Giving up, for now, in Crossroads, on representing present youth, Franzen has doubled down on representing the white ones’ parents and grandparents as the impressionable, inquisitive, and dynamically flawed young men and women that they once had been. In dreams, as a once-famed tale from the Depression had it, begin responsibilities ... To set a novel half a century in the past, as he now does, is something like dealing oneself a full house. In playing to his strengths so inordinately he has unlocked a new, late style, distinct from the well-hewn blocks of prose poetry typical of his first three novels or the mashed-potatoes-and-gravy consistency of his last two. The Corrections was a masterpiece, but Crossroads is his finest novel yet. Unpolished and unsloppy, difficult to quote or fault, his free indirect style sticks to the contours of consciousness and attempts not one thing else. In a quiet and uncanny fashion it is entirely adequate: a prosaic causeway coursing through the swamp at night ... Though no serious fiction writer would impose their own belief upon their readers, what Crossroads does make clear is that Franzen, through his characters, has rendered it impossible for readers not to be engaged by the most momentous questions of faith ... His ambition in this novel is not only to mirror society, but to return the individual reader to themselves, to grind a lens in which the major questions structuring our single lives on Earth retain their focus and integrity. All of this sounds Dostoyevskian because (with the requisite adaptation for American environs) it is ... Crossroads is Franzen’s greatest and most perfect novel to date, but more importantly, it is his most promising: an inexhaustible resource for future novels, and not only his own. What impresses most is the sense that its successors, hopefully present soon, will all but certainly exceed it.
... a mellow, marzipan-hued ’70s-era heartbreaker. Crossroads is warmer than anything he’s yet written, wider in its human sympathies, weightier of image and intellect. If I missed some of the acid of his earlier novels, well, this one has powerful compensations ... Franzen patiently clears space for the slow rise and fall of character, for the chiming of his themes and for a freight of events — a car wreck, rape, suicide attempts, adultery, drug deals, arson — that arrive only slowly, as if revealed in sunlight creeping steadily across a lawn ... Franzen threads these stories, and their tributaries, so adeptly and so calmly that at moments he can seem to be on high-altitude, nearly Updikean autopilot. The character who cracks this novel fully open — she’s one of the glorious characters in recent American fiction — is Marion, Russ’s wife ... The Franzen-shaped hole in our reading lives is like a bog that floods at roughly eight-year intervals. This time that bog is shot through with intimations of light ... Flannery O’Connor spoke of the 'moment of grace' that appears in many of her stories, 'a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.' Franzen’s novel is flush with such moments. It’s about tests most of us fear we are not going to pass.
In examining the attitudes of 50 years ago, in the knowledge of how they turned out, Franzen never forgets, sentence by sentence, that the novel is a comic form. He invites his readers both to sympathise with each of the family’s private passions, their frustrated desire to be loved, their troubled relations with their gods, while having enormous fun observing the folly of their romantic delusions, the lies they tell themselves about love. This is, you realise, just about the perfect year in which to set that tragicomedy, full of I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony and everyone is beautiful earnestness ...It is a testament to Franzen’s authorial habits of empathy, his curiosity about the lives of others, his efforts in a land of cliche to add twists to easy assumptions, that you are likely to find yourself caring about how things turn out for each of the Hildebrandts equally ... As a group, they are the most sympathetic of Franzen’s creations since the Lambert family of The Corrections and, as with that novel, their local tribulations speak with wit and eloquence to the fatal flaw of American society: the question of how a culture of extreme individualism equates to the ties of guilt and convention and love that bind us to family and community. The answers in 1971 are no easier than those of half a century later.
