Review: Jonathan Franzen’s gripping family drama is a maze of secrets and sacredness in the suburbs
The desire to just write and be alone is a big part of the plot of Sally Rooney’s most popular book, “Beautiful World, Where Are You”. She writes: “What do books gain by attaching themselves to me, to my face, to my manners, in all their demoralizing specificity? Nothing. So why, why is it done this way?
Rooney (or rather his character) makes a great point – and yet it seems impossible to revisit Jonathan Franzen’s (arguably Gen X’s Sally Rooney) new book “Crossroads,” without doing it this way.
Franzen would probably like his new book, “Crossroads” to be the “in” book right now, but he would hate it too. He’s infamous for his fame struggles and all that it brings: In 2010, I saw him at City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco while on a book tour for his novel “Freedom.” He was so done. He slumped into his overstuffed chair on stage, exuding unprecedented boredom while simultaneously seeking our collective approval. He expressed his lack of interest in talking much about the book and instead embarked on a very long digression about buying the right hair product from a Duane Reade drugstore.
Having said that, “Crossroads” deserves to be the “in” book. The first in a promised series of three books bearing the very French title “A Key to All Mythologies”, it is an absolutely captivating family saga, covering themes that are both small and infinite: the family, the self, the sin, God, the country (or perhaps more accurately, suburb). I didn’t think I would like it, to be honest, but I just couldn’t let go.
Set in the 1970s on the outskirts of Chicago, the book focuses on the present (and past) history of the very unhappy Hildebrandt family. Russ, Marion and three of their four children, Clem, Becky and Perry, all fight against each other, in faith, with their personal privilege. (The youngest Judson, 9, mostly stays out of the fray.) Their first world issues are as mundane as Becky’s pretty and popular inability to write a college essay that isn’t trivial or so tragic. than Perry’s more and more serious. drug addiction. There isn’t a storyline here that doesn’t ring true, and Franzen gets all the details, of the jacket Russ puts on because he thinks it makes him look younger and more hip to Perry referring to his reserve. drug as “the trump card”. “
Crossroads itself is a cult, creepy bunch of teenagers, whose vibe is so perfectly captured in the book cover photo. Its members, who are trying to navigate their teenage years and the depths of their respective faiths, don’t seem to really pray, but they do have a lot of group meetup sessions called, precisely enough, confrontations, as well as a truly frightening amount. of physical contact. The power play for the leadership of this rather sectarian group is one of the central conflicts of the book.
Russ, well-meaning but constantly groping, carries the somewhat emasculating job title of Associate Pastor and, we are immediately told, still grapples with what he calls “humiliation.” We later learn that he was kicked out of the group he created – Crossroads – for being the middle manager that he is. (“Your dad is awesome,” Becky’s boyfriend tells her. “But people couldn’t relate to him.”)
Russ is so consumed with humiliation that he loses all connection with every member of his family. And they can’t relate to him either. His anguish seems startling: each Hildebrandt in turn becomes more and more conflicted and alternately more alienated or deeply drawn to the church.
This book is almost 600 pages long, but it doesn’t seem too long. My only real complaint is how poorly Franzen writes the sex scenes. I mean, “He dared to part his private hair”? But I guess the awkwardness with which the Hildebrandt men describe their intimate encounters is, given their personalities, on the right track. Clem, during his first relationship in college, “failed to prepare for his cell biology mid-term because sticking his penis in Sharon’s vulva had given him more pleasure at the time than his studies”.
By Jonathan Franzen
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 592 pages; $ 30)
The Santa Cruz bookstore welcomes Jonathan Franzen: Virtual event. 7 p.m. on October 5. $ 35 to $ 65. Ticket includes entry to the virtual event as well as a signed hardcover copy of “Crossroads”. www.librairiessantacruz.com