inherits thirteen thousand dollars from her maternal aunt Shirley, a troubled woman with a blip of a career as a Broadway actress, it comes with a will enjoining her to take a mind expanding and transformative tour of Europe with the money. But her parents, Russ and Marion, would rather she split the inheritance four ways to fund college education for her brothers. Marion, who has her own reasons for despising Shirley and thinks she got the best deal and showed the least gratitude as child, is keen to convince her daughter that Shirley left nothing for Clem, Perry, and Judson simply as a final slight. Despite her misgivings, Becky splits her inheritance with her brothers; one of whom, Perry, squanders it on drugs. Subsequently, he also withdraws Clem’s share of Becky’s gift to buy drugs, and burns down a barn on Indian land while intoxicated—later to be paid for by his parents who commandeer Judson’s share of the gift. Much of Becky’s supererogatory gift is thus sacrificed to the Moloch of Perry’s addiction. It is understandable then to see Becky recoil from her kindness, her instinct to tolerate the constitutive violations of family life for the sake of family life. But such is the power of the regulative ideal of family life that she is convinced she can get it right if only she can pick her family. After wrangling the affections of Tanner Evans, the most eligible young musician in the First Reformed parish, from his long term partner Laura Dobrinsky, Becky settles down, gets pregnant with his child, cuts off her parents and extends an olive branch to Clem on the condition that he will not force her to have any deeper relationship with them. One can’t help but root for Becky as she forges her own path in this family saga otherwise suffused by personal tragedies created by others’ failings.

Prior to Perry’s prodigality being exposed Becky tries to befriend him and cultivate something of the relationship she has with her elder brother Clem. But Perry, who is not only intelligent but also contemptuous of those who get by on their popularity, detests his sister and thinks her dumber than she actually is. He joins Crossroads following Becky’s example simply as a way to prove to himself that he too can easily infiltrate this clique and earn its one-sided regard without expending much effort in forming genuine relationships. He succeeds. In a subtle demonstration of his grasp of Crossroads’ psychological adaptations he even manages to convince Becky that her aloofness from him is a consequence of her snobbishness rather than his lack of brotherly feeling towards her. Does Perry’s rationality make him ruthless in his interactions, ever mindful of what he’s giving and getting in any social encounters, or is it that his rationality merely makes his tendency towards cui bono ratiocination noticeable to him? Franzen seems to vacillate, but leans more towards the latter option. A keen mind is quick to grasp the many ways a situation can be finessed towards personal gain, but it is powerless to compel one to act on a potentially profitable grift. Furthermore, the intelligent among us too are prone to reckless decisions which bring loss and pain indiscriminately to oneself as well as to everyone in one’s orbit. It is just such a sensitivity to pain ostensibly brought on by poor decisions in her youth that make Marion Hildebrandt think she deserves her less than thrilling life with an ineffectual associate pastor at a Podunk parish. Even one who was chastised for hitting on a teenager and who has been actively seducing a recently widowed parishioner. She thinks Perry, her troubled son, suffers from addiction because she once had a nervous breakdown following an inadvisable romance with a married man; because she quietly aborted the child they conceived; because she’d paid for the abortion by sleeping with a man who seemed to have arranged his life especially to be in a position of receiving payments in the form of sex from women with no other recourse; perhaps, most of all, because she’d kept all these facets of her past life hidden from Russ. For all its incisive reading of culpability into her past Marion’s intelligence is incapable, on its own, of showing her that Perry could’ve turned out just as he had even if she’d lived a completely different life; one which excluded the unfortunate affair, abortion, and prostitution. Heredity is not governed by a moral calculus after all.

Jonathan Franzen watercolour portrait by Cain S. Pinto

Moral considerations dominate the narrative without allowing any of the characters, or the reader, any easy conclusions about blame and praise. But family sagas must apportion blame and praise on pain of rendering the family emotionally inert towards conundra internal to its member’s lives. Since there is no one else to blame them the Hildebrandts must blame themselves. Russ Hildebrandt would perhaps be less pathetic if he couldn’t be mocked for trying to make peace with his rival Rick Ambrose when offered intimacy in exchange by his paramour France Cottrell. But then he would also be unable to command our sympathy as a fool in love. His choice of overlooking the fact that Marion was once involved with a man out of wedlock, and had had a child that she’d aborted, would’ve seemed like the grandstanding of a saint willing to be put to death to serve a higher principle than he’d ever been called upon to serve. Abasing Russ before Rick in the narrative scheme serves to rescue his unenviable humanity, and his moral agency as someone who possesses and occasionally uses the capacity for wronging others and for being wronged in turn. Perry, who begins from the elevated position of a moral agent considering the nature of goodness, interrogating the very possibility of  selfless beneficence when drunk as a teenager among priests and rabbis at the Haefle’s party, finds himself reduced to observing himself behave poorly and incorrigibly so by his own standards. Marion learns she can exercise her moral agency by steeling her resolve against unforgiveness, or gluttony, by doing the slow and thankless work of admitting to herself that she had always had the right to have made the mistakes she’d already made, and didn’t need to continue punishing herself. Becky learns she needn’t have to set store in another’s moral compass; even if it be her brother Clem’s compass she was keen on. Clem, his time spent sowing the wind of moral agency earned by ransoming himself in place of some low income kid who wouldn’t have the same choices, reaps the whirlwind of a marred academic record and narrowed professional prospects. His moral compass led him to do things that were no good to him, his family, or those he set out to help. All that can be said is that he did no harm as he went about forging his moral identity.

If every unhappy family were alike writers would have to work hard to endow them with differences, peculiarities that allowed them to suggest a broad resemblance without infringing on readers’ entitlement to the narcissism of small differences. The Franzen family mythos trick bag would’ve needed more tools than the hammer and nail of principal characters as archetypes and secondary characters as sociocultural tendencies. As things stand, however, Franzen is an able workman; his tables do not wobble and his chairs are sturdy. The fictional houses he builds are solid, and never more so than when the lives they frame and try to domesticate are turbulent. What stay with the reader here are not the beautiful snapshots of lives they’ve, through the writer’s gift, come to care about. There are no snapshots, only complete histories of how the characters came to be who we now see them as; bildungsromane related without artifice, and scarcely any art. That we ponder whether or not Becky will invite her parents to Easter dinner if only to maintain an ongoing relationship with Clem, whether or not Perry will blossom into a functional adult, whether or not Russ will become a successful pastor outside the shadow of his rival Rick, and whether or not Russ and Marion will be able to recover their love only slightly soiled after the upheavals we’ve seen them go through is a testament to Franzen’s ability to concoct compelling drama. Franzen, who likes to be thought of as a novelist rather than “a family novelist,” agrees this might be an unusual novel for him given he manages more scenes in which all characters are present here than in any other work. But this is a family novel and the key to its internal mythology, the form of the story the Hildebrandts tell about themselves, is equally the key to all family mythologies. The subtitle A Key to All Mythologies is, of course, a knowing nod to the abortive efforts of Rev. Edward Casaubon, a scholar with more ambition than ability in George Elliot’s Middlemarch, who fails to write a learned treatise that proffers a unifying theory of all mythologies. Perhaps, like Casaubon’s in Middlemarch, Franzen’s key is only promised in order to better frustrate us; a wink communicating that there is no key, and we should feel bad for having this reductive impulse which makes us believe there has to be one.

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