Jonathan Franzen has never shied away from moral seriousness. His previous novels—his breakthrough bestseller The Corrections and the follow-ups Freedom and Purity—examined the clash between high ideals and the messy reality of life. Franzen might have called his new novel “Goodness,” if that didn’t sound too earnest even for him. Instead, he went with Crossroads, the corny name of the liberal 1970s church youth group in suburban Chicago where much of the action is set.
Over 600 pages, Franzen follows the Hildebrandt family and their various moral quandaries: the father Russ, a pastor lusting after another woman; his wife Marion, tormented by her youthful affair with a married man and a sordid abortion; their son Clem, a student who wants to volunteer for Vietnam out of guilt at his own privilege; his sister Becky, the high-school beauty deciding whether to preserve her chastity; and brother Perry, a druggie who resolves to be good, “or, failing that, at least less bad.”
The atmosphere at Crossroads encourages strict self-examination. You must make friends with the excluded and the awkward, the teenagers are told by their pastor, and then tell them unwelcome truths. Franzen asks the same of his readers, making us care about resolutely uncool characters but also striving to be honest about their failings. Does goodness count if you feel like you’re doing good? Can redemption be possible when relapsing into old habits is part of being human? These deep questions are married to a highly readable story that sweeps you along.
Franzen is not a flawless writer: the prose here is sometimes clunky and the conversations shade into the programmatic. A scene when Perry talks with a reverend and a rabbi reads more like a philosophical dialogue than realistic conversation. But his great achievement is to take what might seem to many a culturally alien world—nearly everyone here believes sincerely in God and strives to please Him—and make it gripping. It is the first of three projected novels following the Hildebrandts that will apparently take us up to the present day. I for one can’t wait for the next instalment.