Our next #FranzeninFebruary guest post is courtesy of Matt Bowes, who’s pun game is on point (see post title). Matt is the General Manager at NeWest Press, my favourite Edmonton publisher. He sent me my very first review book back when I was a just a baby book blogger. He used to dabble in book blogging himself, but these days you’ll find him podcasting about Bollywood movies at Bollywood is for Lovers.
Jonathan Franzen can be a hard writer to like sometimes, but paradoxically I find him to be easy to love. The eternal English major in me thrills to see his recurring writerly tics crop up in each new fiction work, stuff like detailed descriptions of bird species, bathroom humour, the Club of Rome, and an uncomfortable sense of détente with the modern world. It’s one of the reasons people also like Wes Anderson: when an artist sets the table with recurring themes and preoccupations, it breaks down a sort of barrier, allowing readers to see what the deeper truth on offer is this time out. It’s like Commedia del’Arte, a set of agreed-upon motifs that act as a gateway to entertainment.
I’ve only read The Corrections, Freedom and now Purity, so I’m not entirely sure if these recurring traits appear in his earlier novels The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, but I would be surprised if they weren’t in there somewhere.
So while it’s easy to see a critic latching on to Franzen’s straightforward obsessions and calling them out as being on the nose, it’s this exact heart-on-the-sleeve nature of his work that makes me really like him, and stick up for him in conversation, even as Franzen the reluctant public personality often gets himself into trouble. His jeremiads against social media and its practitioners, his bemoaning the state of book promotion and his attempts to embody The Great American Writer archetype are well-documented and rightly mocked, but unlike some other claimants to that throne, Franzen always comes correct with the literary goods in the end.
Purity was always going to be a tough one to defend, keeping this in mind, as it seemed like Franzen was going all in on the modern world, full of Twitter, text messaging, information leaks and public personalities. You know, all the stuff he says he doesn’t like, and would presumably have a tough time writing about. There was also a backlash surrounding the book pretty early on, after reviewers latched on to a sequence where a man has to pee sitting down to placate his wife and he gets his revenge by peeing in a sink.
I didn’t really like Purity until I got about halfway through the book. It felt like it was missing something, some sense of the arch, wry depictions of modern life found in the prior two books. The ever-so-clever author named his main character Pip, and restrained himself to only a couple of outright Dickens allusions, but it was clear to see: Franzen was writing a Bildungsroman about a young woman having to come to terms with what could be described as an overly public identity, and not doing a great job of it.
All of the characters are very angsty, a state befitting the Teutonic overtones of the story. Pip angsts over her background, and her very obvious Electra complex. The Julian Assange-esque teller of truths Andreas Wolf angsts over the sins of his past in East Germany, while journalist Tom Aberant angsts over the spectacular dissolution of his marriage to Anabel Laird, the outsider artist forever placing herself in opposition to her immense inheritance. (Tom’s the guy who has the toilet thing mentioned before. In context of their supremely messed up marriage, it doesn’t come off as sexist, or at least I found that to be the case.)
These characters were feeling insufferable in a way that I didn’t see in prior novels, with their incessant dithering around over whether or not they should smash, but then it hit me at that halfway point: this is Franzen going all in on satire, here. Purity wasn’t to be approached in the same way as The Corrections or Freedom, as some sort of distillation of the back half of the Twentieth Century, no, this had another aim. It’s a bedroom farce! It’s Benny Hill by way of American Pastoral and a John Le Carré knockoff.
Every character is posited against one another to varying degrees of how DTF they are. Pip likes Andreas, and she also likes Tom; Andreas likes Tom, and Tom likes Andreas, and he likes Anabel, and etc. Once I realized that I wasn’t supposed to be gleaning the text for clues to the post-modern American tradition, I settled in for an evisceration of American Horniness and enjoyed the book a lot more. Purity is the great involuntarily celibate work of our times, with characters wishing they were around during the Free Love days, and didn’t have to worry about their self image when fucking everyone around them, or their history, their reputations, their careers. They are at once horrified and compelled towards the seemingly inexperienced Pip: they see her as object to be despoiled, and angel to be saved and gazed upon from afar. Her purity reminds them they are both debased and debaser.
I think Franzen is trying to take a shot at the hyper-sexualized culture he’s railed about in the past. By continually frustrating his main characters sexually, he’s trying to tell us something about the lack of importance sex has in the modern day. It’s not something to get obsessed about, as all of the characters in the book seem to be, in the modern day it’s just another of the myriad ways we entertain ourselves, possibly to a fault. Andreas proves this concept as a horny teen, and later as an adult once the Internet is invented. Once you’re in the Jonathan Friendzone, you can’t get out. I think he’s also commenting on the obsessive attitudes towards sex found in his Great American Novelist forbears, like Philip Roth, Pynchon and Cheever.
I do find Purity is the weakest of Franzen’s last three novels. It’s odd, though, for a guy who again would seem to want to divorce himself from the distractions of the modern world, he does a good job of embodying them, most notably in the guise of Andreas’ Sunlight Project. The descriptions of the Project have that weirdly beatific vibe you get with some tech projects, something that’s also skewered really well on the HBO show Silicon Valley.
At other times, it seems like someone told Franzen about something that is popular, like Breaking Bad, for instance, and that gets dropped into a scene with no consequence. I also found the story of a potentially Great American Writer being cuckolded by his wife after he ends up in his wheelchair to be pretty inconsequential. There’s also a completely out of left field shot at Jonathan Safran Foer that, while hilarious, feels like it should be in a completely different novel. A roman a clef about the current American literature scene maybe? (Note to Franzen, please write this book).
Overall, though, I would recommend Purity, and not just to fellow Fanzens, or Franz Fanons, or whatever we call ourselves. It’s a much easier read than the somewhat forbidding reputation would suggest, and I think it might serve as a good appetizer before digging into The Corrections or Freedom. Just keep in mind that he’s trying to frustrate your notions about sex and romance going into it.
Yes! Finally, a positive guest review! And there are more good times to come: stay tuned for a rave and some cat pics next week.