... splendid ... in the best possible way, it feels less like a beginning than like the latest yield of a familiar crop, or a newly discovered branch of a big midwestern family ... Franzen lays on a lavish spread of self-doubt and dysfunction, simmering tensions, heaped indignity, the sort of fraught festive gathering everyone can relate to. Rolling into New Prospect is a lot like coming home ... Franzen is brilliant at framing the lies people tell, the stories they spin, elegantly lancing his characters’ self-justifying accounts with evidence to the contrary ... It’s a skill that proves equally effective when played for laughs or horror ... Franzen tends to be bracketed alongside the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, the other big lions of American letters. If anything, though, he reminds me more of Anne Tyler. He has the same fascination with the domestic arena (the great drama of small lives), the same keen ear for dialogue and a similar understanding that comedy and tragedy can be natural bedfellows. True to form, Crossroads wins us over with its array of social pratfalls and a cast of warm, well-drawn characters. It is expansive and funny; a pure pleasure to read. But all the while it is nudging the Hildebrandts closer to the brink ... Franzen has laid the ground beautifully, and his first act is intoxicating – a luxuriant domestic drama that opens out into politics, running against the grain of the counterculture with its focus on the friction between conservatism and radicalism, Christianity and social activism ... All the same, there is a restless energy here that bodes well for the future. Whipped by the times, Franzen’s 20th-century seekers are flailing and giddy and yet somehow still standing. They are groping for a fresh direction, a new way of being, an ideal to live up to.
... for Franzen, if not for his characters, an inward focus is the ticket out. It is by way of smallness that he at last achieves monumentality, by way of entrapment that he at last promises escape ... surprising to Franzen’s detractors, who often accuse him of writing flat female characters, will be the extent to which Marion crackles with humanity. She is the most memorable Hildebrandt, if not the most vividly living of all Franzen’s creations ... Some of the finest passages in Crossroads, which brims with agile writing, evoke Perry’s intensifying quest for oblivion ... a testament not to the singularity of the ’70s but to the decade’s continuity with our own. The novel’s emotional dishevelments—and its aura of apprehensive urgency—feel viscerally contemporary. If not for the resounding absence of the internet, we could almost forget that the year is supposed to be 1971 ... Whether this insight and others like it are evidence of maturity or resignation, I am not sure, but I know that it is one of many tiny treats that add up in the end to a marvelous novel—and sometimes even offer the thinnest glint of grace.
... a novel that takes the religious beliefs of its characters seriously, without ever forgetting how easily faith can twist itself into absurdity ... is light on curmudgeonly social commentary. (Readers who prefer his breakout 2001 novel, The Corrections, will surely welcome this ... As with the best of Franzen’s fiction, the characters in Crossroads are held up to the light like complexly cut gems and turned to reveal facet after facet ... feels purged of showy writing and stylistic set pieces, but the long flashback recounting this interlude feels bleached with the merciless glare and punishing downpours of winter afternoons on treeless Southern California boulevards. The way Franzen conveys this atmosphere without calling attention to how well he’s conveying it is in tune with the deferential spirit of the novel ... The power of this enveloping novel, facilitated by neatly turned plot elements finally resides in how uncannily real, how fully imagined these people feel ... Real people are tricky puzzles, volatile blends of self-knowledge and blindness, full of inexhaustible surprises and contradictions. Literary characters seldom achieve a comparably unpredictable intricacy because they are, after all, artifacts made by equally blinkered human beings, and furthermore they are the means to an artistic end. Franzen hasn’t always given his readers characters as persuasively flawed as the Hildebrandts. He hasn’t always tried to. But in Crossroads, his satirical and didactic impulses largely in check, his touch gentled, Franzen has created characters of almost uncanny authenticity. Is there anything more a great novelist ought to do? I didn’t think so.
Sorry to Franzen’s haters, but Crossroads is an excellent novel ... The details feel natural and unforced, as lived-in as the Hildebrandt home ... The women of the book are its most compelling characters...Likewise, a long section about the Navajo could have been an embarrassment, but mostly works as a critique of Russ, who sees them as exotic and noble, facilitators of his own salvation ... Franzen brings to this novel a refreshing simplicity. At times, he has shown himself to be over-enamored with the novel form; he has a tendency to connect all his disparate elements back to the whole, even at the expense of credulity. Novelists should strive for coherence, yes, and get mileage out of their inventions. But his novels, at their weakest, bend too much to coincidence, or worse, demonstrate an excessively orchestrated causality. You can see the seam ... the complete narrative might yet prove too neat. But in volume one anyway, Franzen has left behind such machinations. He has jettisoned, also, his impulse to explain how the world works...What remains is Franzen’s gift for interiority, his uncanny ability to take us into minds as fraught and depraved as our own ... This is why Franzen is always worth reading. He articulates the terror of exposure. The fear that people will see you for what you actually are. The flimsiness of the facade, the trembling doubt in every heart.
