Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Review #3)

Middlebrow and the Infinite Franzness

My pal Jason Purcell recently came out of hiatus with a discussion about the middlebrow:

This mini-review was going to be called “Infinite Franz” and was going to make some tenuous parallels between Purity and Infinite Jest, but once I got going, I found there weren’t as many as I thought. Then I watched Jason’s video, and got to thinking about how DFW and Franzen are often cited as examples of Great American Novelists, so they must both be highbrow, right?

Nope. Purity is way middlebrow. And that’s okay!

Purity is the most complex of Franzen’s big novels, but it’s still nowhere near as complex as Infinite Jest. Franzen’s strength is characters; DFW’s strength was, like, everything, so to see them both trotted out as “highbrow” is kind of weird! Infinite Jest is perceived as being inaccessible (my thoughts on that) and it’s certainly experimental. The only way to put the story together is to finish all 1,096 pages then go directly back to page 1, because the end is the beginning is the end. Purity is relatively linear. Like The Corrections and Freedom, there are multiple narrators, with some flashbacks and family history. There are more narrative threads in Purity, and more pieces to put together, and they don’t come together as easily, but it’s no trouble to follow the story.

Jason talks about Virginia Woolf’s assertion that the highbrow exists to reflect the lowbrow society, because those lowbrows can’t do it themselves. Franzen is known for writing about “big issues” and society and culture and all that. Like the narrative structure, I found that the “issues” in Purity were presented in more interesting ways than his previous novels. Chip’s Lithuanian adventures in The Corrections could only be satire. The child-free rants in Freedom could only be, well, rants. Purity mashes up German history and recent American scandal in a way that’s kind of outrageous but also realistic. The parallels between cold war Germany and the quasi-Wikileaks organization Purity works for aren’t shoved down our throats. All that said, Purity isn’t nearly as ambitious as Infinite Jest, which examines society in the 90s by comparing it to society in 2010, which is pretty crazy for a book published in 1996.

Franzen’s built up this highbrow persona (or, the media has,) but once you get into his work, it’s funnier, more accessible, and more comforting than you might expect. Reading DFW was more accessible than I thought it would be too, and more hilarious, but not comforting at all. I haven’t read a word of his since I read his short story Incarnations of Burned Children nearly two years ago, because I’m still reeling. SincePurity, my reading has been a veritable Franztravaganza: I read (not reread!) The Corrections and listened to The Discomfort Zone (read by the author) and am making plans to read How To Be Alone and/or Strong Motion soon.

If you really want me to prove Franzen’s middlebrow status, ask me to review The Corrections by comparing it to a Jennifer Weiner’s Fly Away Home. They’re basically the same story, minus the Lithuanians and lesbians: parents’ fuck-ups expose how fucked up their children are, mothers fixate on one last family gathering, sexual deviance and hilarity ensue. I think if they’d read each other’s books, they could put their whole feud to rest.

I guess this isn’t really a revelation. We knew it the minute Oprah chose him for her book club: Franzen writes excellent, readable, insightful, middlebrow fiction. And most days, like most people, I’ll take the middlebrow.



  1. rainey

    You forget to mention that Oprah cancelled his book after he complained about her picking The Corrections.

    “But after Mr. Franzen publicly disparaged Oprah Winfrey’s literary taste — suggesting at one point that appearing on her show was out of keeping with his place in ”the high-art literary tradition” and might turn off some readers — he found that he may have inadvertently damaged his own reputation in the literary world. Ms. Winfrey did not revoke her selection but politely withdrew the invitation to appear on her show”.


    • lauratfrey

      They made up though! He appeared on the show for Freedom. I find him much more agreeable, interview-wise, in person. He doesn’t come off well in print. I saw him live at Book Expo and he came across much more humble than I thought he would- to be clear, not actually humble. More humble than I assumed 🙂

  2. Rick MacDonnell

    1. I envy Jason’s hair so much that I find it sexually confusing.

    2. How can you NOT write a compare/contrast piece on Franzen/Weiner. That could set the blogosphere on fire.

    3. I think a good 60-70% of Franzen’s supposed highbrow-ness comes from how he so bluntly positions himself there. He’s the literature equivalent of Kanye West, in many ways. If you tell people you’re a god for long enough, pretty soon people will start believing you.

    • lauratfrey

      1. I think Jason is used to that.
      2. I still might! Just afraid my personal brand is veering too close to “Franzen apologist” lol
      3. He totally is. He’s gonna let Jennifer Weiner finish, but…

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