Jonathan Franzen writes big books about small lives. This may sound like a curious characterization of a writer who has sweated to position himself as an encyclopedic chronicler of wide-scale cultural change in each of his five fat novels to date, the shortest of them clocking in at 517 pages. Yet his fiction is typically set in claustrophobic enclaves. His characters don’t hail from New York or Los Angeles, or even Boston or Minneapolis, but from the margins of already marginal cities. The protagonist of his debut, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), languishes not in the eponymous city of St. Louis but in the unassuming suburb of Webster Groves, where Franzen himself grew up. The Corrections (2001), the book that launched him to celebrity, centers on the fictional midwestern suburb of St. Jude. In keeping with his commitment to the local, his latest novel, Crossroads—which is nearly 600 pages long and is only the first installment of a trilogy, the rather grandiosely titled A Key to All Mythologies—unfolds in the township of New Prospect, outside Chicago proper.
In fact, the real province of Franzen’s work is even more narrowly circumscribed. His true territory is the quietly disintegrating household—and his most consuming interest is the existential distress that so often molders within it. In The Corrections, the winner of the 2001 National Book Award, his subjects were Alfred Lambert, a retired railroad engineer, and Enid Lambert, a disaffected housewife intent on enticing her three unhappy offspring home for Christmas. For all Enid’s attempts at cheerful decoration, the once-tidy rooms of the Lambert residence are in revolt against her fantasy of order. Detritus accumulates, canned food succumbs to rot, and Alfred, who suffers from Parkinson’s, has been urinating in stray coffee cans. The portions of The Corrections that follow the Lambert brood of Baby Boomers in their anxious adulthood take place in the late 1990s, but much of the novel dips back into the ’70s of their youth, before the advent of the internet afforded them the sort of global perspective we now take for granted.
Franzen also locates the Hildebrandts, the clan at the core of Crossroads, in the ’70s—and they, too, live in strained and stifling circumstances. Russ, the patriarch, is an associate minister consigned to what his drug-addled teenage son derisively calls “the Crappier Parsonage,” a building “more in need of razing than of renovation.” The same could be said of Russ’s job at the church, where he spends his days steeped in resentment of the charismatic pastor who has succeeded in winning over the hip adolescent members of the youth group from which the novel takes its title. The same could also be said of Russ’s relationship with his wife, the restlessly depressive Marion, who is roiled by her own resentments. As Russ becomes infatuated with a recently widowed member of his congregation, he and Marion take to sleeping not only in different bedrooms but on different floors altogether. The four Hildebrandt children, saintly 9-year-old Judson excepted, are likewise siloed in self-absorbed worlds. Yet 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.
Still, a reader may well wonder why Franzen has returned once again to such well-trodden terrain. Why the promise of a trilogy rooted in generational portraiture that his publisher says will “trace the inner life of our culture through the present day,” a description that could apply in large part to any piece of his oeuvre from The Corrections onward? By now, even Franzen himself has chafed at the cramped contours of life on the American periphery. In an interview in The Guardian in 2015, he confessed that he was stunned by the success of The Corrections precisely because “it was small, and I was embarrassed to have come from the innocent Midwest.” Elsewhere, he has suggested that the parochialism of towns like St. Jude can be morally corrosive. In an essay in his 2018 collection, The End of the End of the Earth, he warns against yielding to the lures of the prosaic, insisting that narrow preoccupations can obscure the collective responsibilities engendered by global catastrophes.
You might wake up in the night and realize that you’re lonely in your marriage, or that you need to think about what your level of consumption is doing to the planet, but the next day you have a million little things to do, and the day after that you have another million things. As long as there’s no end of little things, you never have to stop and confront the bigger questions.
Perhaps Franzen’s desire to engage with “the bigger questions”—including the fate of the planet and the fate of American society—can explain why he has so often resorted to grandiloquent contrivance. Almost all of his novels thus far have led uncomfortably dual lives. On the one hand, they are family epics, yet on the other, they are exercises in what the critic James Wood has called “hysterical realism.” That is, they are sprawling and bombastic, prone to introducing conspiratorial subplots and desperately kooky coincidences.
Like the characters populating his novels, who are terrified of their own irrelevance, Franzen has a habit of proffering bells and whistles as compensation for the modest scope of the domestic sagas that engross him. Hence not only his urge to create characters who function as avatars of broader cultural tendencies, but also his compulsion to grasp at larger-scale historical signposts. The Twenty-Seventh City follows members of an Indian American crime syndicate who descend upon St. Louis in a bid to gain financial control of the city, while The Corrections features a washed-up Lithuanian politician who defrauds credulous Americans by selling them parts of a “for-profit nation-state.” In Freedom (2010), the story of the unraveling Berglund family is nearly crowded out by anecdotes about crooked arms deals, environmental disasters, and endangered birds. Purity (2015), Franzen’s fifth novel and Crossroads’ immediate predecessor, is the worst offender of all: It is an incongruously cosmopolitan novel starring a deranged feminist recluse and a murderous celebrity hacker. Franzen knows better than anyone that even a pinprick on the map can swell into a spiritual universe—yet he has always had trouble resisting the allure of the sweeping systems novel, set everywhere and, therefore, nowhere.