... nobody in Crossroads—nobody in any of Franzen’s novels, as far as I can tell—sees art as a means of transcendence. Nor does Franzen himself attempt to instill in his readers the feeling of connection to something above or beyond everyday reality, even when depicting people who seek such connection. While he gives us tight close-ups of his characters’ crucial experiences—whether beatific or miserific—he always maintains a modicum of distance, just sufficient for compassionate irony. We watch closely, but we do not participate. One way to think about this is as Franzen’s allowance for a range of readerly responses ... By the Seventies, mainstream American Christianity was striving, and failing, to incorporate the forces that instead would overcome it. Franzen’s description of the youth group insightfully depicts this dissolution: Crossroads still exists by the end of the book, but one suspects that it isn’t long for this world ... What if [Franzen's] determination to reject the complexities of Status narratives entails a failure to represent the forces really at work in shaping our lives? I enjoyed Crossroads quite a lot, and look forward to the next installment in the series; but my fear is that Franzen will write a very long and ambitious trilogy that is disabled, by its very narrative method, from achieving what its author wants to achieve.
... an absolutely engrossing family saga, covering themes both small and infinite: family, self, sin, God, country (or maybe more accurately, suburbia). I didn’t think I’d like it, to be honest, but I couldn’t put it down ... There’s not a scenario in here that doesn’t ring true, and Franzen gets all the details right ... This book is nearly 600 pages, but it doesn’t feel too long. My only real complaint is how badly Franzen writes sex scenes ... But I guess the awkwardness with which the Hildebrandt men describe their intimate encounters is, given their personalities, right on track.
Franzen’s breadth remains extraordinary ... The sentences are often good, but it’s the way they accrue and interact, pile up over pages, that gives them their effect ... The world he builds is lush and complicated, immersive and alive ... And yet...the present action stagnates; shifts in time and among characters make it more difficult to feel the press of thrill or threat. And then, on page 358, the plot picked up: My skin got that proper prickle ... It should be said that the characters do not feel fully human; they feel allegorical. There’s lots of talk of God and goodness; past traumas are overwrought. The place we find Marion near the end feels both inevitable (by the novel’s logic) and absurd (by life’s). The characters feel, in other words, like characters: incredibly well-constructed pieces moved through the novel’s equally well-constructed world ... Franzen can spin a stellar yarn; Crossroads is further proof of that. Yet the sentences can get sloppy, attention lags. One wonders, why these seven good-to-great sentences, when one or two sharper ones could have held them all? By the end, it felt like the story was just barely getting off the ground ... I wonder about the dogged certainty with which Crossroads seems to have been written, the almost unfathomable (to me) trust that there’s inherent value in all the (many) things the writer has to say. In Crossroads, I felt the stolid knowledge that must come from decades of succeeding, a writer in full possession of his powers, etc. What I did not feel was the thrill of failure’s threat.
This is Franzen with the last dregs of DeLillo—the postmodern bric-a-brac, the satirical frills—filtered out. What remains is strikingly traditional, both in its form (the members of an unhappy family, each attended in turn by a close third- person voice) and its preoccupations (faith, love, generational conflict, what it means to be good) ... All [characters] fashioned from rich psychological fabric, and Franzen reveals their secret lives with insight and compassion ... The competing social systems of Franzen’s early books have been succeeded in Crossroads by competing value systems, rival conceptions of virtue and vice ... Its treatment of Christianity is much more nuanced than the cartoonish version offered in Strong Motion. Faith is neither endorsed nor mocked by this novel, but simply acknowledged as a crucial ingredient in its characters’ perspectives, one that is sometimes a comfort and sometimes an affliction. You don’t have to be a believer to find the psychology persuasive ... Crossroads is largely free from the vices to which Franzen’s previous work has been addicted: the self-conscious topicality; the show-off sophistication; the formal heavy-handedness. It retains many of his familiar virtues: the robust characterization; the escalating comedy; the virtuosic command of narrative rhythm. But it also shares with its two closest predecessors a frictionless style that sometimes feels a bit lacklustre.
