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October 2021 Issue [Reviews]

Status Anxiety

Has Jonathan Franzen found the key?
“Locker Room Jesus,” by Bill Vaccaro © The artist

“Locker Room Jesus,” by Bill Vaccaro © The artist


Status Anxiety

Has Jonathan Franzen found the key?

Discussed in this essay:

Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 592 pages. $30.

The first half of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, centers on an improbable church youth group in the near western suburbs of Chicago during the final days of 1971. The improbability is twofold. First, the group’s size: it’s enormous, drawing more than a hundred adolescents—a population one might associate with a megachurch, but not a mainline Protestant congregation in an inner suburb, which is the setting here. Second, it . . . well, it’s just not religious. There are no readings from Scripture, Jesus is scarcely mentioned, and the associate pastor who opens meetings with prayer is treated with scorn by many of the young people, and with scarcely concealed contempt by the youth pastor who runs the show. (To be fair, the widespread belief that said associate pastor is horny for at least one of the girls contributes to his low stature—and his eventual expulsion.)

I would have found this scenario unbelievable if I hadn’t read Franzen’s 2006 memoir, The Discomfort Zone, in which he reveals that a significant period of his adolescence was spent as part of precisely such a group. The real-life setting was outside St. Louis rather than Chicago, the group was called Fellowship rather than Crossroads, and the charismatic youth pastor was called Bob Mutton rather than Rick Ambrose; but clearly such a peculiar organization did exist. That said, anyone who associates Christian youth groups with Jesus-is-my-boyfriend praise songs and lectures on sexual purity might well be puzzled by Fellowship and Crossroads alike.

In each group, the youth pastor creates—partly through his own self-disclosures, his own confessions of weakness and uncertainty—an environment in which young people feel that they can reveal the secrets of their hearts to their peers without condemnation. I will not say without judgment, because in both the memoir and the novel people are indeed judged when they go astray, for instance by using drugs—in The Discomfort Zone, Franzen relates an incident in which a group of students who had smoked some pot are put through a quasi-Maoist struggle session—but the possibility of reconciliation and restoration is always being held out. It’s a remarkably powerful form of group therapy, but there’s nothing Christian or even religious about it.

It’s not clear that this would have bothered Franzen at the time. His interest in Fellowship was social rather than spiritual, and in this he was echoing his parents’ attitude toward religion: one of the first things he tells us about his mother is that she was a lifelong unbeliever, and that however “awkward” it might be “to sit in a church every Sunday and sing hymns to a God” in whom one doesn’t believe, this is “exactly what my parents had done on every Sunday of their adult lives.”

But this was not Bob Mutton’s attitude. Mutton was the student of a man named George Benson, who argued, Franzen tells us, that

to survive in an age of anxiety and skepticism, Christianity had to reclaim the radicalism of Jesus’ ministry, and the central message of the Gospels, in Benson’s reading of them, was the importance of honesty and confrontation and struggle.

Franzen says straightforwardly that Mutton believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and that this belief was the foundation of his ministry, but the fact remained that though the group met in a church, “whole years had gone by in which no Bible had been seen, [and] ‘Jesus Christ’ was the thing you said when somebody spilled soup on your sunburn,” raising the question: “Was this a Christian group or not?”

This same question arises in Crossroads. Becky Hildebrandt, a high school junior who gets drawn into the group and for a time finds it deeply meaningful, eventually has (under the influence of her first joint) a close encounter with Jesus Christ—“I’m your girl now,” she says, “I promise”—after which she sees the youth group in a different light. Ostentatiously reading the Bible in her family’s living room, she informs her father that Crossroads is “more of a psychological experiment than Christianity. It’s teenybopper relationship drama.” But she also points out that Rick Ambrose told her that. Ambrose and his real-life counterpart Bob Mutton both seem to realize that they can either be successful youth group leaders or substantively Christian pastors. They opt for the former, but they aren’t entirely happy about it.

Their choice is understandable; if the Gospels’ primary message was “the importance of honesty and confrontation and struggle,” then why not leave Jesus and theology out of things? There are, after all, more modern and accessible therapeutic approaches to “honesty and confrontation and struggle.” But what if our problems run deeper than that? What if there is a perversion in human nature too deep and too intractable for therapy to address?

