Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Review #2)

Fifty Shades of Franzen

Hey, did you know that Jonathan Franzen can’t write sex? He was even nominated for bad sex award a few years back.

You think I’d be all over this kind of criticism, but no. It’s stupid and lazy. Not just because the quotes are taken out of context and so rendered almost meaningless, but because it assumes that the only reason for a sex scene in a novel is to arouse the reader. Which… no. Sex can be bad. Gross. Awkward. Sometimes sex is a way to say goodbye, or a way to give in, or give up. It’s not always sexy. And novels? They’re just like real life! Sex scenes shouldn’t all be sexy and steamy and politically correct because life isn’t that way.

Anyway, those articles are about The Corrections and Freedom, which featured scatological fantasies and the C-word and such. The sex in Purity is a little different:

She could feel his hands trembling on her hips, feel his own excitement, and this was something – it was a lot. He seemed honestly to want her private thing. It was really this knowledge, more than the negocitos he was expertly transacting with his mouth, that caused her to come with such violent alacrity.

I don’t know how much intersection there is between readers of E.L. James and JFranz, so let me tell you: this is very Fifty Shades-esque. The “private thing” instead using her (C) words. The weirdly clinical, or in this case, business-like tone. The gee-whiz innocence of the heroine and experience of her “expert” partner.

There’s some quasi-BSDM in Purity (the BDSM in Fifty Shades is quasi at best too,) particularly between Pip and Andreas, who most clearly correspond to Ana and Christian, what with the power imbalances and the mind fucks and the innocent young girl/bad boy with a secret thing,  but also between Pip’s mom Anabel and Tom, who share a memorable, not-really-consensual sex scene (see Zink’s review for a spoiler, whenever it’s back up) and have a freaky sex ritual that involves a stuffed bull named Leonard. The bull thing has nothing to do with BDSM but I had to mention it somehow.

This stuffed buffalo does not approve.

This stuffed buffalo does not approve.

And the Fifty Shades of Franzen don’t end with the sex scenes! Both feature a really clunky literary allusion; Purity to Great Expectations and Fifty Shades to Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Has anyone written about Fifty Shades and Tess? Am I going to have to do it? Another day, perhaps…

The point of this mini-review was not to suggest that Purity is on the same level of Fifty Shades, but rather, to show that the way we react to sex in literature (and allusions, too?) has a lot of do with how it’s marketed and who’s writing it. I didn’t make this up to be funny. There truly are parallels between the books, only with one, we snicker and roll our eyes because readers ARE getting off on it, and with the other, we snicker and roll our eyes because they AREN’T.

As for me, demographically speaking, I’m in the target market for both mommy porn and OMG Serious Literature. After reading both Purity and Fifty, I plan to read more Franzen, but won’t continue the adventures of Ana and Christian in Darker, Freed, or cash-grab Grey, mostly because they’re boring as hell. Talk to me when Ana is throwing around the C-word or Christian adds some stuffies to his playroom.


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    He seemed honestly to want her “private thing” is pretty hilarious. I just started the book, so I guess I’ll experience all the fun soon. So what’s the name of your buffalo friend? Does he have a safe word?

  2. Pingback: Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Review #1) | Reading in Bed
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