In Crossroads, novelist Jonathan Franzen portrays America’s middle

11:00 a.m., September 28, 2022, amended at 1:04 p.m., September 28, 2022

The pages of life turn and the time of innocence fades. Christmas Eve, 1971. An affluent suburb of Chicago. He is a pastor at New Prospect; she is a stay-at-home mom. Russ and Marion Hildebrandt are the parents of four children: Clem (20), Becky (18), Perry (15), and little Judson (9). Everything is fine. The pastor created Crossroads, an association of more than 120 young Christians, which he takes care of with pleasure. He redirected his church’s youth group to a volunteer camp in Arizona. But the association is now captured by a more modern newcomer named Rick Ambrose. From there, everything goes wrong. The father of the family feels despised, humiliated, relegated. He is old before his time. Can we go back in time?

From 1971 to 1974, the Hildebrandt family pitched. It decomposes and recomposes in pain. Each of the clan members is at a turning point. The fuse was lit by the father of the family. Nerdy 45-year-old Russ Hildebrandt needs to shore up his ego that’s been battered by cool Rick Ambrose. The associate pastor falls under the spell of one of his followers. Pretty 37-year-old widow Frances Cottrell lets herself be courted in an ambiguous way by Russ Hildebrandt. They will go far, together, in the game of seduction. Can sex replace spirituality?

Authority challenge

Two of the pastor’s four children are part of Crossroads. Daughter Becky Hildebrandt, long indifferent to religion, turns to God. Cases of conscience come to her. Becky receives, for her 18th birthday, 13,000 dollars in inheritance from her maternal aunt. His parents order him to give part of the sum to his brothers. She would like to keep the money to travel and continue her studies. Becky Hildebrandt falls in love with musician Tanner Evans. The boy already seems to be in a relationship with Laura Dobrinsky. Should she split the money with her brothers and date Tanner Evans? For his part, the brilliant cadet Perry Hildebrandt asks fewer questions. It is also part of Crossroads. He is gifted, amoral, fragile. Behind the back of his parents, obsessed with their relationship crisis, he consumes and sells drugs. Perry seems to know no limits.

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Jean Cocteau’s phrase has become a cliché. The author of Fixes cultivates its faults and turns them into qualities. He returns to his subject: the middle-class white American family. He paints an era (the 1970s, the Vietnam War, the counter-culture, free sex, drugs) and an atmosphere (the crisis of family, order, religion). The eldest Clem Hildebrandt, born in 1951, writes to the draft board to give up his reprieve in order to go and fight in Vietnam. He wishes to bring his actions and his words into conformity and judges, following a romantic relationship, the reprieve from which he benefits immoral. His approach is clearly directed against his pacifist father. The challenge to authority is everywhere. Father, God, politics. The battle between the old order and the new order is also embodied by the rivalry between the old Russ Hildebrandt and the young Rick Ambrose. The characters are all haunted by jealousy, betrayal. They go to the temple, their hearts filled with hatred.

The author’s wish would be to include Crossroads in a vast family trilogy, unfolding through the ages. The American novelist Jonathan Franzen has already shown how he knew how to follow in the footsteps of the great tradition of the 19th century novel. Creation of characters, taste for fiction, use of the third person singular, sense of narration. Humor is present throughout, playing on this chasm between what we want to appear and what we really are. The writer excels in sliding from past to present and from present to past. Marion Hildebrandt is the most researched character in Crossroads. She was a Catholic in her youth before meeting her husband, raised among the Mennonites, and transforming into a Protestant. They abandoned their respective religion to get married. Today, the mother goes secretly to the psychiatrist. Everything goes back, including the fourteen weeks in 1941 in a psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles and the suicide of his father, ruined by the stock market crash. Marion Hildebrandt carries the voice of the novel because, as a 10-year-old child in competition with her sister, she quickly understood how much evil and good are mixed up.

A riddle to solve forever

They all want the same thing: to be a good person and to believe in something. Are the two related? Jonathan Franzen, born in 1959, starts from the obvious. Men most often do without God when things are going well and turn to God when things are going badly. They seek consolation and relief in trials because, in the normal flow of life, the material covers the spiritual like black lava on white sand. The author of Purity strives to account not for the cruelty, but for the banality of human behavior. He excels in depicting weakness and the grotesque in men. Members of the Hildebrandt family desire freedom and meaning. Both take many forms: believing in God, seeing a psychiatrist, taking drugs, running away from marriage. Guilt grips them in the form of a desire, a heavy past, an addiction. American prosperity has smoothed everything, even the deep meaning of religion. The pastor narrowed his dreams of social justice to his wealthy suburb. A part of him seeks larger, truer, bigger.

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Russ Hildebrandt lived with his family in southern Indiana, before settling in his affluent suburb of Chicago. After serving for a long time as pastor of two small rural parishes, he found himself frustrated in his dreams of a life of service to God and the oppressed. Too many whites, too many rich in New Prospect. The social status of each is a subject of discussion. The Mennonite childhood pastor once saw the meaning of life in Arizona. We were in the spring of 1945. A civic service camp for conscientious objectors refusing to participate in the war. The encounter with the Navajos was a profound spiritual shock for him. Their faces, their harshness, their way of life, their relationship to time, their language. The immanence of God reflected in the smallest of stones. The pastor found there what he had always been looking for: an enigma to be solved forever. Religion and love have mystery in common.

In Crossroads, novelist Jonathan Franzen portrays America’s middle-class white family