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Jonathan Franzen’s latest offering is a revelation

Crossroads is a ‘compelling and kind examination of the difference between knowledge and wisdom’ seen through the lens of a pastor and his family, writes Diane Awerbuck

27 March 2022 - 00:00 By Diane Awerbuck

Diane Awerbuck wishes she could give Jonathan Franzen’s novel Crossroads a five-million-star rating ...

In his sixth novel Jonathan Franzen examines the difference between knowledge and wisdom through the lens of the family of an ousted pastor.
In his sixth novel Jonathan Franzen examines the difference between knowledge and wisdom through the lens of the family of an ousted pastor.
Image: Supplied

Crossroads ★★★★★
Jonathan Franzen

We think of a crossroads as an intersection, a place where two roads meet and the traveller must make a single choice: this path or the other; sin or obedience; God or the devil. It was good enough for Robert Johnson and his guitar, and it’s a great name for the youth group under Russ Hildebrandt, the hip associate pastor at First Reformed in New Prospect outside Chicago in 1971.

But historically, and in less structured times, crossroads have been other shapes — triangles, sometimes, or many-pointed stars. The only logic of the road is the destination: the lines of desire. Instead of pondering the classic and elegant choice of paradise or perdition, Russ finds himself in a less dignified position — ousted from leadership of the youth group by the charismatic and annoying Rick Ambrose. There has been a duel of reputation at the crossroads and the best man has won: the novel’s opening scene, of Russ creeping past Rick’s office, is both awful and hilarious.

Middle age brings the same restlessness and dissatisfaction for Russ as adolescence does for his three oldest children. Clean-living Clem finds that his father’s compass is not a moral one; popular Becky finds herself really wanting something for the first time in her life; Perry, an actual, tragic genius, craves more stimulation than his social set can provide. They all want more.

by Jonathan Franzen.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen.
Image: Supplied

In 1970s America — and in every place and time — spiritual experience offers safe and socially sanctioned contact with the divine and the extraordinary, things that men, especially, often only come to through music or sex.

The lusts of the flesh seep through Crossroads: Russ has been creepy towards a youth group girl, despises his flabby wife, is infatuated with a feckless widow. His oldest son, normcore Clem, discovers sex and will probably fail his college year as a result. His overachieving daughter, Becky, steals another girl’s boyfriend. Marion, the “manic-depressive” mother of the family, goes on a mission to find her lost true love — a married man who impregnated and abandoned her 20 years before. Add Franzen’s discursions on Vietnam, the Navajo, all kinds of drugs, and Yahweh Himself, and you have a clear-sighted, compelling and kind examination of the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Each character sees the action from their own point of view: think Salinger via the Four Gospels. Their narratives change infinitesimally, but crucially, as new details are added, as the what happened of action spirals into the why of story. Franzen knows that we are our beliefs and actions, and the disjunctions between those two aspects: the crossroads is the place we take a breath before moving on. That is the lesson of the youth group — not the church’s eye-watering sexism or its humblebragging or its banal and thorough corruption. We are our own stories and we have to tell one another: we have to testify.

It’s not just the hereafter Franzen is good at: he is fantastic at the excruciating examination of cringe. Russ comes in for the brunt — his edgy sheepskin coat, bought by the adoring Marion whom he now disregards, gets a lot of mentions — but Franzen’s contention is that we are all flawed, all self-interested and self-pitying without being self-aware. The real demons are ourselves, and the only possession that counts is self-possession. The release we crave is forgiveness — not ostentatious social posturing, but the gratitude in ordinary good behaviour.

When Franzen really lets go with the trumpets and the frenzy, his idea of God is always a great light: a vast brightness that throws our necessary shadows into relief. The reward, as he says, is clarity. Clearly, Crossroads is a very Good Book. Amen, brother. Set me free.