Book Review: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

There’s a Franzen-sized hole in our reading lives that gets filled about once every eight years — that’s how Dwight Garner put it about Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Crossroads.

What is the hole Franzen fills when he publishes a new novel?

Among other things, our desire for piercing insight into all matters of the American family. Crossroads, Franzen’s latest, is as absorbing on that topic as in any of his previous work that I’ve read. (Here are my reviews of Purity and Freedom, both of which I enjoyed tremendously, and my quotes from his non-fiction essay collection How to Be Alone.) Crossroads is a tour de force: utterly vivid characters, dynamic plot development, gorgeous – seemingly effortless – prose styling.

As he tracks one set of family dynamics, various themes or sub-themes run through the plot:

  • Religion. “Crossroads” is the name of the Christian youth group around which the plot is anchored. The pastors’ struggle to uphold basic religious precepts introduces persistent hypocrisy throughout the story. Yet in their frequent returning to religion and being present with the “feeling” of God, faith for the couple at the center of the book somehow comes off as a source of continual redemption — a true north for goodness.
  • The self-absorption of individual family members. The story gets told, chapter by chapter, from alternating perspectives. In this way you see how self-absorbed each person is as the same plot unfolds from each of their perspectives. They’re so in their heads and they’re so unaware of what others are doing or thinking. Their interest in each other slides along the surface in a self-interested way; there’s not a lot of apparent fundamental empathy.
  • Grass is greener on the other side. As husband and wife pursue affairs and the children pursue travel or drugs or other acts of rebellion, you get the sense that everyone sees contentment on the other side of their current reality. There’s a persistent dissatisfaction.
  • Approval-seeking adults surrounded by teenagers. The pastors who oversee the youth group crave the kids’ validation and fight for it in all sorts of amusing ways. The parents crave the approval of their kids — much more so than the reverse.
  • A high IQ person’s drug addiction. One character in the book seems modeled on David Foster Wallace (the person) in multiple ways (recall Franzen and DFW’s friendship). The scenes where this character gets high or drunk while still being exceptionally articulate are some of the best moments of the book. You really get a sense of the “the pulsing nowness” of a high, to his use phrase.

Here are some of my highlighted quotes from the novel — all direct quotes:

…on his bad days he was unable not to do things he would later regret. It was almost as if he did them because he would later regret them. Writhing with retrospective shame, abasing himself in solitude, was how he found his way back to God’s mercy.

Her father was like a cross maker, only worse. His earnest faith and sanctity were an odor that had forever threatened to adhere to her, like the smell of Chesterfields, only worse, because it couldn’t be washed off.

Her father’s heart might have had room for two daughters if the first one, Shirley, hadn’t filled it inordinately. His obsessionality (the dumpling’s word) served him well in his business, Western All-Sport, to which he devoted sixty and seventy hours a week, but at home it served to make Marion feel invisible. Ruben’s darling was Shirley. When he happened to look at Marion directly, it was often to ask, “Where’s your sister?” Shirley was the really pretty one, even as an infant, and took his adoration as her due. On Christmas morning, she didn’t tear through her immense haul of presents with a normal child’s greed. She unwrapped them like a wary retailer, carefully inspecting each of them for flaws of manufacture, and sorted them by category, as if checking them against a mental invoice. The repeated chiming of her voice—“Thank you Daddy”—was like the chinging of a cash register. Marion took refuge from the excess by absorbing herself in a single doll, a single toy, while her mother yawned with open boredom.

“What I said to her was—I said that marriage is a blessing but can also be a struggle. That the enemy in a long relationship is boredom. That sometimes there’s not enough love in a marriage to overcome that boredom.

Russ knew he was being childish, but his hurt and hatred had a horizonless totality, unrelieved by adult perspective, and beneath them was the sweetness of being thrown upon God’s mercy: of making himself so alone and so wretched that only God could love him.

The image of Marion’s dewy dark eyes, her kiss-inviting mouth, her narrow waist and slender neck and fine-boned wrists, had come buzzing, like a huge and never resting hornet, into the formerly chaste chamber of his soul. Neither the imagined fires of Hell nor the very real prospect of breaking with his brethren could still the buzzing of that hornet.

Doris Haefle had a grossly inflated sense of the importance of a pastor’s wife, was sensitive to every slight to it, and therefore, because the world didn’t share her regard for the role, existed in a state of perpetual grievance. Among the crosses she bore was being married to a pastor who ironically deprecated his own role. For Marion, the miserable thing was that she, too, was a pastor’s wife and thus, in Doris’s view, worthy of the highest respect. She had to endure not only Doris’s unsolicited suggestions on how to comport herself, in her exalted role, but the unfailingly tender manner in which she offered them. It was awkward to be called dear by a person you felt like calling insufferable bitch.

“Thank you, all. Thank you. I’m afraid we only have time for one more song.” Toby paused for expressions of disappointment, and someone in the audience politely moaned. Toby had an unctuous sensitive-guy sincerity, a self-pleasuring way of smiling when he sang, that never failed to make Clem’s skin crawl.

The dress had slipped down her shoulder without exposing a bra strap. The skin of her upper back, which he’d never seen before, was smooth and lightly freckled. It, too, was real, and it gave him a pang of nostalgia for the safety of his fantasies.

And yet, when he thought of doing God’s will, at the cost of his week with Frances on the mesa, he felt unbearably sorry for himself. It was strange that self-pity wasn’t on the list of deadly sins; none was deadlier.

It took more than an hour to go around the circle, and Russ wasn’t Ambrose. He didn’t have limitless patience with the self-drama of adolescents, the Crossroads-encouraged inflation of emotional scrapes into ambulance-worthy traumas. He himself was upset, but his fault gave him the right to be, and although he’d asked to hear from everyone, because this was the Crossroads way, it tried his patience to sit in a world of real social injustice, real suffering, and make such an opera of the theft of two guitars, easily replaceable by their owners’ parents.

The letter was like a match struck in the dark.

How quickly, once clothes had been shed, the wildly unmentionable became the casually discussable. It was like being whisked to a different planet.

Her enthusiasm sounded effortful, and when he called her that night, calendar in hand, their search for a mutually workable date had a flavor of dreary obligation.

The pressure that was lately always in her head, the loneliness and something less definable, a low-grade dread, was balanced by her outward composure. She was a girl interesting enough to herself to sit alone, pretty enough to draw glances from men walking by with their families, tough enough that no one bothered her for long, and smart enough to know that being discovered while sitting on a bench was just a daydream.

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