Reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads

Pat Zumhagen

From the moment in Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Crossroads, when Perry, the intellectual 15-year-old son of the First Reformed Church’s Minister, Russell Hildebrandt, walks into Reverend Haefle’s Holiday Open House, dips his cup into a cauldron of “Christmas gløgg for grownups,” and moves to the center of the room to pose questions to two clergymen about how to achieve goodness, I was hooked! Perry was known to deliberate on the essence of goodness and the immutability of the soul, for heaven sakes! So, rather than stopping for a chat with Mrs. Haefle, about the ingredients in the Swedish meatballs, I made a bee line for the center of the room where the action was set to occur. This kid’s questions interested me: “Can goodness ever be its own reward, or does it always serve personal interests?” And “if we can never escape our own selfishness, is such an act truly virtuous?” I was fascinated with what comes of being a minister’s son–resolutions to be a better person, friend, brother––even if self-interest does sneak in to compromise the purity of one’s altruism (and even if Perry did offer to stand in for his delayed parents at the party as a favor to his sister, hoping to buy her secrecy on his smoking and dealing pot). But then, it’s not unusual for sound philosophical thinking to be born of experience, is it?

Unfortunately, neither Reverend Walsh nor Rabbi Meyer abandoned dogma long enough to address Perry’s questions as he might have hoped. The preacher advises emulating Christ’s life to live virtuously, saying “Christ gives us a rock-solid basis for evaluating our actions.” The Rabbi claims that God’s laws are guideposts for a pious journey. Neither answer addresses the reflective investigation with which Perry struggles. Their answers depend on a faith Perry doesn’t have, a comfort with obedience rather than reason for defining virtue, and the belief that goodness and God are synonymous. Their responses also don’t match Perry’s ability to think outside of the doctrine box, despite his return dips into the gløgg. I find myself flashing back to the joke about a Preacher, a Rabbi, and a Priest walking into a bar to answer a question about getting into heaven and wondered why the priest was cast as Edward Gorey’s “Doubtful Guest” here. But years of Catholic education suggest that Perry wouldn’t have been satisfied by the priest’s answers either.

I attribute my own desire to enter Perry’s conversation with the clergymen to an interest in ethics developed during graduate studies in moral philosophy and literature. That interest led to a career in education and a focus on literature dealing with justice––social and otherwise. Questions such as “Upon what do we base best determinations of virtue and why?” have always intrigued me: God’s laws? Platonic and Aristotelian effects of actions (inner harmony and a flourishing life)? Kant’s Categorical Imperative? Mom? The Golden Rule? A Social Contract? The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” utilitarianism or “the lesser-of-two-evils guide to ethics” offered by a high school student of mine in 1993? What intrigues me more is the basis upon which the word best is understood. But, the impact of indoctrination is powerful and persistent, and I am not without understanding for its victims, having been one; and, I venture to say, most likely neither is Franzen. His story feels more like an invitation to wrestle with which roads, the combinations of roads, and/or which, if any, philosophical approaches above lead to a moral life, how suited one answer is for everyone, and how important religion is to the process?

The novel, Volume I of a planned trilogy called A Key to All the Mythologies (referencing Reverend Casaubon in Middlemarch by George Eliot) is made up of the individual and collective stories of the Hildebrandt family–Russ and Marion, in their 50s; Clem, 19; Becky, 17, Perry, 15; and Judson, 8– that cover the years between the 1940s and the 1970s. The church looms large in their lives and in their collective consciousness, though individuals feel free to modify beliefs and practices, including church attendance. Clem, and initially Becky, choose to not attend church at all but each tries to live a good and moral life, the ideals of which, for Franzen, seem to include “loving others as one loves oneself, and so forth,” if words assigned to Perry, are indicators. Sometimes they arrive at “crossroads,” struggling when desires for power, pleasure, concern for self/others, or religious principles, collide. Sometimes they get stuck at these “crossroads. In each case, the stories are provocative and insightful, often hilarious, and occasionally heartbreaking. 