This is the suspicion of Becky’s mother, Marion, who is secretly seeing a therapist while growing ever more contemptuous of said therapist—whom she thinks of as “the dumpling”—and indeed of therapy itself. When the dumpling, trying to summarize Marion’s self-image, says, “You feel you’re a bad person,” Marion snaps back, “I know I’m a bad person,” before adding, “It’s not just me, by the way. . . . I think everyone is bad. I think badness is the fundamental condition of humanity.” Marion believes that her therapist’s untroubled life has allowed her to avoid facing that hard truth. The dumpling keeps returning to Marion’s feelings, a move Marion finds frivolous. When she suggests that Marion feels guilty about lying to her husband, Russ, and about a youthful sexual encounter with her landlord that the therapist quite accurately describes as rape, Marion tartly replies, “I’ve stopped feeling guilty about Russ. I certainly don’t feel guilty about the landlord. I was guilty, but that’s different from a feeling. That’s an objective fact.”

Russ—the father of Becky and of their three boys—also happens to be the associate pastor whose openly Christian and biblical prayers, along with his suspected horniness, get him exiled from Crossroads. He was raised in a strict Mennonite community that shunned him after he married Marion, and while he has retained the Mennonite commitment to peacemaking and social justice—he rarely fails to remind people that he went to Alabama to march for civil rights, and makes his relationship with a Navajo community in Arizona central to his plans for Crossroads—he has adopted a rather looser or more generous theology and moral code. Marion, who has walked this path with Russ to the extent that she even writes most of his sermons for him, nevertheless has doubts. She converted to Catholicism as a young woman, and for a time was quite fervent in her observance. It is her Catholicism that teaches her that the “objective fact” of guilt is far more important than whatever one happens to feel at any given moment:

Marion had long been inspired, intellectually, by Russ’s conviction that a gospel of love and community was truer to Christ’s teachings than a gospel of guilt and damnation. But lately she’d begun to wonder. . . . She wondered if good Protestant churches like First Reformed, in placing so much emphasis on Jesus’s ethical teachings, and thereby straying so far from the concept of mortal sin, were making a mistake. Guilt at First Reformed wasn’t all that different from guilt at the Ethical Culture Society. It was a version of liberal guilt, an emotion that inspired people to help the less fortunate. For a Catholic, guilt was more than just a feeling. It was the inescapable consequence of sin. It was an objective thing, plainly visible to God. He’d seen her eat six sugar cookies, and the name of her sin was gluttony.

Christianity, like most of the world’s other religions, promises two things: community and transcendence. Meaningful connection to other people, and meaningful connection to an omnipotent and benevolent God. Crossroads offers the first at the expense of the second. By contrast, more traditional forms of Christianity, like the pre-Vatican II Catholicism of Marion’s youth, offer the second in a strong but potentially unpleasant form.

For those who can’t accept these terms and conditions—who are not attracted by a meaningful connection to a God who watches you eat sugar cookies and names your act Gluttony—an alternative means of transcendence is drugs. Franzen has long thought about this exchange: in a funny scene from his 2001 novel The Corrections, many pages after we learn about the Lambert family’s attachment to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books—which feature a talking lion named Aslan who is the Christ of that world—a doctor counsels Enid Lambert to give her husband an anti-anxiety medication called Aslan. (“Named, I’m told, for a mythical creature in ancient mythology.”) Sensing her uncertainty, he comments, “In fact a crippling fear of asking for Aslan is the condition for which Aslan is most commonly indicated.” In relation to the brain’s bad chemicals, “Aslan’s a fierce predator.” In short, “Aslan will help you.” The jokes write themselves, or would if Franzen didn’t beat them to it.

In Crossroads, the third Hildebrandt child, Perry, is highly intelligent and hyperarticulate, and the sections of the book devoted to him get linguistically torqued in his mind’s direction. When fifteen-year-old Perry recalls his realization from some years earlier that, in the days just preceding Christmas, the family’s presents had to be in the house somewhere, here’s how that memory is described:

And yet somehow, long past the age of understanding that presents don’t just buy and wrap themselves, he’d accepted their sudden annual appearance as, if not a miraculous provision, then a phenomenon like his bladder filling with urine, part of the normal course of things. How had he not grasped at nine a truth so obvious to him at ten? The epistemological disjunction was absolute.

