The characters in Jonathan Franzen’s sixth novel exist in that much-disputed no man’s land between hip and square, in the culture wars of 1971. Since The Corrections, 20 years ago, Franzen has made himself the modern master of that fundamental driver of the 19th-century novel, the understanding that all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Here, his never less than acute attention falls on the interior lives of the Hildebrandt family in small-town Illinois in the run-up to Christmas.

The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the minister at the First Reformed church in New Prospect, beset by temptation in the sweater-dressed form of his recently widowed congregant, Frances Cottrell, and usurped in his spiritual mission by a new young youth minister, Rick Ambrose, who offers the town’s teenagers a heady mix of gospel platitudes and rock music (you are reminded that Jesus Christ Superstar had opened on Broadway that autumn). Ambrose has created Crossroads, a cultish youth group for midwestern adolescents, which renounces sex and drugs in favour of “honest interactions” and “personal growth”. Fringed denim, earnest eye contact and cross-legged confessions are mandatory. Partly as an act of rebellion, Hildebrandt’s three eldest children have neglected their father’s Sunday sermons and joined Ambrose’s after hours’ mission. Perry, 16, with an IQ of 160, sees the group in part as a useful market for his pot dealing. His sister, Becky, has sensed the godhead in the 12-string guitar and sensitive fingers of Tanner Evans, Ambrose’s most charismatic young disciple. Nights at Crossroads, in the falling snow, are James Taylor songs come to life.

In the two novels after The CorrectionsPurity and Freedom – Franzen examined how far family ties could fray before breaking in a liberal America that had all but rejected the motherhood and apple pie ideas of marriage and filial duty in favour of self-actualisation and free expression. Here, he returns to a time and place in which some of those tensions were established. Russ Hildebrandt is a fourth-generation pastor whose inherited worldview is under enormous threat: he is a man still locked in a Norman Rockwell sketch at the beginning of the Me decade.

In some ways, this is the territory of Franzen’s stylistic predecessors, John Updike and Philip Roth: the impossible constraints of fidelity in the era of psychoanalysis and after the 1963 invention of sexual intercourse. Like some of the protagonists of those earlier novels, Russ Hildebrandt is “bad enough to desire a woman who wasn’t his wife, but he was also bad at being bad”. The minister’s failing marriage is here seen not only though his eyes, however, but also, in successive chapters, through those of his wife, Marion, and their children. Not for the first time, Franzen’s novel reminds you in places of those morality tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which pitched the puritanism of America’s settlers against the democratic dreams of “the pursuit of happiness”. The Hildebrandts are not so far removed from those New England innocents who believed they might inhabit a new Eden, before the inky cloaked preachers and their four-hour sermons got involved.

Jonathan Franzen: ‘never forgets that the novel is a comic form’. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

In examining the attitudes of 50 years ago, in the knowledge of how they turned out, Franzen never forgets, sentence by sentence, that the novel is a comic form. He invites his readers both to sympathise with each of the family’s private passions, their frustrated desire to be loved, their troubled relations with their gods, while having enormous fun observing the folly of their romantic delusions, the lies they tell themselves about love. This is, you realise, just about the perfect year in which to set that tragicomedy, full of “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” and “everyone is beautiful” earnestness (“everyone is ludicrous” might be a Franzen recasting of that lyric). He teases out some of the inbuilt hypocrisies of Vietnam protests (white college undergrads using their student draft deferrals to send young black men off to war), of the progress of civil rights (Russ Hildebrandt’s first “date” with Frances Cottrell involves an ill-fated trip to bring Christmas toys to children in the Chicago projects), and of the war on drugs, sermonised in public, despite a general private sense that “where there is dope there is hope”.

Much as Franzen’s characters might believe that they are in charge of their destinies, they find themselves dancing to the music of their times. Having established in loving detail their ingrained hopes and fears, Franzen has to find a way to bring those inner voices out into the world and test them against reality. While the minute currents of tension in domestic relations are as ever the engine of his writing, those frustrations, also typically, find their release in wider generational themes. The catharsis here is provided by two quests. Marion Hildebrandt – “She was a mother of five, with a 20-year-old’s heart” – goes in search of her troubled past, before she found God and Russ, in seeking out the used car salesman who was her disastrous first love. Her husband, meanwhile, joins the Crossroads trip out to a Navajo reservation in the Arizona desert, along with Frances Cottrell and two of his children, and Burning Man fantasies inevitably come to dust.

It is a testament to Franzen’s authorial habits of empathy, his curiosity about the lives of others, his efforts in a land of cliche to add twists to easy assumptions, that you are likely to find yourself caring about how things turn out for each of the Hildebrandts equally: for Russ and Marion’s marriage, for the mental frailties of Perry, for the love story of Becky and the political idealism of Clem, the eldest. As a group, they are the most sympathetic of Franzen’s creations since the Lambert family of The Corrections and, as with that novel, their local tribulations speak with wit and eloquence to the fatal flaw of American society: the question of how a culture of extreme individualism equates to the ties of guilt and convention and love that bind us to family and community. The answers in 1971 are no easier than those of half a century later.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen is published by Fourth Estate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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