Thank God for Jonathan Franzen ... 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 ... Although Russ can be an old fool capable of absurd acts of self-delusion and pomposity, he’s spent decades considering his life in terms of his fidelity to God. Betraying his marriage vows and pursuing the affections of another woman in his congregation require equal degrees of physical and theological flexibility, which Franzen portrays with an exquisite combination of comedy and sympathy ... Initially, it’s hard to take the novel’s spiritual concerns seriously. Given his reputation for piercing characters on the mandibles of his superior intellect, a praying Franzen doesn’t feel much more sanctified than a praying mantis. But Crossroads quickly demonstrates that it isn’t — or isn’t just — a satire of suburban church culture or the hypocrisies of religious faith. It’s an electrifying examination of the irreducible complexities of an ethical life. With his ever-parsing style and his relentless calculation of the fractals of consciousness, Franzen makes a good claim to being the 21st century’s Nathaniel Hawthorne ... a story of spiritual crises with a narrative range more expansive than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels, which can sometimes feel liturgical in their arcane ruminations. Franzen is working closer to the practical theology and moral realism of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and In the Beauty of the Lilies. Grasping at reeds of grace and selfishness, the Hildebrandts demonstrate in the most poignant way how mortals stumble through life freighted with ideals that simultaneously mock and inspire them.
Franzen is having fun with the Clem and Becky sections, their self-consciously square vocabulary, their earnest striving, the intensity of their small ambitions. But it’s with the two black sheep of the Hildebrandt clan, Perry and Marion, that Crossroads crackles to vicious, blazing life ... with Marion, [Franzen] reminds us that he’s actually one of our great novelists of female fury ... Yet despite Marion’s fury, there is a surprising tenderness to this novel. Franzen is known for his acidity, for his willingness to delve into the least attractive parts of his characters’ psyches. Crossroads is certainly unsparing toward the Hildebrandts, but it is also empathetic. Even awful, dorky, self-pitying Russ is allowed moments of surprising grace. This is a big, ambitious novel that aims to say big, ambitious things about America, and the church, and familial power dynamics; about what happens to families and countries after the patriarch has been deposed; about how we strive to be good and whether we ever can be. But it is also interested in the possibility of redemption after a great sin — or a great humiliation ... deceptively simple, merciless without being cruel, and thrilling in its sheer fury ... Haters and his own often-insufferable public persona be damned: Jonathan Franzen really is one of the great novelists of his generation. Crossroads stands ready and willing to prove it.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... The novel treats anyone who’s not white as one of its motifs, its character development moods ... When Franzen directly describes a feeling or a dynamic and lets you infer broader suggestions about humanity, he nails it ... If only he stuck to that. The characters talk to themselves as if reading from an undergraduate philosophy textbook ... Franzen’s modulating presence also flattens differences between the voices ... The suspenseful nuts and bolts draw you in, and the characters keep you going. The dialogue is often brilliant ... I was bereft to leave the Hildebrandts, and will follow them through the rest of the trilogy.
Crossroads gives us the feeling that Franzen takes the project of keeping us company in the human enterprise very seriously ... What Franzen renders so vividly is desire, especially when thwarted. The Horny White Twentieth Century is in better hands with Franzen than those Agitated East Coast Fellas ... I neither like nor dislike any of these characters but cared desperately about what was happening to all of them. They are whole, entire people, and, like them, this book feels whole, fused, and seamless ... That somebody wants now, in a moment overtaken by facts and their abrogation, to discuss goodness? I’ll walk with the Hildebrandts.
Franzen memorably upends expectations, surprising us with Marion’s long-held secrets. Their surfacing and release transforms her from a cipher into a Fury ... without overdoing things, he has nicely textured the last, confused years of the Age of Aquarius ... The author’s dialogue, especially in argument, remains fast and nimble, elevated a bit beyond believability in the manner of a good script ... Franzen’s novels do raise the question of whether characters can be over-realized, so round that they begin to lose any edge. Nothing ever goes unsaid by the narrative voice, no matter whose point of view it comes from; the author’s copious imagination would always rather add than select ... what Russ appears to ask toward the end of Crossroads — 'Did words give expression to emotion, or did they actively create it?' — gets closer still to a prescriptive inclination that the morally serious Franzen may even now yearn to pursue. Crossroads, we are told, is the first book of a trilogy, and if the Hildebrandts move forward in time, they will take their author with them back toward the here and now, where fiction retains its slim, dwindling chance to influence the life it reflects.
