I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

american fiction

Virtue Unrewarded

Kevin Stevens

Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 592 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0008308896

The first novels in English were preoccupied with the pursuit of virtue. The raw power of this new literary form ‑ so revealing, so titillating, so transformative ‑ was such that its earliest practitioners tempered their innovation with pious messaging. If readers were to be given access to the inner lives of castaways, con artists and young women pursued by sexual predators, if they were to be allowed a complete and private glimpse into the thoughts of characters who felt as real as their family and friends, then the attendant moral dangers of voyeurism and salaciousness had to be countered with sound religious sentiment. After all, this was the eighteenth century.

So Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and others less celebrated imbued their narratives with moral introspection and plot machinery consistent with a solemn Christian ethos. Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a desert island with only his Bible and the natural world to instruct him, has plenty of time to examine his conscience and consider his sinful past. Moll Flanders, after burning through five husbands and abandoning a half-dozen children, settles down at age sixty-nine to live “in sincere penitence” for the wicked life she has lived. And Pamela Andrews, successfully resistant to multiple attempts at seduction, sexual assault and kidnapping, eventually convinces the rapacious Mr B that sacred marriage is the only acceptable route to her bed (thus assuring her own route to the upper classes).

It’s a familiar narrative compromise, a balancing act between a conservative mask and a radically new rhetoric. We see it in the lesser works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, in medieval plays and Victorian melodrama, in thirties Hollywood and sixties television. The dazzling ardour of the new has to be reined in. And when the novel was as new as its name, it enabled modes of literary presentation that were remarkably popular and precociously intimate. Memoir, diary, private letters, direct speech and stream of consciousness allowed readers not just a direct connection with the thoughts and judgements of fictional characters but a lifelike texture of ordinariness that enabled unprecedented suspension of disbelief. Here were worlds widely familiar and convincingly probable. Here was mimesis for the middle class.

And the virtue being pursued was Protestant virtue, the product not of mysticism and martyrology but hard work, thrift and discipline. It was an earthly ethic, a set of social norms that reflected and helped shape an England adapting to the democratisation of literacy and learning. A burgeoning bourgeoisie, broader education (especially for women), a flourishing print culture, and the rise of circulating libraries, literary journals and commercial publishing created a new readership eager for vernacular narratives that provided thrills both romantic and real without threat to the existing moral order. The novel was the perfect genre for an enlightened but still devout English public.

This deep change in literary practice and taste set the stage for the nineteenth century, when the novel became the dominant literary form in English literature, and the pursuit of goodness evolved from being a narrative safety net into a sophisticated expression of a shared moral vision. Bound in an intense cultural relationship both radical and traditional, author and reader collaborated to enable a fictional environment that recognized the autonomy, freedom, and potential of the individual, while retaining the moral scaffolding of Christianity. And what a fruitful environment it was, resulting in masterpieces of psychological insight, character portrayal and social sweep that remain exemplars of the genre. In particular, the novels of those who formed what FR Leavis called the Great Tradition ‑ Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James ‑ are marked not just by their ability to reflect life in all its fullness but by an accompanying serious and responsible attitude to life’s moral complexity, which the authors assume was shared by their readers. Technically, this assumption is buttressed by an omniscient point of view, a periodic prose style, and complete freedom for the author/narrator to pass judgement on the actions of her characters.

So devotion faded but virtue remained paramount, especially in the case of Eliot, who, like her character Silas Marner, recognised that her alienation from religion meant alienation from society. Whatever about the impact of this incongruity on her personal life, she solved it in her fiction by presenting the complex lives of her characters in objective detail, while fully representing the ambiguities of their choices against a backdrop of moral certitude. An agnostic humanist, she nevertheless maintained an ethical system that saw sin as a debt that could be expiated through suffering (after reading Middlemarch, Nietzsche complained of Eliot’s “little moralistic females”). For Eliot and her contemporaries, the novel continued to be an instrument of moral instruction. Virtue was not just a central theme but a philosophical framework.

So what does all this literary history have to with Jonathan Franzen? Well, his latest novel, Crossroads, owes much to this tradition. Across 600 pages it tells the intricate, morally tangled tale of the Hildebrandt family of suburban Chicago, who face a series of personal crises over the Christmas and Easter holidays of 1971-72. The meaning of virtue, or its opposite, is on everyone’s mind. Russ Hildebrandt, a former Mennonite and now pastor of his town’s First Reformed Church, is bored with his wife, Marion, and anticipates adultery “like a boy who couldn’t wait for Christmas”. Marion is not looking ahead but back, at a chain of personal disasters, beginning with her father’s suicide over thirty years earlier and extending though periods of depression and sexual abuse, which she continues to blame on herself. Three of the couple’s four children belong to Crossroads, a touchy-feely, almost cult-like church group run by Russ’s nemesis, Rick Ambrose. Within and away from this eponymous youth fellowship, the three teenagers wrestle with predictable social and moral issues: sex, drugs, envy, loyalty, and, insistently, the nature of goodness. They crave excitement, approval, and transcendence. But they also want to do the right thing ‑ or say they do.

