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Jonathan Franzen’s tantalising Crossroads has three generations of one family in a quandary

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'Crossroads' by Jonathan Franzen

'Crossroads' by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen

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'Crossroads' by Jonathan Franzen

Crossroads Jonathan Franzen 4th Estate, €28

Jonathan Franzen is a born story-not-teller. You know why he’s withholding things but you still need to find out. I raced through his new novel, Crossroads, with the fervour that makes me nosier about strangers’ conversations when they are on the phone.

Crossroads, the first volume of a three-generation trilogy, is about early-1970s midwestern pastor Russ Hildebrandt, his wife Marion and their children. The parents and eldest three siblings narrate their family drama through a free indirect third-person voice.

Like Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections, this work pivots on seasonal gatherings. Its competing perspectives – whereby, for instance, Becky views her mother Marion as unpopular while Russ resents her as the household favourite – make it equally a successor to his last novel Purity.

Once you’ve caught your bearings, you can count on one hand the options for how a chapter will end: a car about to crash, a secret soon to drop, snowfall. I was never as interested in the present-tense Hildebrandts as in their pasts.

Russ and Marion’s histories are fascinating but their spousal confrontation doesn’t arrive with enough of a prior emotional crescendo to feel climactic. The novel amply substantiates Marion’s resentment, but Russ’s only really manifests as a sleazy hankering for local widow Frances Cottrell, and a wish that Marion would lose a bit of weight.

In fact, no man in Crossroads desires a woman in terms unrelated to her teeny-tiny not-big self. If there are five-ish chapter endings, there are also five-ish ways of exciting the male libido: by being small, fine-boned, little, delicate, narrow. Teenage daughter Becky’s romantic rival Laura is “chunky” and fated to lose; her brother Perry sees a “stout” woman as “a poor advertisement for Swedish heritage”; their mother Marion tortures herself to get thin.

My objection is not that it’s immoral but that it’s boring, and it can’t tell us much about any given character when they all do it. Such attitudes exist, and have every right to exist in novels – but since novelists rarely represent how common it is to pick one’s nose I wonder if they might also spare us this. 

The novel’s horniest woman, eldest son Clem’s girlfriend, only appears through his lens, where oddities creep in. During sex, her body “[seems] to dismember itself”; Clem is for some reason not prompted to call an ambulance, or to tell the paramedics that he himself has just been “inflamed” several times across not many pages.

Marion’s actions following an obsession with a car salesman receive far more attention than her actual urges. Becky only notices her own lips when they meet with those of dreamy Tanner Evans. Crossroads needs female desire for its plot, but seems not to suspect that women might want sex without an immediate male catalyst.

American slaughter in Vietnam matters mainly in terms of whether Clem will participate. The novel treats anyone who’s not white as one of its motifs, its character development moods: snowfall, loss, Martin Luther King, “some poor Navajo”, trust, hope, Mexicans. Like the women stuff, this is an accurate depiction of a particular consciousness; and like the women stuff, you should know that’s what you’re getting.

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In fairness, I’m unsure anyone necessarily sees an enlarged presence in the work of Jonathan Franzen as the “representation” they need. For my part I was altogether pretty sanguine that references to homosexuality went unelaborated, and that the obligatory random disabled kid mostly stayed in his box.

When Franzen directly describes a feeling or a dynamic and lets you infer broader suggestions about humanity, he nails it: ‘‘Between him and Laura was the social ease of having long ago established that they didn’t like each other.”  

If only he stuck to that. The characters talk to themselves as if reading from an undergraduate philosophy textbook; Perry wonders “if an action, to qualify as authentically good, needed not only to be untainted by self-interest but also to bring no pleasure.” Such phrasing is too fundamental for your first time entertaining a thought, and too basic if applying previous musings to a new situation. It’s there to ensure readers catch the theme.

Franzen’s modulating presence also flattens differences between the voices. Of the siblings, Becky has her barely contained petulance; Clem’s and Perry’s respective modes of rationalisation are convincing and distinct. But a young Marion’s older lover cannot write a terrible poem without the author clarifying: “It didn’t occur to her that Bradley might simply have used a faulty noun.”

The suspenseful nuts and bolts draw you in, and the characters keep you going. The dialogue is often brilliant: “‘I committed adultery.’ ‘So I gather. Please stop hitting yourself.’” Even when I knew what would happen or had been explicitly told what would happen, I had to see it pan out. I was bereft to leave the Hildebrandts, and will follow them through the rest of the trilogy.


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