“Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen

He was bad enough to desire a woman who wasn’t his wife, but he was also bad at being bad.

He should have borne it stoically, but on his bad days he was unable not to do things he would later regret. It was almost as if he did them because he would later regret them. Writhing with retrospective shame, abusing himself in solitude, was how he found his way back to God’s mercy.

What would it be like to live with a person capable of joy?

public display of emotion purchased overwhelming approval.

Becky took it as a reminder that her mother was better than her at writing, she herself better at nothing her mother valued.

Simply by trying to speak honestly, surrendering to emotion, supporting other people in their honesty and emotion, she experienced her first glimmering of spirituality.

the risk in risk-taking was stabbing pain

It was a mistake to say that. I don’t even know if it’s true. It’s like there are these words, they’re out there in the world, and you start wondering what it would be like to say them. Words have their own power – they create the feeling, just by the fact of your saying them. I’m so sorry I tried to make you say them. I love that you were honest with me. I love – oh, shit.” She slumped, crying again. “I am in love with you.”

Disgusted with herself, the overweight person who was Marion fled the parsonage. For breakfast she’d eaten one hard-boiled egg and one piece of toast very slowly, in tiny bites, per the advice of a writer for Redbook who claimed to have shed forty pounds in ten months, and whom Redbook had photographed in a Barbarella sort of jumpsuit, showing off her futuristically insectile waistline, and who had also advised pouring oneself a can of a nationally advertised weight-loss drink in lieu of lunch, engaging in three hours of vigorous exercise each week, repeating mantras such as A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips, and buying and wrapping a small present for oneself to open whenever one succeeded in losing number of pounds. Excepting a decade’s supply of sleeping pills, there was no present that Marion wanted enough to serve as reward, but she’d duly been going to Tuesday and Thursday morning exercise classes at the Presbyterian church and would have gone there today if Judson hadn’t been home. Deprived of the proper half sandwich, with mayonnaise, to which an hour of Presbyterian calorie-burning would have entitled her, she’d lunched on two stalks of celery with cream cheese in their grooves. These had almost got her out  the door, into the chute of an afternoon without temptations, but one of the cookies she’d baked with Judson had broken in half. Seeing it broken on a cooling rack, among its whole fellows, she’d felt sorry for it. She was its Creator, and to eat it was a kind of mercy. But its sweetness had unleashed her appetite. By the time her disgust caught up with her, she’d eaten five more cookies.

In her tennis shoes and her oft-mended gabardine overcoat, she proceeded past trees whose bark was darkened by the moisture their frozenness had condensed, past residential facades no longer promising the marital stability they had in the forties, when they were built. Her gait felt more waddling than striding, but at least she didn’t have to worry about being noticed. Unless it was to pity her for not owning a car, no one gave a thought to a pastor’s wife out walking by herself. As soon as people had met her and identified her position in the community, situated her at the Very Nice end of the all-important niceness spectrum, she became invisible to them. Sexually, there was no angle from which a man on the street might catch a glimpse of her and be curious to see her from a different angle, no point of relief from what she and time had done to her. She’d become invisible especially to her husband in this respect. Invisible to her kids as well – rendered featureless by the dense, warm cloud of momminess through which they apprehended her. Although she considered it possible that not one person in New Prospect actively disliked her, there was no one she could call a close friend. However short on money she was, perennially, she was even poorer in the currency of friendship, the little secrets the friends shared to build trust. She had plenty of secrets, but they were all too large for a pastor’s wife to betray.

To reconcile her urgent need to speak with her utter lack of personal things to speak about, Marion expressed strong opinions, derived from the newspaper, about the situation in Europe and the necessity of American intervention.

She’s felt so certain how their date was going to go: a delicious resumption of their kissing, followed by testimonials of amazement that they’d found their way to each other, followed by lengthier kissing, followed by her triumphal entry into the church with him.

of making himself so alone and so wretched that only God could love him.

He saw that, to have a chance with her, he might need to let go of his hatred. But his heart didn’t want to. The loss would be huge, would waste a thousand days of nursing his gruge, would render them meaningless in retrospect.

Let’s begin by positing that the essence of goodness is unselfishness: loving others as one loves oneself, performing costly acts of charity, denying oneself pleasures that harm others, and so forth. And then let’s imagine an act of spontaneous kindness to a previously hostile party – to one’s sister, for example – that accords with our posited definition of goodness. If the actor lacks intelligence, we need inquire no further: this person is good. But suppose that the actor is helpless not to calculate the ancillary selfish advantages accruing from his charitable act. Suppose that his mind works so quickly that, even as he’s performing the act, he’s fully aware of the advantages. Is his goodness not thereby fully compromised? Can we designate as “good” an act that he might also have performed through the sheerly selfish calculations of his intellect?

Outside First Reformed, three Crossroads sophomores were shoveling snow with a zeal that suggested their work was involuntary.

Decisions being simple for a person unafraid of consequences.

Even though he’d warned Beck that men like their father, weak men whose vanity needed stroking, were liable to cheat on their wives, it was hideous to think that it might actually be happening.

It was strange that self-pity wasn’t on the list of deadly sins; none was deadlier.

Empathy was a luxury a day laborer couldn’t afford. When a truck pulled up at dawn and fifty men fought for space on it, empathizing with the man trying to yank you off the tailgate could result in having nothing to eat for the day.

It was a very long since he’d wanted something larger than his next meal.