At the time of the Haefle party, Reverend Russ and Marion are out on the streets of the Chicago suburb, New Prospect, at metaphorical “crossroads” that cause them to be late for the party: Russ is in a snowstorm after making Christmas deliveries to an inner-city Black sister church with the perky blond object of his current desire, Frances Cottrell. Marion, now frenetically smoking and starving her way to 110 pounds, is with a therapist, questioning her role in Russ’s wandering eye, and looking for reasons why she submerged her authentic self in her marriage. Becky has been set free by Perry to attend a concert where she is falling in love with Tanner Evans, discovering marijuana, attempting to rediscover God to land Tanner, and praying that (please God) she will come out of the high of her first experience with weed with her mind intact. Clem, the eldest, is just home from college for Christmas. Fresh from the decision to drop out of school, break up with his girlfriend, Sharon, and sign up for duty in Vietnam, he is struggling mightily at multiple “crossroads.” He has the “Is it love or Sharon’s sexual irresistibility that caused me to avoid all academic work this semester? blues,” some concerns about her compatibility with his family, and issues relating to his extremely close relationship with his sister, Becky. Lastly, his guilt for leaving poorer, blacker American kids to die in Vietnam is weighing on him as it is sure to result in a break with Russ, whose opposition to the war is legendary and unalterable. Judson, as yet unaffected by moral quandaries, is downstairs viewing Miracle on 34th Street with the Haefle children. And, Perry, aware that he has little faith that he will know whether he is really “being good or pursuing a sinful advantage” becomes more concerned with each dip into the cauldron, that it is he who is in the wrong. “You’re all saved but apparently I’m damned!” he sobbed loudly at the end of his conversation. And, Marion, arriving at the party just in time to hear Perry’s outburst and Doris Haefle’s news that he is intoxicated and should be taken home, whispers into Perry’s ear, “You picked the wrong woman’s house to get drunk in,” as they left to walk home in the snow. Marion doesn’t suffer fools or prigs easily. And Perry is her dearest child. 

We learn that Marion had imbibed a bit as a teen herself, but not before we get to know her as a conservative mother of four and sometimes a force to contend with when seen through the eyes of her 17-year-old daughter, Becky. We also see her through Russ’s eyes, as a middle-aged wife who has let herself go, resulting in his lack of interest in her. She pales by comparison to the younger, thinner, though duller object of Russ’s desire, the First (though-not) Reformed, parishioner. She also pales in comparison with a younger, more desirable version of herself that captivated Russ and initially stole his virginity. Most of what we learn about her life experiences are revealed through talks with her therapist, affectionally called “The Dumpling,” in what struck me as the funniest chapter, possibly due to a history (that I share) with smoking, fad diets and Catholicism. It is the section, however, with some of the saddest reveals in the entire novel.

With Marion, Franzen succeeds in the creation of a well-rounded (in every way) character who has been to the “crossroads” and back, and with the possible arrival at another on the horizon in response to her threatened marriage. She’d been out of balance and stuck at a “crossroad” at least once with a breakdown in her early 20s, in response to a pile-up of unresolved psychic traumas resulting from the suicide of her beloved, though dismissive, father; her mother’s abandonment of her; a torrid, yet dead-end relationship with a married man; a subsequent abortion; and an eventual run-in with a sexual pervert whom she paid with her body for money to cover the cost of the abortion. She is drawn as the novel’s truly authentic and multi-faceted character–a mélange of opposing traits: self-determined and guilty, simple and complicated, capable and self-deprecating, independent and dependent–and “neither amazed nor disturbed by the apparent contradictions thereof.” She believes to have been saved by Russ’s love and her marriage to him, and a Catholicism strong on devotion though flexible on dogma. In exchange for this luck, she spent 25 years of marriage “keeping her mouth shut,” focusing more on others than on herself, and withholding from Russ all information about the breakdown, the affair, the abortion, and the pervert. She also invented a former marriage to explain her obvious sexual experience when starting with Russ, only to be shunned later by Russ’s Mennonite parents as a non-suitable wife. She is about to lie again –about tracking down the illicit lover –whom she has located after 25 years, to reconnect with her passionate self. Perry is a boy after his mother’s heart and emotional fragility and is understood and protected by her. Following their departure from the Haefle party, she shares her history with mental illness and institutionalization with him, as she is worried about his instability and wants to help him avoid the psychological problems to which he is susceptible through inheritance. Sadly, the confession increases Perry’s worry about himself.