And much is said. Franzen shares more than just a theme with George Eliot. He also has her ability to capture what Leavis calls the “sheer informedness about society”, alongside a “profound analysis of the individual”. The book is a series of interlocking novellas told from the points of view of these five family members, more or less chronological with long flashbacks to the pasts of Russ and Marion and a present narrative that pits one self-absorbed character against another in a grim sequence of confrontations, or crossroads. Though a resolutely personal meditation on the question of what it means to be good, the novel is given cultural heft by its setting ‑ the American Midwest, where “niceness” is a measure of worth ‑ and its period, a time of tremendous public upheaval and self-doubt, when the Vietnam War polarised the nation.

The United States is a robustly religious country. Over half its population pray daily, and more than nine in ten Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, believe in God or a universal spirit. Predominantly Protestant, the devotional landscape has a sectarian diversity and a fundamentalist zeal not unlike that of eighteenth century England. The Bible is a living, literal text for tens of millions. So the subject of Crossroads is a great American subject, its preoccupations central to an understanding of the nation’s psyche, and Franzen, who grew up in a Protestant household in the Midwest during the period he writes about, has come to it at a point in his career when he seems to be seeking spiritual answers to the American disorder he has chronicled so well in five previous novels and several collections of essays. As he said recently:

I have been thinking a lot about the inescapable nature of religion. Even if it is uncoupled from transcendent beliefs or metaphysical structures, everyone still organizes their life around something that can’t be proved. I would say this goes particularly for the virulent atheists. It had been building in me for a long time, a wish to write about the fundamentally irrational basis for everything we think and do and espouse … I think the questions for me are, am I a good person? What can I do to be a better person?

Franzen bestows these big questions on his characters and dramatises the gap between the state of perfection they declare they are seeking and the messes they are making of their lives. He brings them to dark, uncomfortable places and refuses to allow them any light beyond the weak beams of their own limited consciousness. Painfully aware of their shortcomings, they doubt, over and over again, their own moral worth and the strength of their commitments to others. This incessant self-examination loops through and past the action, intersecting with reality but never really coming to grips with it, so that for the reader the prolonged angst of each character is a sort of literary Doppler effect, passing eerily and out of reach, like a siren in streets far below.

And here is the crucial difference between Franzen and his nineteenth century precursors: characters in the novels of Austen and Eliot haltingly pursue a virtuous life under the guiding intelligence of a wise creator and the shared certitude of a homogenous culture. Franzen, unsure himself of what constitutes virtue or how best to attain it, has the Hildebrandts question and stumble and fail without any certainty, for them or his readers, at any point in the process. We are not in a novel of moral instruction but a terrain of existential gloom, which Franzen has been navigating all his writing life and particularly since The Corrections, his breakout novel published twenty years ago, which begins with these ominous sentences:

The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here.

Franzen’s America is a place of insecurity and confusion, fraying at the edges and in danger of collapse. He devotes long passages in his fiction to descriptions of political folly and environmental disaster, of tech addiction and rampant consumerism, of economic greed and global instability. While his principal focus is families and their myriad problems, the national setting is forever intruding, not just in expository detail but, as in the paragraph above, in extended metaphor and patterns of imagery. His novels may be solid edifices of social realism, but the world they explore is fragile and dangerous and informed by a modernist sense of fragmentation that throws the responsibility for existence and the consequences of moral choice back onto the frail shoulders of his characters.

Crossroads is the first in what will be a trilogy, entitled A Key to All Mythologies (an ironic nod to Eliot ‑ the title is the same as that given to an unfinished treatise on world religions by Middlemarch’s pompous Edward Casaubon). By choosing to begin the action of this magnum opus in 1971, with flashbacks to the Great Depression, Franzen has departed from his customary contemporary settings. The close of the sixties was indeed a significant crossroads for the United States, and it will be interesting to see how he moves, in the volumes to come, from those troubled years to the present day. But by beginning with a historical novel (if going back fifty years fits the definition), Franzen both gains and loses by the choice. On the one hand, he avoids what he has called “the burden of news-bringing” that has freighted his previous novels ‑ which I’ve always felt were marred by too deep an absorption in topical issues. (The Corrections, for example, with its dense references to tech bubbles and a changing economic order, already feels dated.) On the other hand, Franzen fails to infuse Crossroads with a full enough sense of the period’s anguished ambience. The social detail is certainly there ‑ the music and drug references, the pop culture and low tech, the hair and clothing styles. And those chapters that take us to Chicago’s poor neighbourhoods and the Navajo lands in Arizona, where the youth group travels over Easter on a service trip, feel true to the time and are presented with respect and cultural sensitivity. But the war, which drives one of the subplots and is a general touchpoint for many of the characters, remains distant when it should feel close. I was a junior in a Western American high school in 1971, and I remember well the daily turmoil and tension in our house, in my classes, and all over town around the draft lottery, the Pentagon Papers, the ongoing promises of “Vietnamisation”. The war generated bitterness and strife that was woven into the texture of everyday life. I don’t feel this texture in Crossroads.

