The feeling of an end hangs over the contemporary novel. “You could smell it,” says the opening paragraph of Jonathan Franzen’s third novel, The Corrections, “something terrible was going to happen. Since those words first surfaced in 2001, the general fear that “something terrible” is going to happen has only worsened. The climate catastrophe. A global supply chain in fracking. Illiberal democracies are on the rise. Surveillance capitalism. “[T]there is no chance for the planet, and no chance for us, ”says Alice in Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, speaking on behalf of many contemporary novelists and their characters. “We are standing in the last lighted room before dark.”
In such a context, the traditional subject of realistic fiction (relationships between a small number of usually privileged characters) may seem trivial. On the other hand, the apocalyptic mood can distort our vision. If you are convinced that the world is about to end, a lot of things are going to seem trivial to you. Much of contemporary fiction tells us with great force that the end is nigh, then struggles with apologies, continuing its stories of sex, love, and money.
Then again, in terms of subject matter, there is a lot of common ground between “the imminent apocalypse” and “who should I sleep with?” Almost all of human experience, in fact. Religious faith, family love, family pathology, trauma, addiction, music, the ethics of friendship, marriage, madness, ambition… You know: life.
Perhaps to clear the way for all of this, Jonathan Franzen sets up his sixth novel – the first in a trilogy – in 1971, before the feeling that the world is ending becomes general. No fear of the climate, no cell phones, no Internet, no Trump… 1971 was, relatively speaking, a year of relaxation for the United States. It was the interlude between the end of the violent 1960s and the beginning, with the Watergate robbery in 1972, of the classic 1970s paranoia and disillusionment. In this period of relative calm, Franzen places the Hildebrandt family. And he spends 580 pages submitting their inner life to a fierce microscopic examination: their rationalizations, their moral calculations, their encounters with sex and God, their stools, their clothes, their bank accounts, their rooms …
The father, Russ, is the pastor of First Reformed, a church in Chicago’s (fictitious) suburb, New Prospect. His wife, Marion, secretly sees a therapist. Russ and Marion’s daughter Becky is the most popular girl in her high school. Their son Clem, an atheist, convinced himself that the morally correct thing for him to enlist to fight in Vietnam. The next son Perry (QI 160) sells and uses drugs. There’s also Judson, the endearing 9-year-old, who escapes Franzen’s third-person microscope. Fortunate.
In summary, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about crossroads. Russ covets a parishioner, Mrs. Cottrell. Marion reveals her secrets to her therapist – in her twenties, in LA, she had a psychotic episode, brought on by – well, no spoilers. Perry goes up, or down, in the mania. Clem torments himself with the notions of sin and redemption that he unconsciously shares with his parents. Becky falls in love with a folk musician who already has a girlfriend. So what?
So everything. Crossroads, a church-sponsored youth experimental group that encourages its members to embrace, cry, expose their shameful stories, ties the book together. Franzen, our great contemporary novelist of shame, could not have found a better setting. In the feverish atmosphere of Carrefour, which permeates the daily life of each member of the Hildebrandt family, facing one’s shame becomes a moral necessity; and the same, of course, is with excusing your shame and apologizing for the actions that caused it. crossroads the novel, much like Crossroads the Church Group, is all about rationalizing your desires and then rationalizing the mess your desires have created. The book is both radically indulgent and radically damning of every Hildebrandt. It’s a page-turner on how we deal with pain.
It is also a novel on the varieties of religious experience. Franzen, who is not himself religious, shares the seriousness of his characters regarding their faith. For the Hildebrandts, God is real, a fundamental, inescapable moral presence. There is no mockery here, no sarcastic irony. Systematically, Franzen shows us ways to meet God: Becky, stoned in church, sees a “golden light”. Clem, admitted atheist, stages a drama of sin and self-punishment. Perry, at one point, believes himself to be God.
The first 369 pages of crossroads all take place on the same day (December 23, 1971). Then, suddenly, Franzen rushes us forward several months; slows down again to see certain consequences unfold; then, in the last 30 pages, speeds up through several major developments in an oblique fashion. It is virtuoso. This makes managing the pace and focus of other novelists cumbersome.
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Like it or not, Jonathan Franzen is a great novelist. But why wouldn’t you love him? His books are richer, deeper, funnier, more entertaining, and more insightful than 99% of contemporary literary novels. To deny this is to deny the obvious. Reading Franzen’s reviews, I often ask myself: what do you want from fiction if you don’t want what Franzen is offering you?
Well, some people are never happy. Reading crossroads, I was happy. I suspect you will be too.
Fiction: Carrefour by Jonathan Franzen
Fourth state, 592 pages, hardcover € 28; eBook £ 12.99