Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel is a religious experience — radically so
Over the span of five novels, dropped every five years or so like stepping stones into the river of our national zeitgeist, Jonathan Franzen has taught his readers what to expect from him. His mode is so consistent that it’s become a brand: the granular depiction of domestic life filtered, via happenstance and the mechanics of plot, through the cultural concerns of whatever historical moment in which the book was written.
In overlapping novella-length sequences that hop point of view from one character to another, he dramatizes the hot topics of the day, shooting them like speed into the lives of his otherwise-unglamorous characters while simultaneously imploring the reader to take the long view, to see that it’s folly to invest too much emotion in the manufactured worldly concerns that our relentless content-production industries demand we pay attention to.
It’s a nice trick, and an effective one, too. It enables Franzen to straddle the line between the big-ideas, systems novelist he started out as (then very publicly rebuked, then continued kinda-sorta trying to be) and the pointillistic realist, concerned with the traditional moral questions that have always animated domestic fiction, that he naturally is.
But it also creates a strain in Franzen’s work, an anxiety; the reader can feel him grasping at relevance—sometimes, as in “Purity,” with its Occupy-ish anarchists, tediously so—when, if one gauges the writing by its vagaries of nuance and depth, by how engaged Franzen’s prose seems to be in its own story, his real interest is in the catastrophes his characters make of their lives.
In each of his books, from “The Corrections” on, there have been one or two extended passages in which Franzen displays the full scope of his talents, writing with force and precision and stylistic control. It’s there in Patty Berglund’s confession-cum-“autobiography” in “Freedom,” in the account of Andreas Wolf’s coming of age in East Germany as well as the rage-filled memory sequence that cycles through Tom Aberant’s disastrous marriage in “Purity,” in the virtuosic, rightly celebrated last long section of “The Corrections,” in which the terminally flawed paterfamilias of the Lambert clan loses his grip not only over his children but also over life itself.
One senses, at these times, that Franzen would really rather not have to weigh in on whatever insanity is currently berserking through our national melodrama. One senses that, if he had his druthers, he’d drop the smart-boy, armchair-sociologist architecture of his project and focus exclusively on the beating pulse of his characters. One senses — or one did, until now — that Franzen had become trapped by the public expectation of what a Franzen novel is supposed to be.
His new novel, “Crossroads,” the first in a projected trilogy entitled (with typical Franzenian grandiosity) “A Key to All Mythologies,” has all the same elements of his previous books, yet it reads like the work of a writer who, in the best of ways, no longer cares what people think of him. True, it’s about yet another family in crisis and, despite the book being set in the early 1970s, he manages to work in narrative elements that speak, in oblique ways, to the current pieties around white privilege, #metoo, and the call to social justice. But unlike in previous books where Franzen couldn’t help but come off as defending his often contrarian position, here these subjects, when they arise, are subordinate to the characters and their experiences. Gone are the self-conscious bids for relevance. Gone are the attempts to make himself look smart. Gone most of all is the self-reflexive anxiety.
In their place is an aching earnestness, a seriousness of mission, a vision of the world that transcends its sociological context and looks directly, unrelentingly, at the enduring human struggles lurking underneath. Interestingly, this vision is unapologetically religious.
I don’t mean that “Crossroads” is a book about religious people, though it is that, too. It takes the family in extremis template of a typical Franzen story, and moves it from its usual secular context to a Christian one. Russ Hildebrandt, the father of the family whose lives the novel tracks, is an associate pastor at a First Reformed Church in the Chicago suburb of New Prospect. His wife, Marion, once a devout Catholic, still sees the world through the prism of devilish sin and godly forgiveness. His three eldest children, Clem, Becky and Perry, are all affiliated in one way or another with Crossroads, the charismatic Christian youth group that has New Prospect’s teen population swooning like a new Cat Stevens album has just dropped (the book takes place in the early 70s, after all).
Each of these characters, as we encounter them in the opening chapters of the novel, has found him or herself in an ethical crisis. To wit:
Russ is overwhelmed with both a blinding lust for a parishioner named Frances Cottrell and an equally blinding guilt over said lust. Marion, a powerhouse of self-flagellation who had once, before she met Russ, been a powerhouse of erotic energy (an energy that she’s repressed for his sake; the repercussions of which, she’s, to her shame, kept hidden from him), resents what she sees as his new happiness. As she says to her therapist, “If suffering is what it takes for him to stay married to me, I’d rather that he suffer.”
Their middle son, and Marion’s personal favorite of their children, Perry, a ferociously intelligent, obsessively rational boy, able to see through any and all pieties, has realized that using his abilities to sell pot and win friends is an indefensible form of decadence, especially when coupled with his ballooning interest in smoking his stock. Becky, their daughter, who’s what we used to call a goody-two-shoes, has both inherited a small fortune from her mother’s estranged sister, a fortune she doesn’t want to share with her siblings, and captured the attention of Tanner Evans, the closest thing New Prospect has to a rock god — he’s dreamy, guitar-playing, and very-much-not-single. Clem, the eldest son, afflicted since childhood with an acute sense of ethical duty and moral seriousness, has discovered the joys of sex and, in hopes of regaining his equilibrium, decided to give up the draft exemption college has granted him and ship himself off to Viet Nam.
Though these crises vary wildly in their particulars they’re all framed, relatively explicitly, as symptoms of spiritual rupture and they each posit the same question: how, in the words of Perry, “to be good. Or, failing that, at least less bad.”
