When Jonathan Franzen started out as writer, he and his then wife, Valerie Cornell, would lock themselves away for twelve hours a day and, sat a few feet apart, write pretty much constantly. He was serious about being a writer. (So was Valerie — alas, some suggest her failure to produce any publishable work seems to have exacerbated marital strife.) His first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, were accomplished, the latter displaying what would become a signature “issues” bent, a social conscience sugared up by compelling mouthpiece avatars. But it wasn’t until The Corrections, written largely after Franzen was divorced, in a borrowed corner of a loft in Manhattan, that the writer reached his zenith as an entertaining social/familial commenter. (And that’s what he is, the latter part of that equation being the factor that’s long since turned huge numbers of readers against him.) He was by now writing blindfolded and with headphones piping “pink noise” into his ears.


I mention all this stuff for numerous reasons. One is that I have rarely, if ever, seen the kind of split Franzen effects among readers and critics. And details like those enumerated above make him sound a bit like a precious grafter, a bit of a literary poseur driven to make good on his commitment to be “a serious writer.” Pink noise? Blindfold? The intra-marital writerly obsessiveness? He’s asking for ridicule, isn’t he? There are huge essays out there, gloriously replete hatchet jobs, that seem hugely annoyed by Franzen. He gets a lot of goats, and they bleat loud. The authors of these exhaustive takedowns rip Franzen to shreds, citing sentences “anyone could write” that seem no better than “second draft hack jobs.”

Franzen also at turns seems fussy, judgmental, prissy, awkward and, in terms of gender politics, questionable.

Of course, the other way to look at it is: he knows all this and yet also knows that he’s good and is going to do the work, one way or another.

Purity is no huge departure from Freedom, Franzen’s last novel, which was similarly about troubled, infuriatingly complex women, and men who haven’t a clue what to make of them. This time some of the men are equally problematic or unscrupulous or complexly self-serving (Franzen blames the parents), with the result being his best novel after The Corrections.

Purity is certainly no great work, but it offers something very few novels do: it’s an accomplished page-turner. Franzen is clearly (never more obviously) in thrall to the Don DeLillo of White Noise and Cosmopolis (many readers’ least favorite DeLillo), the Philip Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater (as Howard Jacobson, another audience-splitter, so blatantly is), and lighter Updike. His awed gratitude to those works bears considerable fruit here — the plot shouldn’t be given too much consideration. This is a book masquerading as a deeply dismayed tirade about the internet (the equation with East Germany between 1961 and 1989 often feels a little off-the-peg make-do) and the corrosive nature of secrets. It manages to pull those aspects off with qualifications, and the weak parts of the book are bogged down in a sub- Greene/Le Carre world of murk and subterfuge.

Where the book works best, as was the case with The Corrections and Freedom, is when he has masterfully delineated characters talking to each other about ostensibly the same thing, which always happens to be massively disparate. People rarely get one another in Franzen books, and this leads to highly entertaining trouble and sparky conversations that are funniest when spiraling out of control. Even when they get one another, they tire of the lack of the kind of mystery they know will ruin them.

The main characters in the book: Purity, or Pip, a young woman smothered by an isolated and eccentric mother, and Andreas Wolff, a one-time murderer (with a key accomplice) and privileged layabout (with, of course, an intricately troubled mother and obscured object of desire) turned Assange-esque online secret spiller. Both will meet in Bolivia (where Wolff’s creepily cultish “Sunlight Project” is based, thanks to benevolent governmental asylum) in unlikely fashion. The mystery, which involves that aforementioned accomplice and a deeply seedy plot to wreak revenge, is eventually solved, but none of any of the “topical” plot strands had anything to do with why I kept reading Purity. As weak as Freedom often was, and as barely convincing as Purity sometimes is, the dialogue exchanges (elsewhere described as stilted and unconvincing, it’s only fair to point out) kept me interested. I can think of only Edward Albee and Philip Roth who are better at believably scathing, internecine slanging matches that spin out of control (and Purity, fittingly, ends with one) and those are what propel the novel and keep it out of the occasional sludgy trough.

Purity is unquestionably problematic but also a great deal of flawed fun. The level of fun you’re going to have will, I think, largely depend on how much slack you’re willing to cut the author of exchanges such as this one.

The note of self-righteousness in his voice set fire to a larger and more diffuse pool of the gas, a combustible political substance that had seeped into her from her mother and then from certain college professors and certain gross-out movies and now also from Annagret, a sense of the unfairness of what one professor had called the anisotropy of gendered relationships, wherein boys could camouflage their objectifying desires with the language of feelings while girls played the boys’ game of sex at their own risk, dupes if they objectified and victims if they didn’t.

“You didn’t seem to mind me when your dick was in my mouth,” she said.

“I didn’t put it there,” he said.

“And it wasn’t there long.”

“No, because I had to go downstairs and get a condom so you could stick it inside me.”

“Wow. So this is all me now?”

Through a haze of flame, or hot blood, Pip’s eyes fell on Jason’s handheld device.

“Hey!” he cried. She jumped up and ran to the far side of the room with his device. “Hey, you can’t do that,” he shouted, pursuing her.

“Yes I can!”

“No, you can’t, it’s not fair. Hey — hey — you can’t do that!”

She wedged herself underneath the child’s writing desk that was her only piece of furniture and faced the wall, bracing her leg on a desk leg. Jason tried to pull her out by the belt of her robe, but he couldn’t dislodge her and was apparently unwilling to get more violent than this.