Perry is also a pothead shifting into the role of dealer, and therefore, necessarily, a practiced liar. But when he decides to join Crossroads, he’s not initially being manipulative: he just thinks it sounds like fun. And indeed, when he arrives, he discovers that “to be affirmed and fondled by a roomful of peers, most of them older, many of them cute, was exceedingly pleasant. Perry wanted more of this drug.” But, as we have learned, Crossroads is all about community, even at the expense of transcendence, and Perry is a philosophical sort who, though attentive to “epistemological disjunction,” is especially concerned with metaphysics. He reflects perpetually on the nature of the soul, on what it means to have a soul. And Crossroads doesn’t feed that impulse. So while the youth group becomes a “game” for Perry to play, pot remains more central to his life (though maybe other, stronger things will succeed it). Some drugs hold out the promise of putting you in touch with the universe and with your own soul—or, and for some this may be more important, of helping you to forget you have one.

Perhaps the most promising substitute for religion is sex, which offers intimate relation to another and can certainly feel transcendent. When Russ Hildebrandt—who was not really horny for high school students but definitely is for Frances Cottrell, the woman Perry thinks of as his friend Larry’s “foxy mother”—realizes a couple of days before Christmas that Frances is likewise attracted to him, he naturally (if comically) frames it in religious, indeed incarnational, terms: “Lo, I bring you tidings of great joy—peace on earth among all men.” Could it be that her presence in his life is a fabulously sexy Christmas present? “Was she the second chance that God was giving him?” And isn’t her encouragement to forgive a man he has come to think of as an enemy a sign that God is present in their relationship? Plus, he’s dimly but strongly aware that forgiving that enemy would dramatically increase his chances of getting into Frances’s pants.

Nothing in this vale of tears achieves all it promises, or all we think it promises, anyway: not drugs, not sex, not religion. In the middle of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the dying Anna summons her last reserves of energy to effect a reconciliation among herself, her husband, and her lover. It’s a magnificently moving evocation of the power of forgiveness. The only problem is that Anna recovers. The only problem is that life goes on. And after a few days she once again notices how her husband’s ears stick out and is once again annoyed by the way he cracks his knuckles. The scene is in one sense comical and in another absolutely horrifying. Crossroads features scenes like this: beautiful (and beautifully described) reconciliations that prove fragile, ecstatic moments from which the ecstasy slowly, or quickly, drains. But also agonizing experiences that prove not to swallow one’s life whole, that lose at least some of their power over their victims. The good thing, I guess, is that life goes on.

There is one common substitute for religion that you won’t find treated here: nobody in Crossroads—nobody in any of Franzen’s novels, as far as I can tell—sees art as a means of transcendence. Nor does Franzen himself attempt to instill in his readers the feeling of connection to something above or beyond everyday reality, even when depicting people who seek such connection. While he gives us tight close-ups of his characters’ crucial experiences—whether beatific or miserific—he always maintains a modicum of distance, just sufficient for compassionate irony. We watch closely, but we do not participate.

One way to think about this is as Franzen’s allowance for a range of readerly responses. (Sometimes when a critic says that Franzen “disdains” or “has contempt for” one of his characters, I think, Are you sure you aren’t projecting?) This allowance is an element of what Franzen, in his controversial 2002 essay “Mr. Difficult,” calls the Contract model of fiction writing, which gestures toward a kind of community involving author and reader, as opposed to the Status model, which treats novels as high art whose aesthetic value cannot be determined by the masses. Franzen would like us to think that these names are neutral and descriptive, but of course they aren’t: they offer novelists a choice between self-interestedly pursuing their Status in the literary world or, by contrast, descending to the world of the common folk and offering a frank, honest, no-fine-print Contract to one’s potential readers. The Status writer thinks that “if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” The Contract writer, meanwhile, believes that

every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.

The kinds of novels Franzen writes aren’t meant to offer transcendence, but rather pleasure. Readerly pleasure for Franzen is an index of community.

In that light, it’s noteworthy how much of “Mr. Difficult” concerns Franzen not as a writer but as a reader, and especially how it details his encounters with Status writers of the generation before his:

My problem was that, with a few exceptions, notably Don DeLillo, I didn’t particularly like the writers in my modern canon. I checked out their books . . . read a few pages, and returned them. I liked the idea of socially engaged fiction, and I was at work on my own Systems novel of conspiracy and apocalypse, and I craved academic and hipster respect of the kind that Pynchon and Gaddis got and Saul Bellow and Ann Beattie didn’t. But Bellow and Beattie, not to mention Dickens and Conrad and Brontë and Dostoevsky and Christina Stead, were the writers I actually, unhiply enjoyed reading.