Given this set-up, coupled with the churchiness of the characters, it’s easy to imagine how “Crossroads” might have become a tale of moral correction in the binary vein of the novels one finds in Christian bookshops, one of those Born Again jeremiads meant to flatter the believer while persuading the heathen to repent through its dramatization of how salvation can be found in the loving forgiveness of Jesus Christ. It’s not this at all, though, because Franzen’s too nimble an observer of life as it’s lived, too committed to psychological realism, and too temperamentally skeptical to drive toward such a blunt, predetermined conclusion. He’s interested, instead, in accurately representing his characters.
Despite — or because of — their professed desire to be “less bad,” these characters often behave in brutal, duplicitous, self-interested ways that they’re often not even conscious of. Terrified of his own anarchic emotions, Clem gratuitously denies that he loves his girlfriend Sharon and hides behind his zeal for moral action to justify abandoning her. Only much later does he realize that “he didn’t have the strength to meet the challenge of a woman, he wasn’t yet man enough.” Russ reasons that his calling as a pastor to minister to parishioners in need requires him to spend as much time as possible with the foxy Frances Cottrell, while simultaneously scheming up ways to impress her without having to admit to himself that this is what he’s doing.
He lets them judge themselves, or not, and dramatizes their attempts to reconcile who they are with who they want to be. And since religion is a central organizing force in their lives, when thinking’s not enough to explain their experience, they interpret it through a religious rubric.
Here’s Becky, having just railroaded the woman whose boyfriend she stole into humiliating herself for the good of the boyfriend’s career:
The fact that Laura, after a moment, made a petulant, hand-flinging gesture of assent—the fact that she would never have done this if she hadn’t hit Becky, which wouldn’t have happened if Becky hadn’t fallen to her knees to pray, which wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t found God in the sanctuary, which wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t smoked marijuana—seemed to Becky, as she followed Laura down the snowy stairs behind the drugstore, the most beautiful proof of God’s mysterious workings.
And here’s Marion trying to process the worst thing that ever happened to her:
People who weren’t Catholic didn’t understand that Satan wasn’t a charmingly literate tempter, or a funny red-faced devil with a pitchfork. Satan was pain without limit, annihilation of the mind.
Franzen, being Franzen, is after more than mimesis. As always, he’s also working out a Big Idea. In the place where the characters lives would, in a different Franzen novel, allow him to take deep dives into pressing contemporary concerns — internet culture, say, or global finance, or ahem, birds — “Crossroads” presents us with a myriad of religious belief systems and asks, sincerely, after their purposes.
Ecumenical in his approach and sympathetically agnostic in his stance, he takes the reader through a crash course in the multiplicity of Judeo-Christian and western moral philosophies. The Crossroads youth group, with its easy, performative piousness and its vague hippie-doo approach to God’s love, is contrasted against Russ’s more rigorous, traditional Protestantism, grounded in scripture and practical service to the community. Russ’s backstory — he grew up Mennonite — presents the Anabaptist’s and their entirely planned societies. And as the quote above shows, Marion’s backstory, steeped in Catholicism, roils with barely controlled passions and pains; the world as a wild swirl of cruelty and beauty.
There’s more: Russ’s service work allows Franzen to dip into the Black Christian tradition. The youth group takes a service trip to the Navajo reservation in Arizona that consumes much of the latter half of the book and we learn, through Russ, about the Diné’s conception of religion.
The absence of God serves its own spiritual purpose. In her middle-aged ennui, Marion turns to psychoanalysis and takes an interest in the Ethical Culture Society. Clem, who’s an atheist, looks to Camus as his guide to moral action. Perry, once his resolution to be good crashes and burns in the flames of his addictions, follows his coke-addled logic to the Nietzschian conclusion that “he, Perry, was God” and “if a felonious and drug-addicted New Prospect Township High School sophomore was God, then anyone at all could be God.”
He’s looking for what all these conflicting belief systems have in common, mapping the ontology of American religious experience.
To what end?
Midway through the book, Perry wonders something similar. Drunk at a multi-faith holiday party, he instigates a quasi-Talmudic debate with a rabbi and a Lutheran minister in which he says:
My question…is whether we can ever escape our selfishness. Even if you bring in God, and make Him the measure of goodness, the person who worships and obeys Him still wants something for himself. He enjoys the feeling of being righteous, or he wants eternal life, or what have you. If you’re smart enough to think about it, there’s always some selfish angle.
To which the rabbi replies:
There may be no way around it, when you put it like that. But we ‘bring in God,’ as you say—for the believer, of course, it’s God who brought us in—to establish a moral order in which your question becomes irrelevant.
I give nothing away by saying that as the Hildebrandts each individually pursue their “selfish angles,” the familial order grows less and less tenable until, if the family is to survive at all, each of its members is forced to reckon with both their own and each other’s failures. How this reckoning is carried out depends upon each family member’s ability to find a system of values — a faith — that allows him or her to “receive God’s grace.”
And if the family is a prism of society — a central conceit of any Franzen novel — then the purpose of religion, as diagnosed in “Crossroads,” is not to dictate belief, but rather, to provide a philosophical framework through which we as a society might be able to stumble forward, despite our human failings, without doing too much damage to the whole.
In book after book, Franzen has tried, in his contrarian way, to pull the brake on the churning hysteria that makes our culture so dangerous to both itself and the world. Now, when the educated, novel reading classes of our society seem to have agreed, en masse, that religion is the province of anti-science deplorables, for him to write a novel that makes a sincere case for faith-based redemption is beyond contrarian, it’s subversive. And necessary. And beautiful.
What we need, if we’re to repair the world, is humility, compassion and faith. So says Jonathan Franzen, and I believe him.
Joshua Furst is a Forward contributing editor. His latest novel is “Revolutionaries.”