Jonathan Franzen, as they say online, is Good, Actually. Long a contentious figure, these days Franzen finds the reading public surprisingly amenable to his outlook. His new novel, Crossroads, is getting positive reviews. His long-held skepticism when it comes to social media now makes him look less like a curmudgeon and more like a prophet, what with Facebook sowing misinformation across the globe and destabilizing elections. Praised for qualities that made him reviled in the past, he has become the Guy Fieri of American fiction, and Crossroads offers a twist on a familiar recipe.
Franzen made his name writing long, engrossing novels that delve into the inner workings of the white, middle-class American family. His early novels overindulged in the heady postmodernism rampant in the 1990s, but The Corrections (2001) got the balance just right. Bringing the detail of the systems novel to bear on family dynamics, The Corrections demonstrated that a family saga, one of the oldest, most traditional novelistic forms, could capture the culture of the moment—and reach a vast readership for good measure. In Freedom (2010), he followed yet another family, this one during the Bush Era, to somewhat lesser but still potent effect. Purity (2015) reads like an ill-advised twist on his early novels, mostly ignoring families in favor of international intrigue. But Crossroads sees Franzen return to all-consuming domestic themes. The result is not just his best novel since The Corrections. It is his best novel, period.
Crossroads does add some new ingredients to Franzen’s menu. To start, it’s a historical novel that takes place in the early 1970s—living memory for Franzen, who was an adolescent at the time. More unusually, it’s a religious novel, or at the very least a novel that trains its powers of attention upon deeply religious characters. Following a youthful brush with Christianity, Franzen left behind faith for literature. But that early exposure to religion must have stuck with him, for he writes about the inner life of faith, its joy as well as its despair, with remarkable fluency. It is this quality that makes Crossroads unusually prescient: by honing in on a religious community fifty years in the past, the novel manages to convey, perhaps without meaning to, the emotional tenor of social media in the present day.
But I’ll get to that in a moment. Crossroads portrays the Hildebrandt family, who live in New Prospect, Illinois, a fictional suburb of Chicago. Russ Hildebrandt is the associate pastor at First Reformed church, but the congregation’s affluence is an odd fit for him after growing up in an austere Mennonite farming community. His sober-minded, service-oriented Protestantism makes him more comfortable aiding inner-city faith communities or constructing school buildings in the Arizona desert. Marion, his wife, is there to help him navigate the social landmines of suburbia, remembering the names of every parishioner and whipping up pies for bake sales. They have four children: Clem, an iconoclastic college freshman; Becky, a preternaturally popular teenager; Perry, brilliant yet unstable; and Judson, the youngest, who mostly remains at the periphery of the story while his family members capsize their lives in one way or another.
The catalyst for the Hildebrandts’ troubles is Crossroads, the youth ministry attached to First Reformed. Rick Ambrose, the youth pastor running it, is a charismatic figure who attracts teenagers in droves. Remember: this is the early ’70s, when the unruly energies of the counterculture were sluicing their way into the square suburbs. Ambrose directs those energies expertly, and he makes Crossroads a place where teens of all sorts, religious and otherwise, come to see what’s going on. Its structure, such as it exists, is fundamentally relational. In highly emotional exchanges facilitated by Ambrose, the teens talk, laugh, and, especially, cry.
Russ’s rationalistic son, Perry, quickly catches on to what he calls “the fundamental economy of Crossroads: public display of emotion purchased overwhelming approval.” His daughter Becky, skeptical of Crossroads at first, comes to see its appeal when a boy named Tanner invites her:
Crossroads didn’t look religious—there was nary a Bible in sight, and whole evenings went by without reference to Jesus—but here again Tanner had been right: simply by trying to speak honestly, surrendering to emotion, supporting other people in their honesty and emotion, she experienced her first glimmerings of spirituality.
For his part, Russ can’t stand Crossroads. Ambrose is everything he is not. Vindictive and bitter, Russ begins lashing out at Crossroads, at times not even fully aware he’s doing so. He starts to neglect his wife, makes the Crossroads girls uncomfortable, and desperately tries to have an affair.