Jonathan Friendzoned: Some Thoughts on Purity
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. Continue reading
That time Nell Zink slid into my DMs
Since I began drafting this post, @NellZink on Twitter is no more. These DMs, screen-shots taken just before they went poof, are even more precious now. For those not in the know, Nell Zink wrote breakout novel The Wallcreeper (2014), National Book Award longlisted Mislaid (2015), and has a new novel, Nicotine, due out this fall.
I’ve had a couple of exciting Twitter moments. The first was figuring out how Twitter actually works in 2010. In 2011, I coined a hashtag that’s still in use. In 2012, a celebrity replied to me for the first time (J to the Roc). Since then, I’ve chatted with many authors, of course. But none of these moments compare to receiving an unexpected DM from Nell Zink.
@NellZink doesn’t have the blue check mark, but her profile is pretty on-brand: Goethe quoted in her bio, sparkly-blue-bird-fascinator in her profile pic, and the best part, her background pic, in which she gazes adoringly at a statue of Charles Dickens, side by side with Little Nell.
I don’t have a handle on her Twitter M.O. She deletes many of her tweets and pretty much all of her @ replies, only follows a handful of German accounts, and she likes, but never retweets, praise for her novels. But she’s out there, searching. If you tweet about her or Jonathan Franzen, as I am wont to do, you might just hear from her. I caught her eye with a silly tweet about JFranz sex scenes.
I won’t reveal the content of the DMs we exchanged, not because there was anything racy or controversial, but because that would be rude. I will reveal that it was I who stopped replying, and I feel awful about it, but the pressure was getting to me. Each morning of that magical week in August, I had to think of something intelligent to say to Nell Zink. I couldn’t hack it. Forgive me.
Okay, one thing: she taught me the phrase “O tempora, o mores!” which is a fancy way to say “kids these days.” This was in reference to Fifty Shades of Grey. Also, she read my review of The Wallcreeper and said it was “cute.”
When I worked up the nerve to get back in touch, Nell was kind enough to answer a few questions in honour of Franzen in February. She asked me to stress that this interview was conducted in Twitter DMs, as she is known for disliking email interviews and would like to keep it that way.
@LauraTFrey: You and Mr. Franzen are champions of each other’s work, but do you influence each other? Do you think you influenced Purity, and did he influence Nicotine?
@NellZink: He’s the hero of NICOTINE (in code), but I don’t think I influenced PURITY because he doesn’t pay that much attention.
@LauraTFrey: Will he blurb Nicotine? I’d love to see your blurb on one of his books…
@NellZink: He didn’t blurb any of my books; he blurbed me as a writer (as a way of getting around his refusal to write blurbs). MISLAID didn’t have blurbs – it had quotes from rave reviews of THE WALLCREEPER. Which is different and better.
@LauraTFrey: You said in your n+1 review of Purity that you hate most novels. Do you mean modern novels? Do you keep trying/reading or have you given up?
@NellZink: I’m picky, but I find good things to read fairly often. The odds that any given galley will float my boat are apparently so poor that I’ve started telling editors not to bother. Either that or people have a strange idea of what I might like.
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.
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.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Review #1)
You know me. I love a clever title. I came up with three subtitles for my review of Purity, and can’t choose a favourite, so I’m subjecting you to a mini-reviews to go with each over the next few days:
- Review #1: Franziness. My basic review.
- Review #2: Fifty Shades of Franzen. A mostly-serious discussion of sexuality in literature.
- Review #3: Middlebrow and the Infinite Franz. A discussion of middlebrow literature.
Review #1: Franziness
Publication date: September 1, 2015
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Read this if you like: Jonathan Franzen
Check out Purity on Goodreads
Thanks to: The fine people at Macmillian (FSG) for giving me and 199 other lucky Book Expo America attendees an advance reader’s copy.
Like Nell Zink, I won’t bother trying to convince you to read Purity, because you already know if you’re going to read it or not (her review is still offline, so you’ll have to take my word for it.) As my mom used to say, if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you will like. It’s got Franziness. See the end of this post for my incomplete list of Franziness indicators and add your own.
Franzen’s interviewer at Book Expo America made much of how “plotty” this book is, which is to say, things happen outside the family/personal realm. That’s true. The chapters set in Europe aren’t just a satirical sidebar, like they were in The Corrections. The affairs and sexual misconduct have larger implications for the characters than they did in Freedom. But Purity didn’t surprise me that much. It didn’t shake up my view of what a Franzen novel is.
I read The Corrections recently, and that helped me see what a step up Purity is. If you read his Big Three novels in order, you’d see them get better, smoother, less “I see what you did there.” The threads in Purity come together in a way that reminded me of The Luminaries; you almost don’t notice it till it’s done. There’s also a mystery and a murder, new territory for Franzen, but they don’t overwhelm the story. The characters are still in the forefront.
Speaking of, Purity demonstrates what Franzen’s strength has been all along: he creates characters the reader cares about. Not that we like, empathize with, or relate to (though you might do all those things,) but they keep you turning the pages and slogging through the parts that are sloggy and you miss them after you’re done. I miss Pip! She’s annoying and self-centred and predictable, but she got to me.
Purity is plotty, but it’s also pretty emotional. I don’t think I cried, but I felt real dread during the lead up to the murder, and felt impotent and icky during the seduction of, well, everyone who gets seduced. There were hilarious parts and weird parts and banal parts.
So, if you’re going to read Purity, you’re in for a treat, and if you’re not, please stand by, Reading in Bed will return to regular programming in a couple of days.
An incomplete list of things that have Franziness
- Wariness of the internet
- Mommy issues
- Daddy issues
- Unlikable narrators
- Weird/bad sex scenes
- Icky relationships between stunted man-child(ren) and younger, damaged women