Jonathan Franzen’s sixth novel is, you’ll no doubt be surprised to learn, about a family – family, as we’ve said in previous Jonathan Franzen reviews, being Franzen’s big subject. Before you get all finger snappy a la Ariane Grande and say, next, however, this one is a little different.
For one thing, as you probably already know, it’s the first part of a trilogy (subtitled – although the subtitle is nowhere in evidence in my proof copy of Crossroads – A Key to All Mythologies, in a knowing wink to Middlemarch – The Key to All Mythologies being the name of the work of theological scholarship to which the 45-year-old Rev. Edward Casaubon dedicates several decades of his life in the George Eliot novel). Which lets you know that this is a book that has reach (if we take it as read that the trilogy will centre upon the same family rather than being one of those jinxy trilogies which are basically three separate books loosely thematically linked).
Second, and you may have read this elsewhere too, Crossroads feels warmer than his previous novels. This is a book you will enjoy spending time in the company of. Relax it tells you. Stretch your feet out. You and I will be here a while so we may as well take pleasure in the interaction, yeah? The warmth of the book comes as a relief after his last novel, Purity, which we felt struggled to hold on to the reins of credulity at all times. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a credulity gap in Crossroads (the plotting has about it the tussle and rush of a Christmas soap opera special where various disasters, inconveniences and revelations jockey for space on a pivotal night or two), and more that it’s forgivable when the experience of reading the book is as pleasurable as this.
So, what we have here is an almost 600 page epic about a family called the Hildebrandts (the name, you might be interested to learn, is of Germanic descent – obvs – with each respective half of the word standing for ‘battle’ and ‘sword’ respectively) that takes place over Advent and Easter 1971. The perspective shifts, chapter to chapter, from: the father, Russ, an ordained minister who is struggling with feelings for a woman in his congregation; his son, Perry, busy dealing drugs without anyone knowing it and behaving somewhat like a sociopath pretty much from the outset; sister Becky, popular at school, chagrined by her brother Perry and his perceived falseness, enamoured of her older brother Clem and interested in a local musician; older brother Clem who is away at university, experiencing love and sex for the first time and critical of his father; and finally Marion, the wife and mother, the lynchpin of the book in many ways, a woman with a troubled past and a lot of secrets.
The ‘Crossroads’ of the title is at the very least dual: there is a group run within the church called Crossroads which has started to draw in all of the cool kids and is now run by Russ’ bitter nemesis Father Ambrose (we gradually learn of a scandal that derailed Russ’ own involvement with Crossroads and when Perry and Becky become involved with the group it’s very much taken as a betrayal); and there is the proverbial crossroads (as exemplified by the Robert Johnson song about the site where he allegedly sold his soul to the devil) at which each of the characters find themselves: should Russ leave his wife and embark upon an affair, should Clem drop out of school and go and join the fight in the waning days of Vietnam, should Becky take up with another girl’s boyfriend or go to Europe or save the lucky inheritance that comes her way for a higher class of college for herself, should Perry stop dealing drugs and taking drugs and maybe address the state of his own mental health, should Marion come clean about her life before her marriage? All these questions and more circulate throughout the book.
Certainly when you are reading, Crossroads is a deeply immersive experience, one of those books you want to go back to whenever you are diverted and distracted by life. But it’s a dream of a book if you follow the logic that Marion proposes when she herself reads The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:
“The dream of a novel was more resilient than other kinds of dreaming. It could be interrupted in mid-sentence and snapped back into later.”
All told, as the opening of a trilogy, it certainly provided enough in the way of entertainment and revelation to whet my appetite for what is to come.
Any Cop?: We’d go as far to say Franzen’s best since The Corrections.