Crossroads is one of his best. Funny, moving, crackling with life, it has what all great fiction should have: a generosity towards (if not necessarily a liking for) its characters, and a capacity to be in two minds, both about itself and the world it describes ... Franzen makes deft use of an ironised free indirect style in which the third person voice is infused, almost homeopathically, with the idioms and sensibilities of the characters being described ... One criticism of Franzen’s mature style, visible here, is that he both has his cake and eats it, achieving a plausible deniability by giving his most mockable lines to characters who deserve to be mocked. There are a few moments like this in Crossroads—Perry’s hyperliteracy, which makes him sound like one of the cast of Dawson’s Creek, is almost too much to bear, and Russ’s Lawrentian encounters with the Navajo are the cliched fantasies of a middle-aged white man with a taste for adventure. But to criticise this novel because it contains Franzenisms is to miss their irony. It would also preclude what is Franzen’s major theme here: forgiveness.
... at first glance the goings on at a Christian youth group in the nineteen-seventies seem less like the stuff of serious literary fiction than like the premise of the newest movie from Christopher Guest ... As it turns out, though, Crossroads is classic Franzen fodder: a slice of suburban life ripe not for satire but for the far deadlier scrutiny that comes from taking it seriously ... Franzen is not Dickens, which I mean here as a compliment; he does not do moral pageantry, doling out impossible quantities of virtue to some characters while withholding it entirely from others. Instead, in Crossroads, the desire to be good is broadly shared but alarmingly ephemeral, dissolving with equal ease in the face of forces as potent as addiction (for Perry), as insidious as self-pity (for Russ), and as trivial as a traffic jam (for Marion). Yet it is also strangely persistent, readily rekindled by an encounter with another person, an experience of the ineffable, or the banked heat of some mysterious inner fire. This combination of fragility and tenacity renders the old-fashioned question of virtue interesting again, by rendering it suspenseful ... What makes the book distinctly part of his canon, with its ambient atmosphere of self-absorption, self-loathing, and disaffection, is not the question of whether virtue can triumph but the meta-question that Perry asks: Does real goodness even exist, or is it always compromised by the dividends it pays to the do-gooder? ... It would be a mistake to conclude, from all this talk of virtue, that Crossroads is a solemn book. It is, on the contrary, a breezily written family drama with plenty of plot and a touch of melodrama; on the map of literary culture, it shares a border with the beach read. As befits a novel of middle-class suburban life, its crises are insular: a kid isn’t living up to his potential, a woman is unhappy about her weight, a teen-ager has a crush on someone else’s boyfriend ... some part of Franzen is forever turning outward, toward the grand sweep of history and the prevailing customs and troubles of our era. Sometimes his attempts to square those two scales are successful. Without manipulation or overreach, he nicely instantiates in the characters of Crossroads a series of larger phenomena ... he is at his finest when writing about the Midwest, the middle class, midlife crises, middlingness in general. The farther he ventures from all that, the shakier his plots become, the less organically they arise from his characters ... the pacing is off at the end ... when I got to that unsatisfying ending, I found myself irritated less by its shortcomings than by the fact that I couldn’t read those other volumes right away ... raises the question of what, other than suspense, makes Franzen’s new novel so compelling. That’s tricky to answer, because what’s true of ethics is also true of aesthetics: certain forms of goodness are strangely elusive. And Franzen, more than most contemporary writers of his calibre, operates in this covert mode almost exclusively ... his prose has grown looser and laxer; never a showy author, he now sometimes scarcely seems like a good one. He has become so assertively styleless that he appears to have deemed linguistic pleasure not only inferior to but anathema to all other literary aims. Whole chapters—almost whole books—go by without a beautiful line or an arresting image ... an imperfect novel that is nonetheless a great one, its inner operations lofting it high above its flaws. Only the rest of the trilogy can tell us whether the same will hold for any of its characters ... The deepest form of suspense at work in his novel is driven not by its plot but by a kind of moral uncertainty. At its conclusion, almost every character is at his or her worst; the question it leaves us with is whether any of them can ever be better.