As interesting as their individual and combined stories are--and they are interesting–the novel’s brilliance lies in its strategic organization of the storytelling. Especially with characters Marion and Russ, Franzen has assembled a patchwork of bits and pieces of their personal and family histories and woven them within and without the story’s sequential timeline. Through flashbacks, forwards, and retellings, he prompts a reinterpretation of events with facts that alter perception at strategic times to prompt us to rethink simplistic understandings of complex situations and characters. In doing this, he brings us into the action by inviting us to experience the twists and turns of moral deliberation in which he and the characters are involved. For example, in a section on Russ, Franzen flashes back to an incident involving the Crossroads teens calling Russ out for his treatment of Youth Minister, Rick Ambrose. Clem outwardly supports his father, though humiliated by what everyone, teens and readers alike, believe (and I, without question) –-that Russ, jealous of Ambrose’s popularity and “hip” quotient, pulled rank to boost his own advantage with the kids. The group’s call for Russ’ departure causes him to resign from Crossroads Youth Group work. For more than 100 pages, readers live with a lingering disappointment with and judgment of Russ that sustain negative opinions of him. Eventually in a flash-forward, while still in the story’s past, we learn facts that force us to revise our ideas on Russ and our attitudes toward Ambrose, who, it seems, withheld facts for his own self-interest. This turn welcomed us to join in Franzen’s meditation on the nature of goodness and wrestle along with him, aware that “doing the right thing” is complicated, as are the characters. We also see how judgments reify self-perceptions and perceptions of others, especially when they go unchallenged for long periods of time. The experience reminded me to postpone easy judgments of others in my own life, and to “deny myself the pleasures that harm others.” (The Golden Rule??)

The jury is still out on Franzen’s “definitive tenets for living the good life.” And, while he engages us in a more investigative approach, defined by openness rather than orthodoxy, he does present characters developing inside and outside formative and more dogmatic influences to guard against simplicity: Marion’s successful (even if watered-down) version of Catholicism, saved her life after a breakdown; Russ’s grandfather’s rejection of the family’s Mennonite sect to accommodate his new love is accepted by Russ and repeated for his own happiness, though he is true to the sect in its anti-war position. At the same time, a prayer-focused Russ tolerates a 60’s Kumbaya-esque guitar strumming Christianity that finds God in relationships and sees as much comfort in sensitivity-training sessions as in prayer vigils––because it brings in the kids. And, more remarkably, his paradigm shift, made as a young man on his first trip to the Navajo tribe, opened a new way for him to see the world, based on love for Keith Durochie and the beauty and spirituality of the Navajo people. He would stick with Christianity––he liked its standard practice everywhere–– even though Durochie jokes that Arbuckle’s coffee also is the same everywhere. But Russ would always carry the pleasure of the sweet Navajo coffee he came to love on the mesa and would assure its availability and that of Durochie and the tribe, through many return trips with the youth group, to the camps. Lastly, he would also carry with him, always, the mantra learned from Durochie and his grandfather, that “There are many ways to skin a cat”

So perhaps this cat mantra is a key to at least some mythologies? It also may be an important metaphor for interpreting Franzen’s preferences on the beliefs, attributes, and habits that lead to goodness, understanding how complicated life and people can be, and how difficult it is for some. Do we accept, then, that we are able to live a good life while trying to determine how, and what the good life is under complicated circumstances? If so, and again, What part God and what part Kant? What part Mom and what part Golden Rule? What part self and what part others? Or, are answers determined by a mix of these considerations? And, what about forgiveness?

Forgiveness. This seems to be where Marion comes in. Like Radio Raheem, who sports love/hate brass rings, Marion is aware of how “inextricably connected good and evil are.” And this awareness, based on her complexity, enlarges her capacity for self-knowledge, and heightens her understanding of and empathy for others–making forgiveness easier. The “Crossroads” at which she arrives through a family crisis, reveals that what hadn’t seemed important could be the most important thing, and possibly “the right thing.” And forgiveness another key.

Godspeed, Marion! And . . . whatever comes to pass, may you accept “The Dumpling’s” challenge to put as much emphasis on yourself in the future as you deserve, whether inspired by the “Love thy neighbor as thyself commandment, or a feminist perspective, which could possibly be more acceptable to you in Volume II of the trilogy, when, in the late 1970s and beyond, the Women’s Movement will clearly be a much stronger cultural force!


Pat Zumhagen

Pat Zumhagen is the editor of the KGB Literary Journal and was a professor of English and English Education at Columbia University Teachers College for many years. She is now spendinher retirement perfecting her work as a photographer. She lives in New York City and Dennisport, Massachusetts.

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