TThe characters in Jonathan Franzen’s sixth novel exist in that much-disputed no-man’s-land between fashion and squares, in the culture wars of 1971. Since The correctionsTwenty years ago, Franzen has become the modern master of that fundamental engine of the 19th century novel, the understanding that all happy families are equal, but that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Here, his never-less keen attention falls on the inner lives of the Hildebrandt family in the small town of Illinois in the run-up to Christmas.
The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the minister of the First Reformed Church in New Prospect, beset by temptation in the sweater-clad form of his recently widowed congregant, Frances Cottrell, and usurped on his spiritual mission by a new young youth minister. , Rick. Ambrose, who offers the city’s teenagers a heady mix of gospel clichés and rock music (remember that Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway that fall). Ambrose has created Crossroads, a cult youth group for Midwestern teens that forgoes sex and drugs in favor of “honest interactions” and “personal growth.” Fringed denim, candid eye contact, and cross-legged confessions are a must. Partly as an act of rebellion, Hildebrandt’s three oldest children have neglected their father’s Sunday sermons and joined Ambrose’s mission after hours. Perry, 16, with an IQ of 160, sees the group in part as a useful market for his marijuana deal. His sister, Becky, has felt the divinity 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’s songs that come to life.
In the two later novels The corrections – Purity and Liberty Franzen examined the extent to which family ties could deteriorate before breaking down in a liberal America that had almost rejected the ideas of motherhood and apple pie of marriage and filial duty in favor of self-realization and free expression. Here, go back to a time and place where some of those tensions were established. Russ Hildebrandt is a fourth-generation pastor whose inherited worldview is under enormous threat – he’s a man still locked in a Norman Rockwell sketch at the beginning of the Me decade.
In a way, this is the territory of Franzen’s stylistic predecessors, John Updike and Philip Roth: the impossible limitations of fidelity in the age of psychoanalysis and after the invention of sexual relations in 1963. Like some of the protagonists of Those earlier novels, Russ Hildebrandt is “bad enough to want a woman who wasn’t his wife, but he was also bad at being bad.” The minister’s failed marriage is seen here not only through his eyes, however, but also, in successive chapters, through those of his wife, Marion, and their children. It is not the first time that Franzen’s novel reminds you in some places of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales of morality, which pitted the puritanical American colonists against the democratic dreams of “the pursuit of happiness.” The Hildebrandts aren’t that far removed from those New England innocents who believed they could inhabit a new Eden, before the inky preachers and their four-hour sermons got involved.
Examining attitudes from 50 years ago, knowing how they turned out, Franzen never forgets, sentence by sentence, that the novel is a comic form. He invites his readers to sympathize with each of the family’s private passions, their frustrated desire to be loved, their troubled relationships with their gods, while having enormous fun watching the madness of their romantic delusions, the lies they tell themselves. themselves about love. This is, you realize, almost the perfect year to set that tragicomedy, full of “I would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” and seriousness of “everyone is beautiful” (“everyone is ridiculous” could be a Franzen recast of that letter). It pokes fun at some of the hypocrisies inherent in the Vietnam protests (white college students using their student recruitment extensions to send black youth to war), civil rights progress (Russ’ first “quote” Hildebrandt with Frances Cottrell involves a bad trip fated to bring Christmas toys to children in Chicago projects), and of the war on drugs, lectured in public, despite a widespread private feeling that “where there is drugs there is hope ”.
As much as Franzen’s characters may believe they are in charge of their destinies, they find themselves dancing to the music of their time. Having laid out his deep-seated hopes and fears in loving detail, Franzen has to find a way to bring those inner voices out into the world and test them against reality. While the tiny currents of tension in domestic relationships are, as always, the engine of his writing, those frustrations also typically find their release in broader generational issues. The catharsis here is provided by two missions. Marion Hildebrandt – “She was a mother of five, with a 20-year-old heart” – goes in search of her troubled past, before finding God and Russ, in search of the used car salesman who was her disastrous first love. Her husband, meanwhile, joins the Crossroads journey to a Navajo reservation in the Arizona desert, along with Frances Cottrell and two of their children, and Burning Man’s fantasies inevitably turn to dust.
It is a testament to Franzen’s author’s habits of empathy, his curiosity about the lives of others, his efforts in a land of clichés to add twists to easy assumptions, that you are likely to worry about how things turn out for each. one of the Hildebrandts as well: for Russ and Marion’s marriage, for Perry’s mental weaknesses, for Becky’s love story, and the political idealism of Clem, the eldest. As a group, they are the most comprehensive of Franzen’s creations from the Lambert family of The corrections And, as with that novel, its local tribulations speak wittily and eloquently of the fatal flaw in American society: the question of how a culture of extreme individualism equates itself to the bonds of guilt, convention, and love that bind us together. family and community. The answers in 1971 are no easier than those half a century later.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism