Jonathan Franzen's "Crossroads", a mellow '70s heartbreaker who begins a trilogy

Like Franzen himself at times, in the public arena if not on the page, Russ is so intolerable and so uncool, such an ungainly appearance ...


Like Franzen himself at times, in the public arena if not on the page, Russ is so intolerable and so uncool, such an ungainly appearance from an earlier era, that you feel him about to redeem himself, to come out of the other side. Franzen’s cultural situation over the past two decades sometimes reminds me of Orson Welles’ comment to Kenneth Tynan: “My problem is that I breathe wealth. I seem successful. Every time the critics see me, they say to themselves: it’s time he got knocked out, he’s had it too well for too long. But I did not do it.

The Hildebrandt children are doing well, at least they seem so at first glance. But Clem, gone to college, returns with news (he volunteered to fight in Vietnam) that will seriously injure his pacifist father. Becky is a tight-knit high school social ruler – all she does is front page news – who learns about the downgrades of the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll counterculture, but not in this order. His younger brother Perry is a high IQ misfit and a drug dealer. He is like a bowling ball spinning at high speed towards an unknown target.

Franzen tells these stories and their tributaries, so skillfully and calmly that at times he can appear to be on autopilot at high altitude, almost Updikean. The character who opens this novel completely – she is one of the glorious characters of recent American fiction – is Marion, Russ’ wife.

When we first meet her, she’s a scoundrel, practically a nobody, the wife of an overweight pastor, invisible except as a “hot mama cloud.” Russ, who reminds people of Atticus Finch and a young Charlton Heston, is embarrassed by Marion and “her sorry hair, her unnecessary makeup, her seemingly self-spattered dress choice.”

Marion is another of Franzen’s clumsy and mortified women, like Enid Lambert and Patty Berglund, who come full circle. Franzen methodically begins to unravel the layers of Marion’s life, layers that are largely unknown to her husband and family: her months in a mental hospital when she was 20, her doomed affair. with a married car dealership in the West, an abortion available only at the mercy of a man who rapes her repeatedly over several days.

Marion, in the middle of the novel, wakes up. “She was a mother of four,” she realizes, “with a 20-year-old heart.” He’s not a good person, she told herself. She lies; she steals jewelry. Later in the novel, she pierces all that remains of Russ’s vanity. Sometimes only the devil’s logic seems to apply to her. She may look like a character in Muriel Spark’s fictionality, an upset girl with slender means who becomes an unlikely heroine.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Jonathan Franzen's "Crossroads", a mellow '70s heartbreaker who begins a trilogy
Jonathan Franzen's "Crossroads", a mellow '70s heartbreaker who begins a trilogy
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