But that, perhaps, is part of Franzen’s evolution. In a recent interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, he pointedly referred to himself as a novelist of character and psychology. “It’s not about formal experimentation, and it’s certainly not about changing the world through my social commentary.” He has become more interested in personal than national conflict. He wants to drill into the irrationality and myth-making of ordinary people, to use his skills as a master of indirect discourse to create a deep connection with his characters and their bad choices ‑ not to pass judgement but to explore themes of forgiveness and love, the challenge of being virtuous. Yet he resists the tag of moralist, as he has made clear in these comments on the influence of Eliot:

I have a certain reservation about novels that have a moral purpose. And I think Eliot always did have a strong sense of moral purpose with her work. I prefer a psychology that is more irrational. So I’m more inclined to look to ‑ within England ‑ someone like Charlotte Brontë, who seems to connect better with the demonic and the unaccountable.

Identifying and tracking the demons that haunt the Hildebrandts is what gives Crossroads its energy. But sometimes that energy can be overwhelming. The unaccountable leads the main characters into extremes of irrational behaviour that can wear on a reader. The manipulation of fraught social situations ‑ the conflicts, many of them tragic, that form the highs and lows of Franzen’s realism ‑ can get tiresome. Where, the reader asks, is the Updikean quotidian? Where are the islands of ordinary experience that allow us to catch our breath between crises? Each of the narrators is on, all the time, and it can all get a bit frantic.

Yet the writing in Crossroads is so assured, the observations so piquant, the language so distinctive and the sympathy for its flawed characters so real that we move easily through the thicket of flashpoints and blow-ups and look forward to each new scene. Franzen is prone to the occasional clunker (especially when writing about sex), but in general his sentences, as Martin Amis would put it, add up to ten. In the Remnick interview, Franzen said he wanted to move on from the bravura of his earlier books, to “throw away po-mo hijinks” and write more traditional sentences “animated with thought”. It is true that his style in Crossroads calls less attention to itself, but the novel is full of passages that have power, grace and a sparkling ability to present the world. Here is a sketch of Los Angeles in 1972, described from the point of view of Marion, who has returned after many decades to seek out a former lover:

Of the city she remembered, only the mild weather and the palm trees hadn’t changed. East of Santa Monica, where the streetcar had run, there was now a freeway ten lanes wide, an elevated immensity of automotive glare. Driving from the airport, she’d been tailgated, veered in front of, honked at. Formerly orienting mountains had vanished in a claustrophobic smog. The buildings that loomed up in it, mile after mile, were like players in some cancerous game of trying to be the largest. The city no longer invited her mind to be sky-wide.

These sentences are not only a wonderful, accurate description of a landscape but ‑ let’s say it ‑ a bravura depiction of an entirely imagined nostalgia that nestles like a matryoshka doll inside a narrative that itself considers the 1970s nostalgically. Compared with Marion’s remembered past, when the city (and her life) had been “sky-wide”. the novel’s fluid present coagulates into a vision of poisoned modernity. Marion’s perceptions are moulding the moment. The passage is a good example of Franzen’s seemingly effortless ability to get inside the consciousness of completely different characters and interpret their surroundings in a way that is both an intense reflection of their psychology and a solid description of an objective reality. It is an amazing high-wire act and terrific fun to read.

Franzen attracts more than his share of literary and political grousing, much of it the result of his penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, but he remains a major American novelist who is more innovative than he’s usually given credit for. Squarely within a long-standing literary tradition that chooses to explore the daily life of the middle class over epic and romance, he nevertheless reaches for the heavens via the dreams and errors of the characters he so lovingly creates. As John Updike said of his own work, he “gives the mundane its beautiful due”. And he is serious: he asks careful questions about how we should live and believes that the pursuit of goodness matters. He eschews the tricks and trends of autofiction and metanarrative and accepts the novelist’s responsibility, as he has defined it, to treat the reader “as a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator”. When, in time, we have moved beyond the current literary obsessions with self-conscious cynicism and identity politics, he will continue to be read, to be valued, and to be rightly considered a worthy heir to the novelists of the Great Tradition.


Kevin Stevens is a novelist and critic based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



Dublin’s Oldest Independent BookshopBooks delivered worldwide