The structure that worked beautifully for Franzen before feels herky-jerky in Crossroads, with each shift in perspective stalling the book’s momentum. The real problem is Russ, who is a chalk outline where a character should be. His suffering is shallow, and his grievances are petty ... He is boring even on topics that wouldn’t seem to abide boringness, like adulterous desire ... It is demonstrably possible for a novelist to write about dreary characters without producing dreary text, but too many of the Hildebrandt family are boring in exactly the same way: stubborn, narrow, flummoxed, risk averse ... With the exception of Marion and Perry—the designated lunatics—it is an impalpable family. Those sections are revelatory, combustible, and funny, and when I rounded onto them I could hardly stop myself from fist-pumping and yelping, 'Franzen’s back, baby!' ... Look, even a so-so Jonathan Franzen novel is better than most novels. There are breathtaking sentences in this one! Several dozen of them! But I would argue that this ratio of breathtaking to inert sentences is not favorable, not in a novel of 592 pages ... Crossroads comes across as not only muddy and unstylish but determinedly and self-righteously so—like showing up at a party wearing a baggy brown turtleneck and getting annoyed when people don’t compliment your outfit.
... just as Mr. Franzen gives Russ, made furious by his humiliation, a real Plymouth Fury to drive, and therefore an irony that feels like life, Mr. Franzen presents the pastoral urge with a plainness made ridiculous only by those who don’t believe that someone could, so baldly, believe ... As has always been the case with Mr. Franzen’s novels, their form forces us to imagine the particular ways that people suffer ... Mr. Franzen shuttles us through sections devoted to the point of view of each essential character, writing in the third person but in the style of thinking of each. This method could describe that of a hundred contemporary novelists, but it has been Mr. Franzen’s particular gift that his confecting of these rival testimonies, secular gospels of bad news, are so immersive and distinctly his own that one begins not so much to want to hear from another implicated member but mystically to need to ... 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 ... A Christian narrative, or a narrative about Christians, in which carnal sin or Christian passion goes unseen becomes a carnival of virtue. It is a purer virtue of Mr. Franzen’s that he has never been too squeamish to reveal our, not so much impurity as failedness. It is virtue that yields not admiration from readers but, in readers, belief ... 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 ... If I insist on Mr. Franzen’s excellence as a maker of sentences that serve story and transmogrify characters into a substance as palpable as a missing person’s ghost, it’s in part a response to a consistent critical denial of that part of his power through time ... Mr. Franzen’s sentences will ensure that his Hildebrandts, troubledly embedded in God’s America and America’s idea of God, will be worth waiting to hear more from. Their bad news is good news for the novel as a form, a form which allows us to sit as we should with those who suffer: our sacred hearts rent open, naked and afraid.
Franzen, one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life, does not disappoint with his terrific new novel ... Franzen writes about all of this with penetrating insight delivered through incisive sentences. By turns funny and terrifying, Crossroads is promised to be the first novel in a planned trilogy. I can’t wait to read what happens next.
The most fun writing in the book concerns the [church] group’s ideas, its social tensions, and its kumbaya stylings ... The soap opera–like plot of the novel feels almost too gripping—a device to propel us along in a single, weighty inquiry: What makes people want to be good? ... As the characters dare themselves to open up, Franzen seems to be doing something similar as a novelist, resisting the temptation to smirk at their good intentions. If his earlier books were steeped in ironic social observation, Crossroads is an experiment in sincerity ... But, for the first volume in a three-part survey of American culture, its vision is surprisingly narrow, largely limited to the social dynamics in a single church in a single suburb. Can the inner life of New Prospect tell us much about the inner life of the whole country? ... What makes [one] section of the novel more than Franzen’s own 'little Navajo experience'? He stages several of the novel’s most climactic episodes against the backdrop of Diné culture but brings Diné characters into the story only to tell us something about the white visitors ... he describes [sex] in some very mangled ways, full of squeamish syntax and punctilious terminology ... He makes sex an oddly self-serving, even solipsistic act ... Bodies are unruly, but it seems unfair that Marion’s story is wholly bound up with her weight ... It’s as a historical novel, however, that Crossroads feels most superficial ... For all its sagas and morality plays, the past is a refuge—a time when nothing mattered so much as the style of the coolest, most enviable kids.
