Jonathan Franzen

Long acclaimed as one of America’s greatest novelists during his prize-winning career, it’s hard to see how Jonathan Franzen could top himself. But his new novel, Crossroads, may be his best.

Much of the action is set on a single day in Chicago—Dec. 23, 1971. “At its center,” Dwight Garner noted in his New York Times review, “are the Hildebrandts, another of the author’s seemingly solid Midwestern families—like the Probsts in The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), the Hollands in Strong Motion (1992), the Lamberts in The Corrections (2001) and the Berglunds in Freedom (2010)—with eggshell foundations.”

They are: Rev. Russ Hildebrandt, the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church, who is on the brink of breaking free of a marriage he finds joyless―unless his wife, Marion, who has her own secret life, beats him to it. Their eldest child, Clem, who is coming home from college on fire with moral absolutism, having taken an action that will shatter his father. Clem’s sister, Becky, long the social queen of her high-school class, who has sharply veered into the counterculture, and their brilliant younger brother Perry, who’s been selling drugs to seventh graders, but has resolved to be a better person. Each of the Hildebrandts seeks a freedom that each of the others threatens to complicate.

As he details the family members’ lives in alternating chapters told from each character’s perspective, Franzen uses his flawless ear to unspool one gorgeously written sentence after another. Here’s the novel’s opening:

“The sky broken by the bare oaks and elms of New Prospect was full of moist promise, a pair of frontal systems grayly colluding to deliver a white Christmas, when Russ Hildebrandt made his morning rounds among the homes of bedridden and senile parishioners in his Plymouth Fury wagon. A certain person, Mrs. Frances Cottrell, a member of the church, had volunteered to help him bring toys and canned goods to the Community of God that afternoon, and through he knew that only as her pastor did he have a right to rejoice in her act of free will, he couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present than four hours alone with her.”

Later in the first chapter, Franzen offers this gem:

“On his bad days, of which there’d been many in the past three years, he resorted to an elaborate detour—into the church through its function hall, up a stairwell and down a corridor lined with stacks of banished Pilgrim Hymnals, across a storage room for off-kilter music stands and a crèche ensemble last displayed eleven Advents ago, a jumble of wooden sheep and one meek steer, graying with dust, with whom he felt a sad fraternity, then down a narrow staircase where only God could see and judge him, into the sanctuary via the “secret” door in the paneling behind the altar, and finally out through the sanctuary’s side entrance—to avoid passing the office of Rick Ambrose, the director of youth programming.”

That sentence provoked Wyatt Mason to observe in the Wall Street Journal:

“The 124 words of this single, tracking shot of a sentence document the steps Russ is willing to take to avoid meeting his unmaker. Seven prepositional phrases enact Russ’s avoidance, lonely syntactical steps through a discarded menagerie which is not—as a less inventive writer might say—coated in dust, but ‘graying’ (as Russ himself, growing old, is). Mr. Franzen’s sense of rhythm girds this succession of phrases, makes them not leaden but light-footed, most evident in the lovely phrase ‘with whom he felt a sad fraternity’ lovely in part because of its original image of Russ’s melancholy—a man denied fellowship finding fraternity in a steer as meek as he is—but also because the phrase moves in iambic pentameter (with whom he felt a sad fraternity), the five-heartbeat meter of blank verse, those metrical feet marking Russ’s humbling. Here, as with so many of Mr. Franzen’s sentences, one feels those beats with one’s body, powered, as they are, as all great prose is, by the lessons of poetry.”

Mason also noted: “Freedom; Purity; The Corrections: any of these titles of past Franzen novels would serve just as well for “Crossroads,” a story explicitly exploring the possibility of free will in family life—a claim which could describe the preoccupations of any of his earlier books. What is different, in “Crossroads,” is its narrative interest in how Christian life afflicts family life. While the novel as a Western art form has pursued Christian belief since its outset—Crusoe thanks God’s providence even as providence fails him; Pamela prays as her predator approaches; Ishmael sits in the hard pews of the church before the Pequod sets sail—Mr. Franzen’s interest in exploiting novel form to explore the effect of Christian belief on belief in family—that other, sacred institution which too easily skews profane—feels new.”

Ron Charles of the Washington Post is also impressed: “With its dazzling style and tireless attention to the machinations of a single family, Crossroads is distinctly Franzenesque, but it represents a marked evolution, a new level of discipline and even a deeper sense of mercy. … Before now, ‘soul’ is not a term I would have associated with Franzen, whose brilliant, acerbic work has seemed committed to a purely material concept of human identity. But Crossroads feels consumed with the Psalmist’s question, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me?’ ”

While the publication of such a splendid book is a blessed event, more good news is on the way: Crossroads is the first volume in a planned trilogy which Franzen is calling “The Key to All Mythologies” (Top Ten quiz: what all-time classic did he borrow that one from?).

Jonathan Franzen’s Top Ten List

1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880)
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
3. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)
4. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27)
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
6. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)
7. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839)
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
9. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (1940)
10. Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934)