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Book Club: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

by
05 October 2023

Rachel Mann on Jonathan Franzen’s family saga Crossroads

JONATHAN FRANZEN is not known for brevity. The hardback version of his most well-known novel, The Corrections, runs to just shy of 600 pages. He writes quite literally “weighty” tomes, and his latest, Crossroads, is one of those books that — should you drop it on your face while reading it in bed — risks causing a bloody nose. It is not only vast, but is part one of an envisaged trilogy. Is it worth the commitment of time and energy? Absolutely. Crossroads is an exquisite piece of standalone writing. I cannot wait for the next instalment.

Crossroads explores familiar Franzen territory: the strange and challenging drama of domestic relationships as they play out against the backdrop of profound social upheaval in the United States. Though it takes in events reaching back as far as the 1930s, and finishes at Easter 1974, Crossroads centres on the trials and tribulations of a suburban Chicagoan family, the Hildebrandts, in the days running up to Christmas 1971.

For many Church Times readers, the Hildebrandts are — in an admittedly American mode — a readily recognisable type: the “vicarage family”. Its head is Russ. Once a promising young pastor, whose passion for social justice and pacifism led him to be a champion of the civil-rights and anti-war movements, Russ has lost his way. He finds himself increasingly out of step with the prevailing youth “counter-culture” and trapped in a joyless career and marriage.

The focus of his animus is Rick Ambrose, the cool and charismatic minister who has dislodged Russ from the leadership of the church’s youth group, Crossroads. The “hip” Ambrose has shifted the group’s focus away, to tremendous effect, from prayer and good works towards hippy-influenced self-actualisation and communal good vibes.

The real question for the Hildebrandt family is whose life will implode first. If Russ toys with an affair with Frances, a member of his congregation, no one in his family is doing terribly well. Marion, his clever wife, plays the suburban vicar’s wife with considerable skill, but hides explosive personal secrets that she can contain no longer.

Meanwhile, as the Vietnam War enters its closing phases, their eldest son, Clem, comes home for Christmas to tell his disgusted parents that he has dropped out of college to offer himself to the Draft. Becky, the Hildebrandts’ daughter, is queen bee of the popular kids at her high school, but steps ever more into the counter-culture and gives her life to Jesus. Finally, there is 15-year-old Perry — brilliant, amoral, and gifted — who decides to stop selling weed to 12-year-olds in an attempt to be good, but cannot avoid a precipitous road towards pain and perdition.

If all this makes Crossroads sound a little over-wrought — a US church-centred version of a classic Christmas episode of EastEnders written by a major literary talent — then you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Part of the pleasure of Franzen’s novel lies in its domestic intensity. It takes ordinary lives — well, slightly amped-up versions of ordinary lives — and turns them inside out.

Franzen’s skill is to imbue those lives with surprising humanity and tenderness. Even the self-indulgent and quietly creepy Russ becomes, as we hear his backstory, worthy of understanding. Franzen’s ability to handle the messiness of human relationships with care and sympathy takes this novel very far from melodrama or soap.

© Janet FineAuthor Jonathan Franzen, an American novelist best known for his award-winning book The Corrections, in 2001

This being Franzen, of course, the domestic drama intersects inevitably with a great sweep of American history. That Crossroads is set in 1971 is surely crucial — 1971 represents the “crossroads” of the US in more ways than one. The country is trying to get out of Vietnam. Watergate is yet to happen. If the ’60s’ hippy dream of peace and love has already died in Vietnam and in the Manson murders, no one in the white middle-class suburbs quite knows it yet. All still seems possible.

Setting the ending of Crossroads at Easter 1974 is telling, too. The shame of defeat in Vietnam is hitting home, and Nixon is soon to resign, leaving behind paranoia and broken trust. The Hildebrandts live in the wreckage not only of their various choices and failed dreams, but of a lost America. Will any of them know the hope of new life modelled by Easter?

Crossroads is a book about facing up to reality rather than indulging in fantasy. It is a book about the failure of what Henry Luce called the “American century”. All the characters are forced to treat with the implications of their actions and privilege. Russ, for example, pictures himself as a good man. His history of “good works” among African Americans and Native Americans confirms it in his mind. Yet, as one young woman at Crossroads points out, “They don’t want a white guy condescending to them and telling them what his white God wants them to do.”

This might make Crossroads sound preachy. Rather, I found it a study in what happens when preachy people — and all the characters in this novel are, in their various ways, full of the moral certitudes that continue to play out in America’s current malaise — are forced to taste failure and shame.

In a scene of devastating beauty, when Russ and his nemesis, Ambrose, find a kind of reconciliation, Russ says: “I feel better.” Ambrose responds: “Then I’m not going to say another word. Let’s not mess it up.” The all-too-human cast of Franzen’s family saga (and, indeed, of the country that he writes so tellingly about) would do well to attend to Ambrose’s pronouncement.

The Ven. Dr Rachel Mann is the Archdeacon of Bolton and Salford, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen is published by HarperCollins at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-00-830893-3.

Listen to Rachel Mann in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.


CROSSROADS
 — SOME QUESTIONS

  1. What is your response to Russ? To what extent does he become more or less sympathetic as the novel unfolds? Why?
  2. What do you make of Becky’s conversion and subsequent behaviour? Is her response to her family, especially Clem, justified?
  3. Ambrose’s version of Crossroads is popular and successful. To what extent does his approach represent a departure from, or a deepening of, Christian values?
  4. Perry’s fall from grace is shocking and is a catalyst for significant change, especially for Marion and Russ. How do you respond to those changes?
  5. The novel’s characters are, in various ways, seekers after authentic, truthful lives. How successful are they?


IN OUR next Book Club page on 3 November, we will print extra information about our next book, Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray. It is published by Harvill Secker at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-5291-1365-5). 

THE BOOK

Philip Gray’s thriller Two Storm Wood is set immediately after the First World War, when special battalions were given the grim task of retrieving the dead from the battlefields of northern France. A bold young woman, Amy Vanneck, sets out across the Channel to find out what became of her fiancé, who was listed as “missing, presumed dead”. Her search uncovers some unsettling truths, not only about her fiancé, a former teacher and choirmaster, but the other young soldiers traumatised by the hell of trench warfare. The novel picks up pace and tension as a gruesome discovery is made by Captain Mackenzie, and, together with Amy, a hunt begins to track down the psychopath responsible for this atrocious war crime.


THE AUTHOR

Philip Gray is an English novelist and is a co-author of six thrillers under the joint pseudonym Patrick Lynch. He studied modern history at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is also a director of an award-winning film company specialising in history and science. His inspiration to write his latest book came from his grandfather, who served as captain in the Lancashire Fusiliers during the First World War. It was after his grandfather had died that the family found a trunk full of trench maps and handwritten notes about the harrowing events that he had witnessed during his time in the Somme. It was the contents of these documents which motivated the author to write Two Storm Wood.


BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

December: Akenfield by Ronald Blythe
January: Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

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