Jonathan Franzen writes marvellous novels and indifferent sentences. Some of the sentences in his new book, Crossroads, are worse than indifferent. The novel, fortunately, is marvellous enough to propel the reader past phrases of truly gruesome infelicity almost without qualm. Things are going so fast and you’re having so much fun that you comprehend the prose only as a blur of kerbside scenery. Who cares that the hard shoulder is littered with maimed syntax, broken rhythms and multi-car pile-ups of cliché? Your eyes are fixed on the vividly unspooling road ahead ... has the quality Franzen’s readers most lust after: hypnotic narrative motion ... I like to imagine that, just as blindness and deafness are supposed to enhance the other senses, Franzen’s impaired prose faculty means he has had to learn to accomplish through plot what other novelists achieve through description or exposition. In this book more than any other we know his characters by their actions and desires, not by the author’s careful accounts of their wry smiles and secret birthmarks. The result is that everything is always moving ... Some characters — fortunately, mostly minor — are lifeless and this is generally because Franzen has attempted to describe them ... it is in Franzen’s capacity to manage interconnecting relationships on an extraordinary scale that his genius lies. The terrain is wide and it is rough ... That all this is supposed to provide a mirror to our time is obvious. That it works so subtly and so well is down to how Franzen never sermonises or explains, but simply shows. And what he is able to show is formidable: the hypnotic spectacle of more than 100 characters in frantic, intricate motion. No polemic, no academic paper could produce such a complex and precise account of the disturbing proximity of moral goodness to self-righteousness and egotism ... It should be re-emphasised that underneath all this brilliance the prose is bad in the boring ways prose tends to be bad. It is clichéd ... Does this matter? The critic Harold Bloom once described another great white male, John Updike, as a minor writer with a major style. Franzen is a major writer with a minor style. Crossroads shows that this is at least a highly readable thing to be.
If you lived through the winter of 1971-1972 but have gotten hazy on the details over the past 50 years, or if you were born decades later and just want to do some time travel, Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant new novel, Crossroads, is the book for you. Soulful, funny, and so sharply observed it hurts ... Crossroads becomes a variety pack of secret aspirations and betrayals ... There’s nothing reductive in Franzen’s portrait of this agitated, complicated family, and Crossroads is both agonizing and hilarious as it probes each character’s dilemma. There’s nothing amiss, either, in Franzen’s period detail ... Franzen’s prose, as always, is sheer pleasure.
Fascinating and frustrating by turns, Russ is among Franzen's most memorable protagonists. In his inner conflicts we see our own ridiculousness ... Russ is in the throes of a personal and professional humiliation involving a work mission to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. He has had a falling out over it with a more popular youth minister, Rick Ambrose. This belabored story line struck me as too minor to occupy so much of the novel's first half. Franzen's interest in larger issues...is often buried beneath mountains of angsty prose that seem like backwaters to his narrative's forward flow ... With cinematic vividness, Franzen gives us two unforgettable episodes on the Navajo reservation, one involving Russ and Frances, another a perilous all-night escapade starring Perry. These marvelous, complicated scenes are handled with tremendous energy. They are keen and alive, satisfying and dynamic, if also mortifying. Similarly well done—though placed awkwardly late in the book—is a long flashback to Russ' odd upbringing in an isolated Mennonite community in rural Indiana.
In many ways, this is peak Franzen, with richly created characters, conflicts and plot ... The introspection is head-spinning at times. Just when a character convinces themselves to do something, they reconsider and the plot spins off in a new direction. That’s not to say any of it feels arbitrary. Franzen has a story to tell, it’s just a story featuring characters who aren’t always sure what they want ... The writing is a marvel. Despite the super omniscient third-person narrator, Franzen also delivers economic lines...You feel throughout like you’re in the hands of a very confident storyteller and the joy of the novel is going along for the journey with each character as they make choices and live with the consequences ... You also feel when you finish that the story is just getting started.
By stretching his novel across nearly 600 pages, Franzen has time to provide in-depth narratives on his characters—at times interesting, even compelling, at times not so much ... There is much that is good here. After all, this is Franzen and he is a masterful writer—of character, conflict, suspense, and the narratives of select middle-class white Americans. But after more than 500 pages, I wanted less of Russ and more of Marion and Becky, more of the Navajo and Black Americans, more of an America that isn’t just white and hypocritically Christian.
