Do these motives matter to the rest of the story? You can imagine. In the end, the ostensibly good acts in “Crossroads” are only slightly less disastrous than the overtly bad ones, and virtue seems less like a living possibility than like a trap or a phantasm. There is no Dorothea here, no steadfast moral center to rouse our admiration. Instead, the most generous take on human nature to be found within “Crossroads,” and the final summation of all its characters, might be that desperate claim Perry makes at the Christmas party, rendered strikingly pitiable by how sincere it is, and how little it avails: “I’m doing the best I can!”

It would be a mistake to conclude, from all this talk of virtue, that “Crossroads” is a solemn book. It is, on the contrary, a breezily written family drama with plenty of plot and a touch of melodrama; on the map of literary culture, it shares a border with the beach read. As befits a novel of middle-class suburban life, its crises are insular: a kid isn’t living up to his potential, a woman is unhappy about her weight, a teen-ager has a crush on someone else’s boyfriend. Even the Vietnam backdrop bows to this insistent banality: by 1972, the war is beginning to wind down, and the draft board isn’t interested in Clem, who ends up going to Louisiana and working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

These everyday stakes are not a problem; most of life is banal unless it is happening to you. But some part of Franzen—the part that believes in social novels and novels of ideas, and, no doubt, also the grimacing pessimist of his nonfiction, who feels so much despair for the state of the world—is forever turning outward, toward the grand sweep of history and the prevailing customs and troubles of our era. Sometimes his attempts to square those two scales are successful. Without manipulation or overreach, he nicely instantiates in the characters of “Crossroads” a series of larger phenomena: the generational fraying of the nineteen-sixties and seventies; the emergence of women’s liberation, slightly too late for Marion’s cohort of mid-century mothers and wives; the way mainstream Protestantism lost traction with young people precisely by its eagerness to retain them (Rick Ambrose, defending the absence of anything identifiably Christian in his youth group, weakly observes that, “obviously, the hope is that everyone will find their way to an authentic faith”); and, especially, the particular kinds of trouble that befall suburban Wasps whose lives have everything but meaning.

Moreover, in a first for Franzen, whose characters of color have historically been few and dreadful, the extreme discomfort of scenes set on Chicago’s South Side reads less like authorial limitation than like literary realism. Russ, in his volunteer work there, displays the awkward mix of self-consciousness, self-congratulation, and obliviousness emblematic of white liberals struggling to reconcile their awareness of racial inequality with their sense of themselves as the good guys. And, to the bit part of a Black preacher, Franzen grants an interiority not interested in sharing itself with Russ, and an external reality, in the form of pastoral obligations, that the white volunteers are just as likely to complicate as to improve—another, more fraught iteration of the question of whether our intentions or our actions matter more when we try to do the right thing.

Sometimes, though, Franzen’s outward impulse leads him away from his own strengths. At heart, the human scale to which he is most acutely attuned is the familial—taken together, his novels amount to one long elaboration on the theme of Every Unhappy Family Is Unhappy in Its Own Way—and the forces he channels best are centripetal: he is at his finest when writing about the Midwest, the middle class, midlife crises, middlingness in general. The farther he ventures from all that, the shakier his plots become, the less organically they arise from his characters. Thus the otherwise effective spring-break trip is marred by a secondary tragedy on the Navajo reservation involving strip mining, which seems imported less from Arizona than from “Freedom,” where it didn’t work, either. Similarly, toward the end of “Crossroads,” Clem vanishes to rural Peru, for no reason except that Franzen routinely sends one character per book on an ill-advised adventure in a developing nation, in service to some woes-of-globalism subplot. In such moments, the characters seem subservient to a set of ideas, which is the problem with Clem more generally: his fall from diligent student to aimless drifter is less a plausible personal trajectory than a convenient embodiment of the generational archetype of the dropout. Even Judson feels more like a real person, despite having almost no role in the book beyond quietly absorbing his family’s trauma.

That lacuna is effective, in that it makes the reader look forward to hearing from the youngest Hildebrandt in the rest of the trilogy. Elsewhere, though, the spectre of those future novels does not serve the current one as well. In general, Franzen is good at endings; a surprising feature of his writing, given how consumed it is with dysfunction and disaffection, is how regularly it finds its way toward tenderness in the final pages. But the pacing is off at the end of “Crossroads.” Although most of the book lingers on just a handful of days during Christmastime of 1971 and Holy Week of 1972, its final stretch feels rushed. A couple of years pass with no more than a summary of the momentous events that filled them, and the conclusion is really just a cliffhanger; the novel does not so much end as trade on our knowledge that the story itself is far from over.

Yet here is the thing about “Crossroads”: when I got to that unsatisfying ending, I found myself irritated less by its shortcomings than by the fact that I couldn’t read those other volumes right away. The experience brought to mind E. M. Forster’s maxim about the novel: “Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.”

