The Short Version: Purity Tyler (Pip, for short) doesn’t really know who she is, both in the literal sense (she doesn’t know her father and suspects lies from her mother) and the metaphorical one (she’s a twenty-something in the present). When she sets off to uncover the identity of her father, she taps into a story that goes all the way back to East Berlin, all the way down to Bolivia, and all the way into the depths of the Internet.
The Review: Perhaps Jonathan Franzen does harbor ambitions of being a modern Charles Dickens. The Corrections had its sprawling cast and zeitgeist-capturing prose, Freedom the sprawling overindulgence and authorial anger at the state of the world… and it’s altogether obvious to see Purity as his attempt at (as every review has noted and readers are smacked over the head with several times throughout the book) living up to our “great expectations”.
Because who does the author write for? Does the author write for themselves or do they write for others? I am of the belief that the author must write for others, even if the joy of creation is purely for themselves. I don’t mean targeted writing for others, of course – you don’t need to pander, to subvert your own interests in order to please others. But don’t we create art (be it literature, imagery, performance, what have you) to express ourselves outwardly? To put something out into the world for others to experience, creating a continuum between artist and audience? I ask all of this because I can’t tell who Franzen is writing for if not himself. To put it another way, something about this book (not just the nearly uncomfortable amount of sex scenes) feels masturbatory. Franzen, it would seem, has an itch that needs scratching – but that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling reading.
Things start off well, despite the shudder that trembled through the Internet with that “Oh pussycat” opener. Pip is a compelling main character and her circumstances, while a little overwrought, are funny and make for a good starting place: she’s working a crappy telemarketing job, she lives with a bunch of truly strange squatters in Oakland, she has a possibly crazy and definitely domineering mother, and we get to experience an exquisitely awkward failed hookup. Does it often feel like a middle-aged man writing about a twentysomething, more anthropology than observation? Sure – but Franzen buys some goodwill by having fun and not taking things too seriously.
This takes a turn almost immediately and by the end of the first section of the book (Franzen has split the novel into seven sections, which hop around through time and space) the reader cannot help but feel a growing pit of unease in their stomach. The anthropological awkwardness has increased, the feeling of goodwill diminished. And by the time I was halfway through the story of Andreas Wolf, I found myself quite frankly bored.
Nothing about this novel – its characters, its plotting, its take on the world – felt real. Not in the “I can’t relate” way (which I tend to disagree with as a context for understanding [see: Lucas Hnath’s essay about writing The Christians]) but in an Uncanny Valley way. Everything in this novel felt like a simulacrum of modern life, created with the utmost detail to making it seem as life-like as possible – but missing the spark, so the eyes were hollow and dead. Then, to top it all off, Franzen takes his not-quite-lively creations and drags them through a plot that seems occasionally interested in taking flight but often gets distracted by either its own perceived brilliance or some other new angle on “the world today” that might be more engaging (but will ultimately be left behind too).
Let’s take a look at the characters, starting with the women – who are, without exception, are “crazy” women. The mothers are sexually irresponsible and ruinous to their sons, sometimes bordering on the Oedipal and definitely in the Hamletian way. The wives are shrill feminists who come off less like gender equalists and more like a man’s paranoid fantasy – one forces her husband to pee sitting down, another fights with her long-time lover/common-law husband when she announces that she’ll continue giving handjobs to her disabled actual husband.
The men are all sexual titans, in one way or another. Andreas sleeps with over fifty young women (all legal, he’s pretty sure) while being their counselor in East Berlin, Tom’s sexual potency is directly related to his crazy ex-wife, there are plenty of “stiffies” mentioned throughout. And everyone, in some way, is attracted to Pip – who is described altogether too frequently as having a great body and a completely ordinary face. How that howler of an old-school misogynist cliche made it past an editor is beyond me, but let me just say that I’m tired of reading major American novels with a character’s personality being shorthanded by the description of their body.
Because the thing is, Pip felt like something of a cipher throughout. There was a lot of hullaballoo about Franzen considering adopting an Iraqi orphan to better understand the kids these days – and regardless of how out of context or overly magnified that quote may’ve been, the ultimate takeaway from knowing it and having read this book is that Franzen doesn’t understand the kids these days. Pip’s behavior is like what you’d expect an alien to describe as a twentysomething after having seen some Noah Baumbach films and maybe Garden State – it’s not inaccurate, but it just doesn’t add up to being an actual complete human being.
As for the plot, the whole thing really spins around parents: who are your parents and, boy, how did they screw you up? Purity wants to know her father’s identity – a reveal that’s given to the reader far earlier than the characters and that feels oddly coincidental – and Andreas wants to be better loved by his parents and Anabel wants to have a kid so she can be better loved (even though she hated her parents) and so on. Franzen makes some gestures towards the big issues of our day, creating a… more positive, I guess, version of WikiLeaks called The Sunlight Project and there’s a whole lot of text devoted to a story that ends up being completely irrelevant to anything regarding a replica nuclear warhead taken off-base in the US. He also spends a lot of time talking about the Internet and how the echo chamber of modern technology (texting, tweeting, etc) leads to some sort of existential vacuum – because of all the literary Jonathans taking up space in the NYT Books section, because of the inability to sit still and pay attention to a single thing, because of the insecurity brought on by the government’s ability (or a non-governmental entity’s ability) to spy on our personal electronic doings.
But none of these things feel like what he’s actually interested in. There is a sense of his confusion about these things, but not a desire to understand. He sees the strangeness and wants to capture it without trying to actually understand it – I think he’d be more at home writing about these wacky characters and their personal situations. That’s when his writing comes to life: when the characters are given room to breathe and grow and, while they often say or do cringingly bland things… there’s some vestigial energy of the Franzen we all cheered for way back when. It’s just too bad those moments are pretty few and far between.
Rating: 2 out of 5. Franzen is, as his media persona will show, a careful student of our present moment – but he, like so many C students, never shows the ability to comprehend or understand. He sees and tries, but something in his brain just doesn’t click, leaves him on the outside looking in. He’s not the only middle-aged white man writing enormous novels featuring young people and he’s certainly not the only one who gives off the sense of having a furrowed brow and quizzical confusion about them… but he’s the big dog on the block these days. Jonathan Franzen is, whether he deserves to be or not, the Great American Novelist writing today – because I saw it on the cover of Time. Because the reviewers all say so. And so when somebody who doesn’t read fiction picks up a book, they’re probably going to pick up the latest Franzen because he’s a known commodity.
What a shame, considering there are other authors who write far more movingly, far more convincingly, far more interestingly – hell, far better – about our present moment and who do so without the reward of such great (nigh unassailable) heights. But the novelist has no clothes: this is a bad book. The Corrections was a marvel, Freedom barely tolerable, and with Purity, Franzen’s schtick has just about run out.