But then—and you have to like Franzen for his self-irony here—he describes returning, at some point in the Nineties, to Gaddis’s legendary and massive 1955 novel, The Recognitions. He did so, he confesses, because he needed proof that he was a “serious Artist.” But, to his great surprise, he loved it—so much so that he even chose the title of his next novel, The Corrections, in homage to Gaddis’s book.

What’s especially fascinating about Franzen’s encounter with Gaddis in thinking through transcendence is this: Gaddis’s protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, is the son of a minister, and plans to enter the ministry himself—until he is bowled over by an encounter with the art of Hieronymus Bosch, which promotes in him an “articulate imagination,” and enables him to envision “a domain where the agony of man took remarkable directions.” It is for him an experience of transcendence, if of a dark character. People elsewhere in The Recognitions look for, and some think they find, similarly liminal states; one might suspect that Gaddis is, in his Statusy way, offering an anatomy of the myths human beings live by.

In any event, much of “Mr. Difficult” concerns Franzen’s frustration with Gaddis’s post-Recognitions career. The implicit argument is that the first novel came accompanied by at least a minimal contract, generated by some attenuated thread of concern for the reader, a thread that had been broken by the time Gaddis published his second novel, J R, in 1975:

In avoiding formal closure Gaddis risked a blunter sort of closure: exhausted readers closing his books. I was halfway through J R when I bailed out. Even then, though, his anger made me wonder: had he betrayed me, or had I betrayed him?

I find myself wondering what “halfway through” means. J R is 784 pages long: if Franzen got a little past the halfway point, say to page 417, he would have encountered a character invoking the nineteenth-century British historian Henry James Sumner Maine: “The whole God damned problem’s the decline from status to contract right Beamish? Whole God damned problem right?”

Three years ago, when he was in the early stages of writing what would become Crossroads, Franzen commented that it would be his sixth novel and probably his last, because, he told an interviewer, he doesn’t know whether any writer has more than six fully realized novels stowed away inside. Given that most of the writers he admires have published far more than six novels, one wonders whom he’s tweaking with such a statement. But in any case, Crossroads, we are now told, is the first volume of a trilogy. (Perhaps if he describes the project, as Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings, as a single novel broken into three parts, he can still hew to the magic number.) The trilogy is called A Key to All Mythologies, which is the title that Edward Casaubon, the desiccated and impotent scholar manqué of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, gives to the project he thinks of as his life’s work, though of course he doesn’t live to complete it.

The title is very much in the spirit of Franzen’s comments about his work, which almost always walk a skinny line between self-regard and self-irony, and in this case, as I have already hinted, may be a tip of the cap to Gaddis’s ambitions in The Recognitions. But it’s a provocative formulation. What might it suggest, as we envision two further books bringing the story toward the present moment?

I think Crossroads—set between December 1971 and the spring of 1974—documents the last breaths of a liberal Protestant cultural synthesis that dominated much of the twentieth century in America. There’s a very good reason why the most eloquent chronicler of liberal Protestantism’s best impulses, Marilynne Robinson, sets her version of its story in the Fifties. By the Seventies, mainstream American Christianity was striving, and failing, to incorporate the forces that instead would overcome it. Franzen’s description of the youth group insightfully depicts this dissolution: Crossroads still exists by the end of the book, but one suspects that it isn’t long for this world.

Becky Hildebrandt’s performative Bible study suggests one element of the future. In 1976, the Bible-reading Jimmy Carter was elected president, and Newsweek magazine declared “The Year of the Evangelicals.” One character in Crossroads has had an abortion, and while she keeps it a secret, it’s not clear whether it was then shameful in precisely the same way as it would later become, at least within Protestant subcultures. Her secret may have been the price at which a needed reconciliation was purchased, but of course such secrets, insofar as they avoid “honesty and confrontation and struggle,” subvert the reconciliations they enable. Again, life goes on, and chapters of life that we thought were fully written often turn out to have postscripts.

