December 2021 – January 2022


‘Crossroads’ by Jonathan Franzen

By Helen Elliott
Cover of ‘Crossroads’
The acclaimed US author’s latest novel is a 1971 church drama modelled on ‘Middlemarch’

“I’ve got a thing for fathers,” said Jonathan Franzen in a recent interview on Australian radio. He meant a soft spot for older men having to renegotiate a life they had assumed was sorted. They hadn’t counted on the mess of ordinary life. Crossroads (Fourth Estate) reveals a softer Franzen, an author seeing his characters through a lens of, if not loving kindness, acceptance. But his instinct for satire is undiminished, as unerring as it is involuntary. So, meet Russ Hildebrandt, associate pastor of a Chicago suburban church, mid forties, father of four, Charlton Heston looks unravelling, husband of Marion, and mad about Mrs Frances Cottrell, mid thirties, widow, newish member of his church.

Crossroads opens on December 23, 1971, with Russ rejoicing because Frances has offered to help deliver Christmas goods with him: “he couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present than four hours alone with her”. Much of Russ’s time throughout the 600 pages of this novel is spent obsessing about Frances, caught between high eros (his work) and low eros (his lust).

Women in 1971 were catching a distant rumble – feminism – about to scan every crick and detail of their lives. Marion, nonpareil of pastor’s wives, is aware of Frances, managing her bitterness with an internal comedy that spills into sometimes truth-telling with her psychiatrist – her secret psychiatrist, whom Marion pays from an equally secret cache of money that she might have stolen. Her life is unfurling because of secrets in her past and present life. She is also brilliant, and Russ’s sermons only work when Marion has edited them. Russ’s entire life’s successes may have been due to Marion, but she is currently invisible to Russ. He cannot stand looking at her, seeing her bulk.

Russ’s church has a senior minister living an agreeable life without any admonishing God in it, and a junior minister who runs the successful youth fellowship named “Crossroads”. This is the charismatic Rick Ambrose, a “honeypot” according to the jealous Russ. These were the years of confession, of baring your soul in group therapy, when everyone was a psychoanalyst. Franzen mines his own adolescence of pleasure and happiness attending a fellowship like this, where, for most attending, the civic structures that came from Christianity were recognised, even if God was not central.

This is the first of three projected volumes following Russ, Marion and their four interesting, annoying children. Historically situated at the rise of materialism and individualism, each character is captivated by their own fantasy of how their life should be, rather than any reality about the accelerating and terrifyingly random external world. The collision of Russ’s external world with his thrilling internal world is strikingly done with a cascade of tragic-comic incidents foretold in the opening paragraph, with Russ ministering to the senile, and often smelly, needy while inwardly lit by the image of Frances. God and masculinity are central to all of these lives, which are arranged and lived according to the Christian calendar. Crossroads opens at Christmas and ends at Easter, in 1974. By then, both God and conventional masculinity have a new raggedness, feminism a new muscularity.

Franzen’s model is Middlemarch, the unsurpassable George Eliot’s enquiry into marriage, hypocrisy, religion, status of women, the soul, framed within the tremendous cacophony of social change. Eliot, an instinctive moralist, does have (forgivable) dull stretches when the storyteller transforms into sociologist/philosopher. Franzen, too, has similar (less forgivable) transformations, but, in writing about a period when individuals discovered and indulged specialised lusts for life, Franzen is able to do more with sexual lust than Eliot. Crossroads is no Middlemarch, but Franzen is a storyteller of grandeur and erudition, realism and intimacy, and he provides thoughtful pleasure in these days of disquiet. And here, less hostage to his own brilliance, he has refreshed his voice.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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