... a complex and subtle work about profound societal changes as seen through the experiences of one American family. Yet this story about people who question tradition reads very much like an old-fashioned novel. Crossroads may lack formal daring, but it compensates with thoughtful prose and a sympathetic view of its characters ... That’s one of the book’s many strengths: Franzen’s willingness to take his time and slowly reveal the dramas and backstories of his characters ... Some of the writing in Crossroads is arch, as if Franzen is trying without irony to emulate big, prolix novels of the past ... Readers open to its rhythms, however, will savor the novel’s excesses and leisurely pace. And Franzen remains unparalleled in his ability to tell family stories populated by a large cast of distinctive characters. One might say that a novel like Crossroads, with its unapologetically old-school approach to storytelling, is its own act of defiance.
Crossroads is a different mode, even a different genre for Franzen, as it explores a world-ordering system with less satire and more earnestness. And unlike his last three novels, Crossroads isn’t exactly social realism. It’s closer to a novel of ideas, though it’s not quite this either. Unlike a more typical novel of ideas, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, there are no lectures or staged debates. Characters are more than mouthpieces, although they and their discussions of being good are relatively flat. On some level, Franzen seems to know this, as the novel’s plot ultimately undercuts its philosophizing. The irony of Crossroads is that it’s a novel of ideas about the inadequacy of ideas—a book full of people thinking that dramatizes the danger of too much thought ... At times, the novel feels like a crash course in comparative religion: One can imagine the book’s ideal reader drawing a Venn diagram and noting places where various doctrines overlap ... may not be a return for Franzen, but it is something like a retreat: from the urgencies of our current moment, and from the ways that they warp our literary discourse. The historical moment that Crossroads depicts—of asking big, existential questions, or of working hard to avoid having to—feels definitively like the past. But Franzen has promised not to linger in this earlier era: He’s indicated that the trilogy will eventually describe the 2020s. One hopes that by the time this third book comes out, we’ll have collectively found ways to be—that is, to do—good.
Franzen pens complex, densely layered characters with backstories that require the narrative to jump backward and forward in time, with America’s heartland functioning as a stage upon which the tension between enduring values and societal change is enacted ... Much like Updike, Franzen is keenly aware that human struggle is defined by understanding and acceptance and that it is generational, ideas he admirably captures here.
[A] masterful, Tolstoyan saga of an unhappy family. Members of the dysfunctional Hildebrandt clan are deeply flawed, insecure, cringe-inducingly self-destructive, and, in Franzen’s psychologically astute rendering, entirely authentic and human ... This masterpiece of social realism vividly captures each character’s internal conflicts as a response to and a reflection of societal expectations, while Franzen expertly explores the fissions of domestic life, mining the rich mineral beneath the sediments of familial discord. In this first volume of a promised trilogy, Franzen is in rarified peak form.
It is not a book that I resented reading – it passed the time adequately. There is an interesting idea about goodness in it ... All this is interesting, in a way that Iris Murdoch made such questions almost dangerous. Here, there is a candy-coating ... Although I said it was Jonathan Franzen self-consciously writing a Jonathan Franzen novel, that is not wholly true. I think it is Jonathan Franzen trying to write a Marilynne Robinson novel. Robinson is the most theologically sophisticated and subtle writer of our times. Franzen spells out the difference between a Mennonite and an Anabaptist. Robinson deals with errant children, quivering faith and quiet redemptions; Franzen has kids going off the rails, adultery and compromise ... there are moments of very astute and fine writing in this. Some scenes will stay with me, and some resonate. The depictions of drug use, depression, moral laxity, moral abyss are all done with earnest feeling ... Franzen aches to be profound, but ends up a vox-pop. He wants to be a serious novelist, but is more of a social commentator. Not a prophet, instead a curtain twitcher on goings-on and of passable interest.
It says a lot that, at almost 600 pages, Franzen’s latest novel, set amid the waning years of the Vietnam War, leaves you wanting more ... Franzen’s intensely absorbing novel is amusing, excruciating, and at times unexpectedly uplifting—in a word, exquisite.
...a sweeping and masterly examination of the shifting culture of early 1970s America ... Throughout, Franzen exhibits his remarkable ability to build suspense through fraught interpersonal dynamics. It’s irresistible.