Russ and Marion Hildebrandt are, in rather different ways, seriously and thoroughly Christian in their life and thought, but the same cannot be said for their children. Becky’s conversion is deeply felt but shallowly rooted; Perry’s drug-fueled or drug-dulled metaphysical explanations are untouched by Christianity; the oldest son, Clem, appears not to have a religious bone in his body; and the youngest child, Judson, remains at this point a cipher to the reader. But none of these positions seem stable: the ready availability of sex, drugs, and endless permutations of religion and what we have learned to call “spirituality” see to that. Anyone could end up anywhere (which is what the Seventies felt like to those of us who lived through them). All the mythologies were on the table; the possibilities had exploded into what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls a supernova of life choices and potential lifeworlds.

An important question, for me, is whether Franzen’s novelistic technique is sufficient for the task of exploring these developments. Since The Corrections, he has employed the same basic method with rare deviations. A chapter is told in the third person but from the perspective of a single character, the next chapter centers on another character, and so on. (In Crossroads, each of the five major characters—all the Hildebrandts except Judson—gets several chapters, in strict sequence.) The title of the book is touched on from time to time, to remind the reader of its themes. (“All of her correction had been for naught.” “You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.” A young woman who, though called Pip, is named Purity. Repeated references to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.”) As befits a Contract novelist, Franzen has resisted the kinds of formal experimentation and, as we have seen, lack of “formal closure” that characterizes the writers from whom, he says, he has learned the most: Kafka, Gaddis, DeLillo.

In sticking with this single method, and writing consistently about characters who, like him, are white and were raised in Midwestern suburbia, Franzen oddly resembles Jane Austen, who commented that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,” and who completed precisely six fully realized novels. That confinement and focus worked out just fine for her, it’s safe to say, and similar confinements have served other writers equally well. But Austen never claimed, even semi-ironically, to offer a Key to All Mythologies.

What Franzen’s narrative method suggests is a reality in which relatively coherent and bounded psyches look out onto a world that offers them a range of choices for action and meaning; the psyches select from these options, and later on repent of or are grateful for their selections. The best Status novelists doubt that this is how things work. Like St. Paul—whose ideas had considerable purchase in many youth groups over the past few decades—these writers perceive a world ruled by dark “principalities and powers,” forces not so much inhuman as simultaneously subhuman and transhuman: subtle, sinuous agents, always quietly at work, shaping both the mythologies available to us and our responses to them. When the Boston pastor Eugene Rivers said in 2018 that white supremacy can only be understood within the terms established by St. Paul—as the product of demonic powers—he was making a point whose essential character the best of our Status novelists would certainly grasp, and perhaps even accept. The Christianity in Crossroads does not have access to that terrifying vision, or to any other that doubts the basic integrity of our power constituted selves. (The question of whether any of our choices is right or true goes, I think, unasked by Franzen, and for that matter by the Status novelists with whom he contrasts himself, with the possible exception of his friend David Foster Wallace. This sets them apart from novelists of the previous century such as Dostoevsky, whom Franzen loves and about whom Wallace wrote with great intensity and acuity.)

“Many things that were anchored to the balance of power and the balance of terror seem to be undone, unstuck,” says a character in DeLillo’s Underworld, an artist reflecting on the end of the Cold War:

Things have no limits now. Money has no limits. I don’t understand money anymore. Money is undone. Violence is undone, violence is easier now, it’s uprooted, out of control, it has no measure anymore, it has no level of values.

In such an inscrutable world—one where we neither make nor sign our Contracts, but rather are made and signed ourselves by powers we can’t clearly discern—what mythologies are adequate to our experience and our need? It’s a question that would be well grasped by the protagonists of Pynchon’s recent novels (Doc Sportello, Maxine Tarnow) and by Gaddis’s financial prodigy J R Vansant, but it’s not clear that it’s accessible to either Franzen’s characters or his readers.

And this may be the price paid, not so much for the writing of Contract novels, but rather for having defined the contrast between Contract and Status as Franzen has. What if the determination to reject the complexities of Status narratives entails a failure to represent the forces really at work in shaping our lives? I enjoyed Crossroads quite a lot, and look forward to the next installment in the series; but my fear is that Franzen will write a very long and ambitious trilogy that is disabled, by its very narrative method, from achieving what its author wants to achieve.

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October 2020

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