Until now, that is. In Crossroads, Franzen is unabashed about bearing down on dramas with human dimensions—dramas that play out again and again in each subsequent generation. He reframes his abiding theme in newly timeless, even religious, terms. “My question … is whether we can ever escape our selfishness,” 15-year-old Perry, the Hildebrandts’ precocious third child, muses. “Even if you bring in God, and make Him the measure of goodness, the person who worships and obeys Him still wants something for himself. He enjoys the feeling of being righteous, or he wants eternal life.”
Crossroads is a rejection of Purity’s empty expansiveness on almost every front. Its protagonists could not be less glamorous, its intrigues less international. Its action is concentrated within a crumbling community, its focus trained on a family’s everyday recriminations. Though its stakes are high, psychically speaking, its core predicament is modest and emotional. Here we wonder not whether a bird species will go extinct, but whether any of the Hildebrandts can shed their selfishness and muster some measure of goodness.
Long a connoisseur of male myopia, Franzen is more acutely ruthless than ever in his portrayal of Russ, whose moral waffling he tracks in his close and merciless third-person narration. Outwardly virtuous but inwardly self-pitying, progressive in principle but regressive in practice, Russ is prone to failures of empathy; he has particular difficulty believing that women have inner lives. Upon glimpsing his extramarital love interest in her house for the first time, he is assailed by “an unsettling strong hit of her reality—her independence as a woman, her thinking of thoughts and making of choices wholly unrelated to him.” Because he is in the business of penitence, Russ cannot avoid the certainty that he is a sinner, but he is also so constitutionally self-congratulatory that he finds a way to savor even his moral decay. Like a worm writhing in the mud, he luxuriates in his guilt: “The feeling of homecoming in his humiliations … was how he knew that God existed.”
More 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. In The Corrections, the Lamberts tried, with mixed success, to conceal their wretchedness beneath a polite veneer. Marion, in contrast, becomes openly and extravagantly deranged. In her early 20s, she had a disastrous affair that landed her in a mental hospital, and many of her most extreme habits of mind return as her marriage splinters. At the height of her madness, she “felt trapped in a metal cube that was filling up with water, leaving only a tiny pocket of air at the top to breathe. The air was sanity.” In her life with Russ (who relies on her to rewrite his sermons), she is initially suffocated but soon becomes irradiated with rage, toward both him and her own pliancy in the face of his demands and extortions. “Remembering how it felt to want to murder someone, she thought, she might yet become a women’s libber.” When she finally explodes at Russ and begins chain-smoking at a crazed clip, her gloriously justified fury brings as much relief as a fever breaking.
For the most part, the Hildebrandt children are on the cusp of comparably drastic crises. Perry, who has a sense of irony so well developed that it would befit a Millennial, might have been lifted from the ranks of brilliant teens who populate the more contemporary world of Infinite Jest. Blessed with an IQ that has “been measured at 160” and cursed with a growing drug addiction, he is not dependent on any particular substance so much as on the habitual relief of plunging into the nearest abyss. For a brief period, Perry staves off his demons by participating in Crossroads, almost certainly modeled on the youth group Franzen attended as an adolescent, in which a “public display of emotion purchased overwhelming approval.”
Ultimately, however, feel-good platitudes are not mind-melting enough for Perry, as he graduates from pot and quaaludes to Dexedrine, then finally lands on cocaine. Some of the finest passages in Crossroads, which brims with agile writing, evoke Perry’s intensifying quest for oblivion. He is such an acolyte of extremity that, by the end, he cannot even conceive of a quantity of cocaine vast enough to satisfy him: “If three canisters was excellent, how much more excellent six would have been. Or twelve. Or twenty-four. Was there a multiple of three of whiteness large enough to permanently set his mind at rest?”
College-age Clem, the eldest Hildebrandt brother, is not an addict, but he, too, struggles to retain control over his own life. Though he is a pacifist and a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, he agonizes over the deferment he secured in order to attend college, while those without access to higher education are shipped off to fight in his stead. Yet for him, Oedipal struggles take precedence over political forces. Clem is striving above all to distinguish himself from “his father, who merely professed to have sympathy for the underprivileged.” Crossroads is 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.
Insofar as Crossroads contains anything like Franzen’s habitual gesture toward a grand system, a global frame is to be found in the Church. At Crossroads meetings and in Russ’s self-serving prayer sessions, the rituals of religion serve mostly to numb. Yet they intermittently rear up into something more numinous, wrenching the Hildebrandts out of the particular and hurling them toward the universal. “To love God even a little bit … was to love Him more than she could love any person, even her children, because God was infinite,” Marion reflects as she reminisces about her youthful experiments with Catholicism.
At the same time, the religious elements in Crossroads work to ennoble the minutiae that Franzen embraces at last. To God, even the tiniest trivialities—even outposts like New Prospect and sniveling sinners like Russ—are potent with import. Indeed, Russ, who was born into a rural Mennonite community, grew up feeling “closer to God” in the kitchen, where he watched his mother performing her roster of daily chores. “According to Scripture, earthly life was but a moment,” he thinks, “but the moment seemed spacious.” Ephemera swells into eternity, and smallness wells up into enormity.
Marion comes to a similar realization when she begins to recover from what looks like a relapse into mental illness and reflects that “tiny treats, an air-conditioned car, a drink by the pool, an after-dinner cigarette, could get a person through her life.” 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.
This article appears in the November 2021 print edition with the headline “Jonathan Franzen Finally Stopped Trying Too Hard.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.