Charles Harries

| Books

Crossroads

by Jonathan Franzen

Published 2021 592 pages

I like Franzen. He's long existed in my head as a sort of Cornerstone of Modern American Fiction, probably because that's the way that a lot of Serious Writers approach him and I've spent a lot of my life thinking what Serious Writers have told me to think. He's found widespread success across whole demographic cross-sections of literate folks, from Oprah's Book Club to The New Yorker, where he's a regular contributor. For those reasons, I read The Corrections and The Twenty-Seventh City back in my early twenties, and remember enjoying them—but I don't think they made that much of an impression. I don't remember any of The Corrections and I remember that The Twenty-Seventh City was about St. Louis & some sort of political intrigue.

I'm glad I picked up Crossroads, though, and I think that it's going to stick with me (and if not, I'll always have this blog post). Crossroads gave me that warm wooly feeling that I get from a lot of media set in the 1970s: everyone wearing sweaters and corduroys and denim, sepia tones, the smell of cigarettes and chemical cleaners and body odor. Crossroads features a cast of extremely flawed characters fumbling around in the dark with their neuroses 100% at the wheel, and by the end they've all reached a sort of equilibrium that they deeply deserve. It's certainly not an inner peace or resolution or anything—Franzen's still got two more books to write in this trilogy, and characters like this defy tidy endings.

I like the focus on family; the Hildebrandts are a generic family with just enough in common to get on with each other but just enough dysfunction that relationships are interesting. I like that each of the characters have real-feeling relationships with one another (as opposed to a writers' room throwing together e.g. Chandler & Phoebe, or any other pair of people w/o discernible chemistry). But there's also a bit of caricature to each of them that feels a little facile: each one is, generally speaking, able to be boiled down to a single description w/o loss of resolution: Russ is a minister struggling to live up to his role; Marion is a neurotic suffering a crisis of character; Becky is popular but searching for meaning.

Crossroads ties its multiple climaxes together really well, too: most of the main characters suffer some sort of inversion of perspective near the end of the book that helps them understand their role. They're hoisted up & up, & all the while the stakes are getting higher and higher along with them, until they've gotten what they wanted and everything falls apart.

I'm excited to see where the story goes from here. I don't think that we're going to stick with the same characters—I read somewhere that the next book is going to be set in the early 2000s, at which point the elder Hildebrandts'll be well old, and the children middle-aged. I think that I can see where Becky'll end up, but not the others. Or on the other hand, maybe I've no idea about Becky at all—maybe that's just another expectation awaiting inversion.