By that metric, “Crossroads” plainly succeeds—yet that metric does not distinguish Jonathan Franzen from James Patterson. Still, the two are plainly distinct, which raises the question of what, other than suspense, makes Franzen’s new novel so compelling. That’s tricky to answer, because what’s true of ethics is also true of aesthetics: certain forms of goodness are strangely elusive. And Franzen, more than most contemporary writers of his calibre, operates in this covert mode almost exclusively. In the years since the publication of “The Corrections,” his prose has grown looser and laxer; never a showy author, he now sometimes scarcely seems like a good one. He has become so assertively styleless that he appears to have deemed linguistic pleasure not only inferior to but anathema to all other literary aims. Whole chapters—almost whole books—go by without a beautiful line or an arresting image. Yet I still remember the description, from “The Corrections,” of thunderstorms piling up across the Midwest—“like big spiders in a little jar”—and I miss the writer who conjured that vision. Unlike Perry, in other words, Franzen does not always seem to be doing the best he can. That impression is enhanced by the unmistakable fact that, from time to time, he towers above his own work. I don’t just mean that “The Corrections” was the best of his novels; I mean that at some point within each novel he demonstrates the full, showstopping range of what he is capable of doing.

These bursts of excellence take two forms, the first having to do with his characters. Not all of them are convincing, although I’ve never agreed with the claim that Franzen is bad at writing women. (Yes, all the female characters in “Freedom” are weak, but so are all the men.) But when he does succeed with characters he succeeds dramatically, lighting up their inner lives, in the manner of police stations and emergency rooms, with accurate, unflattering fluorescence. Think of Enid, the matriarch of “The Corrections,” who presides over her difficult husband’s decline into dementia while desperately yearning for one more family Christmas with her adult children gathered together in their childhood home. She is needy, maddening, familiar, sharp, utterly consistent, in urgent relationship with the constraints of her gender, her marriage, and her era, and, all told, one of the truly great creations of twenty-first-century literature.

In “Crossroads,” the standout characters are Becky, Perry, and Marion. We watch Becky’s moral formation almost in real time—under the triple influences of newfound piety, a narcissistic aunt, and her family’s sudden implosion—and the result is flatly terrifying. By the end of the book, she appears to have turned to ice, complete with an inner Zamboni to keep her maximally smooth; nothing can mar her perfect self-righteousness, and it is to Franzen’s great credit that she made my skin crawl to a degree usually achievable only by someone from whom you have repeatedly walked away fuming. Perry, meanwhile, is terrifying in a different way: we are scared not of him but for him. A teen-age drug addict with a troubled mind, a grave lack of adult oversight, and ruinous instincts, he is headed for disaster from the beginning, yet I can think of no other character in the Franzen universe who receives such tender treatment.

Together with Marion, Perry also illuminates the second of Franzen’s erratic but astonishing gifts, which is for the creation of the perfect set piece. There is at least one of these in almost all the novels—a moment when some inner gear shifts dramatically upward and we are delivered into a stretch of literature transcendent in its wonderfulness. In “The Corrections,” that moment comes when Chip, in childhood, is left alone at the dining-room table until he finishes his dinner. All around him, the other members of the family retreat to their various corners of the house, his mother willfully and his father accidentally forgetting about him, while time simultaneously slows to a crawl, reduced to Chip’s microscopic contemplation of the pattern on a placemat and the ancient boogers stuck to the underside of the table, and stretches forward indefinitely into the future—because, as Franzen understands, once you have sat alone at age seven in front of a plate of cold liver and mashed rutabaga for long enough, some part of you will be sitting there for the rest of your life.

That scene is representative of what makes these set pieces work: it combines maximum insight into a character’s psychology with maximum narrative reach, both spatial and temporal—a different kind of successful squaring of scales. In “Crossroads,” the analogous scene with Marion lasts for sixty pages and is set in a therapist’s office, a convenient place for both elongating time and accessing interiority. In the course of it, we learn what her therapist, interestingly, does not: as a very young woman, she had an affair with a married man that resulted in a psychotic break, a pregnancy, and an abortion, which she could afford only through a bargain so Faustian that she sincerely describes its purveyor as Satan.

It is difficult to know which is more gripping: this backstory or Marion’s take on it, which is shaped by the potency of her belief in guilt and sin. Her insistence that she is responsible for some of the terrible things that have happened to her dismays her therapist, who suggests, predictably, that she should forgive herself and feel angry at the perpetrators instead. But Marion, who does not regard anger as benign, is refreshingly unpersuaded: “I know you think it’s sick to blame myself, but spiritually I think it’s healthier.” Gradually, we learn that the litany of things for which she blames herself tracks backward along a dark red line from Perry’s fragile mind all the way to her father’s long-ago suicide. And all the while Becky is heading to a Crossroads concert to publicly declare her love to Tanner Evans, Perry is taking Judson to that ill-fated Christmas party, and Russ, who should be at the party as well, is getting into a fender bender in the increasingly heavy snow with his would-be mistress beside him in the car.

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