Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Crossroads, abandons the overt political messaging of Freedom and the narrative globetrotting of Purity, returning instead to the neurotic dramas of the Midwestern family unit. Franzen’s strength has always been in creating characters whose capacity for self-deception and pity slowly leaches into the lives of those around them, with the narrative building around these intertwining arcs. As with his breakout novel The Corrections, Crossroads sees Franzen playing to these strengths.

Crossroads begins in suburban Chicago in 1971, with each member of the Hildebrandt family dealing with a private crisis. Russ, the patriarch, interprets the world through the cloying altruism of his work as an associate pastor, a perspective through which he can rationalise just about anything, including intense romantic desire for one of his parishioners. Marion, his wife, has a complicated relationship with Catholicism; when her faith fails to explain the traumas of her past, she shamefully turns to a psychologist for succour. Their eldest, Clem, rips up his Vietnam draft exemption to spite his pacifist father. Perry, their brilliant but duplicitous middle child, is busted for dealing pot, after which he also turns to faith, in a church youth group that has all the local teens abuzz. But in his quest for goodness, Perry can’t shake the question: ‘How do I know if I’m really being good or if I’m just pursuing sinful advantage?’

In one way or another, this is the question that animates the internal lives of each the Hildebrandts. With the free-loving hedonism of the late 1960s slowly encroaching on the suburbs – confusing matters of faith further – it’s a moral conundrum that remains unsolved. The first in a planned trilogy that will continue up to the present day, Crossroads is Franzen’s most straightforward and earnest novel since The Corrections, and it ranks just behind that career highlight in my estimation.

Michael Skinner is a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.

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Jonathan Franzen

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