In a daring break from precedent, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel is a hefty, fine-grained composite portrait of a somewhat unhappier than average American family at a moment of tremendous social change. There is a fair bit of exposition but important things are left unsaid. Often, a chapter opens with some brief scene-setting remarks about the weather. Large subjects – sex, drugs, rock, roll, the sanctity or otherwise of marriage, the heritability of mental illness, the getting and losing of faith, the rights and wrongs of dodging the draft – are held up and considered, sometimes a shade pompously. Mom is in therapy (cue more exposition) but everybody gets their turn to tell us their story. Often a given event is presented from two or more different points of view.
In the first part (‘Advent’), snow is falling and Christmas 1971 is around the corner: not a New York Christmas of plenitude and reconciliation, but a bleak Midwestern midwinter; the earth’s as hard as iron and there’s a perilous road ahead. Russ Hildebrandt, associate minister at the First Reformed Church of New Prospect, Illinois, is preparing to set off for Chicago on a festive charitable mission. Powerfully but somehow outmodedly good-looking (I’m thinking Lloyd Bridges or a beefier version of Charlton Heston), he’s been ousted as head of the church’s youth group by a younger model, the hideously au courant Rick Ambrose (‘him of the stringy black hair and the glistening black Fu Manchu’ – the latter clearly some kind of moustache). Against Rick’s programme of Bob Dylan, group hugs and radical encounter therapy, poor Russ, with his uptight Mennonite heritage, his shopworn civil rights struggle anecdotes and his Charlie Parker poster, was never going to prevail. But was there more to his disgrace?
It soon becomes clear that there are rumblings of disquiet in what Russ’s children wittily refer to as the ‘Crappier Parsonage’. Relations between the pastor and his wife, Marion, are not what they once were; we learn that it’s a difficult time of the year for her – a revelation that’s accompanied by an excruciating and very Franzen-ish play on the similarities between the words ‘Satan’ and ‘Santa’. Two of his four children have started going along to the youth group (known, by the way, as – yes! – Crossroads). Their motives are partly mundanely obvious (‘To be affirmed and fondled by a room full of peers, most of them older, many of them cute, was exceedingly pleasant’), partly a banal matter of wanting to stick it to the old man and partly a shade more opaque. The reader may be unsurprised to learn that Russ is not so much wrestling with as easefully succumbing to lustful thoughts about Frances, a comely widow, lately arrived in the parish and engaged, by means of mild subterfuge, as the sole outrider on his mission of mercy.
We then follow our little cast of characters through several tumultuous months across various US locations, from sea to shining sea. (The second part is labelled ‘Easter’ but there’s a lot of flashing forward and back.) Catastrophes, reckonings and reprises duly ensue. Like many realists before him, Franzen strives to convey to the reader that even if not all of his characters enjoy complete sobriety all of the time, he’s a reliable witness to their misadventures, fully sworn in, notebook at the ready. While his strengths shine through in Crossroads (he’s intelligent; he’s morally curious and scrupulously fair; he’s good at dialogue), they are muffled by a certain flatness and stodginess here and there. (Sometimes he applies his literal approach to awkward or excruciating scenes, such as when Rick actually washes Russ’s feet. It’s possible that Franzen thinks this combination of realism, moralism and abject not-quite-comedy is Dostoevskian.)
Franzen is careful to include a few characters who aren’t white, and to have them articulate some of the issues they might have with characters who are. Theo Crenshaw, upon whose hardscrabble South Side parish the good folks of New Prospect deign to bestow their largesse, seems to me to swerve Spike Lee’s Magical Negro stereotype, albeit not by the widest of margins (even his name speaks of divinity). We see how mortified Russ is at having to ‘whitesplain’ Theo’s point of view to Frances, and it tells us something useful about Frances that she needs him to do it. And the Navajo of Arizona are both the subjects of Russ’s adulation and the agents of his disillusionment, which I suppose at least shows balance.
As an only child, I find the shifting sands of sibling relationships fathomless and bewildering, in life as in art. So there’s a lot about the kids’ dealings with each other and their parents that just seems strange and perverse to me, which certainly implies he’s got it right. I also found the younger characters’ speech distinctly anachronistic: a little less therapy-speak and a few more curlicues of Seventies baroque wouldn’t have gone amiss. Franzen’s treatment of the sexualisation of teenage girls feels oddly prim, given how widespread it was in the pop culture of the time, no matter how much we might deprecate it now. But in general, the appearance of a novel that Dickens would have recognised as a novel will be welcomed by legions of thirsty readers after a decade in which social realism, even the idiosyncratic strain of it practised by Franzen, has been all but eclipsed by the rising tides of autofiction.