Title: Crossroads, A Key to All Mythologies #1
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins
Genre: Literary Fiction
Crossroads is heady, it is brilliant, it is expansive in the sense of no other Franzen novel ever was, it is most empathetic which says a lot about Franzen since he doesn’t let his characters wear their emotions on their sleeve, and even if they do they are doomed to suffer, and above all Crossroads is a novel of big themes, big ideas, and big huge hope maybe at the end of it all (not to forget there are two more novels left in this Key to all Mythologies trilogy).
Yes, this novel is about a dysfunctional family, but it is also so much more. I remember there was a time while reading this book, when Franzen is talking about Marion, the mother and the wife’s past that I gasped, I couldn’t handle what she had gone through, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages either. Franzen’s writing is at its peak in my opinion and will continue to stay there. The way the tone shifts from the parents to the kids to the interpersonal relationships, and not only that – the way his writing has become less ironic, satirical and more earnest in a sense. It is refreshing to read this Franzen.
Crossroads is set in the ‘70s. Spanning nearly 600 pages, we can see the highs and lows of each character, each situation that plays out, each character making their decisions, stuck in a world that perhaps is not for them, dealing with suicide attempts, rape, adultery, drugs, and metaphorical and literal car wrecks of their lives.
This time we are introduced to the Hildebrandts. Religion is a big theme in this book. Russ Hildebrandt, the patriarch, is the church’s associate pastor and all he wants to do is sleep with a recently widowed church member. His wife, Marion has her own secret life. His children Clem, Becky, and Perry are searching for their own truths, each on the brink of a crossroad of their own, trying to strike their own deal with the devil if the day ever presents itself.
Crossroads is also the name of the youth group of the church, and Franzen will wittingly talks about it – sometimes quite ludicrously as well. Franzen’s book is a world of its own, with smaller words entangled in it. The stories told by each character, their lies, their version so to say, layers and layers of lives, each heading toward their own destruction or not.
Franzen has laid it all out quite superbly in the first book for the other two to follow. Families aren’t easy to traverse. Neither are communities that are believed in. Neither is the path of ideas, liberation, and of taking sides and sticking to them.
There is so much unpacking and yet at the end of the book I was left with this void, that could only be filled by books 2 and 3. Franzen has over the years been criticised a lot for not so much his writing as for the person he is. To my mind, he has his opinions, and yes, they are strong, and yes, they reflect in what he writes, but please don’t let that deter you from reading this fantastic piece of art. Don’t let anything deter you from getting to know the world Franzen creates in an already known world and more than anything else his flawed, fractured, and lost characters – each seeking their own redemption, going in circles every single time.