A few years ago, pre-pandemic, I went to a New York State Writer’s Institute event featuring Jonathan Franzen, a writer who once appeared on the cover of Time Magazine (2010) with the headline “Great American Novelist.” Such attention for a writer is extremely rare.
The most memorable part of the event for me was when Franzen was asked by an audience member what struggles he faced as a writer. He answer that he wrestled with trying to get sentences and paragraphs right, with keeping the flow of his story going, with wishing his books sold more copies, with wondering why he didn’t win the prize that went to another writer—in other words, he was just like me, except a lot more talented and accomplished. We’re also the same age.
Franzen has written a portfolio of nonfiction and fiction books, including the big three family novels of The Corrections (featuring the Lamberts), Freedom (the Berglunds), and now Crossroads (the Hildebrandts). Franzen is clearly obsessed with the dysfunctional, white, middle-class family and he knows that family intimately.
Crossroads takes place in the early 1970s in small-town Midwest. Russ is the patriarch and associate pastor of a Christian church. He’s envious of a younger pastor who connects better with teens and also has his eye on an alluring young widow. His wife, Marion, hides a dark and richly portrayed past, but in the current moment all she seems to care about is losing weight.
The kids: Clem, who quits college and his girlfriend in a fit of moral injustice that he’s getting a pass from being drafted into Vietnam; Becky, about to graduate high school and in love with a mellow musician who is dating someone else; Perry, a teen drug addict who shares some of his mother’s complicated mental states; and the youngest, Judson, who is the only one of the Hildebrandts who doesn’t get his own point of view. There’s nothing unusual about these characters, yet they are all interesting, endowed with traits that make them both fascinating and insufferable.
Aside from Clem, who rejects the concept of religion, each of the characters has a relationship with a Christian God. Normally, I wouldn’t be interested, but Franzen has a way of making a character’s religious beliefs make sense, and I could understand how Christian concepts dominate their thoughts and influence their behavior.
Franzen likes to write long, really long. Clocking in at just under 600 pages, Crossroads squeezes every moment, every emotion, every possible scrap of dialog out of every scene. There’s nothing left unsaid. The benefit is that we fully know these characters—they practically jump off the page and live with us. The downside is that some scenes feel too long, extraneous, or repetitive. We get who they are, we get what’s going on, can we move on a bit? And yet Franzen is such a skilled writer that the pace of the novel rarely drags and the story is largely a pleasure to read.
Each of the Hildebrandts has their own character arc leading to personal climactic moments and resolutions that shake up the family dynamic. The ending is satisfying enough if not special, and the last line is about the only place there’s even a touch of ambiguity.
I found Crossroads a rewarding reading experience and Franzen at the height of his powers. A great American novelist? Honestly, I don’t think such an honor can exist anymore, given the severe fragmentation of audiences and the impossibility of ever reaching a consensus on what defines great. Maybe that’s why Crossroads didn’t make many “best of” lists in 2021. Franzen is a middle-aged white male, which doesn’t fit the profile of the kind of writer publishers and critics are swooning over these days.