“What kind of freak are you?” he said. “What are you doing?”

Pip touched the device’s screen with shaking fingers. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Jason said, pacing behind her. “What are you doing?” She pawed the screen and found the next thread.

If you have Franzen hang-ups (I have a few), this won’t assuage them. I still imagine him giggling mischievously as he writes some of this; there are a few too over-ripe self-referential moments (albeit funny ones) and there’s still something not quite right about his general take on women (he continues to round off all male edges whilst sharpening those of his female characters), but the book works as a densely populated contemporary blast of entertainment. It’s an impish, naïve, grumpy, sophisticated provocation, a blackly comic HBO melodrama, a concerned tirade with a sardonic ensemble. It’s AM Homes with less empathy. It’s a geekier, trashier Philip Roth. I’d say “give it a go,” but you’ve probably already made up your mind re: Franzen. I doubt he has another Corrections in him but he certainly has more of whatever he’s got than anyone else. He knows what makes people tick (or is glibly reductionist about motivational psychology, take your pick) and ruthlessly lets you in on it. He could easily lose all the geopolitical stuff, but by doing so would probably feel like a bit of a fraud. He’s too serious to do such a thing, and that seriousness is both his strength and his weakness. Maybe he should ditch the blindfold and put a mirror behind his Mac.

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By |2015-10-06T11:48:29-04:00October 6th, 2015|Categories: Book Reviews, Jonathan Franzen|17 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett October 6, 2015 at 11:57 am

    Well, you’re right, Lee: as much as I enjoyed your review and don’t begrudge you your enjoyment of this novel, I have made up my mind to avoid Franzen from here on out! Indeed, when drafting the tiny synopsis I almost put “Lee takes one for the team and reviews Franzen’s Purity!” But besides usually trying to avoid such snark I am thrilled you have found things to enjoy. Further, you articulate your reasoning well and keep your approach tempered. Your perspective is much healthier than mine or, I believe, than those who proclaim Franzen to be the greatest writer of this generation. Take him for what he is, enjoy what you can because there’s a lot to enjoy, and don’t sweat the baggage. Though I doubt I’ll read this or more Franzen, your review has helped me leave aside, perhaps only for now, my own bugabears about the man’s work.

  2. Lee Monks October 6, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Ha! Well, I really think you should’ve kept that line in, Trevor – it plays nicely with that polarity I was talking about!

    Yeah, what can I say? I know so many who share your opinion, and I see why – it’s a little too demagogic, to touch on one issue. And I can’t argue with the demolition of some decontextualised excerpted bits. But I’m happy to read more, in the full knowledge that he certainly isn’t the greatest writer of his generation – (that’s an interesting question though – who is?) – but is a writer of brazenly provocative entertainments that slip down way better than, say, A Little Life, which is a bad grim book (featuring some excellent writing) as opposed to the sporadically questionable and largely hopeful tome in question.

  3. Max Cairnduff October 6, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    It’s a very good review Lee, but flawed fun? For this many pages and this much seriousness I want more. Also, in the quote I lost who was saying what at this point:

    “You didn’t seem to mind me when your dick was in my mouth,” she said.

    “I didn’t put it there,” he said.

    “And it wasn’t there long.”

    “No, because I had to go downstairs and get a condom so you could stick it inside me.”

    So, she, he, then you’d expect she and he again but it can’t be he at the fourth line as there’s the reference to inside me, so that’s she. Is line three him or her? It changes the tone quite a lot which it is.

    The internet stuff just seems tired. I’m not a fan of write what you know at all, it’s a terrible maxim, but nor am I a huge fan of write what you plainly don’t know.

    Also, handheld device? Is there an issue with the word phone?

  4. Lee Monks October 6, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    Line three is him.

    I wonder if handheld device might be a terrible play on raunch or something…but either way it sticks. Part of the point of picking that bit out is: if you can get past it, you may enjoy the novel. If not…

    Yeah, it’s a big ask, 560-odd pages for what’s essentially a pseudo-clever romp. But I flew through the book and genuinely had a blast reading it (as I did with AM Homes’ ‘May We Be Forgiven’, a fair parallel as neither are perfect, both go after big themes and are ultimately at their best dealing with small stuff, and both are fast reads) – I’d forget all ideas about serious with this to have any chance of enjoying it.

  5. Lee Monks October 6, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    PS May We Be Forgiven is even longer.

    Another quick point I probably should have put in the review: all I’ve read re: Purity is ridiculously overdone approval or savage dismissal. I don’t understand either camp. And I think both ends have agendas.

  6. Max Cairnduff October 7, 2015 at 5:30 am

    Good point there regarding the extremes on Franzen. It seems clear to me (admittedly not having read him) that he’s a talented writer but has some flaws in his work, as of course do most writers. He seems neither the second coming nor Rosemary’s Baby after a few years at a writing college.

    Possibly it’s just that he seems a bit pompous.

    I forgot to say in my initial post, I liked the drawing out of his influences. Very helpful and illuminating.

  7. Lee Monks October 7, 2015 at 9:51 am

    He winds them up, does Franzen. And I have no idea what it is about him that infuriates so many. Philip Roth – a much better writer admittedly – has had to field the same kind of frothing accusations of sexism and juvenile prurience etc. They both seem to push the same buttons.

    Pompous – I think that’s partly it, Max. DeLillo and Roth – his two main, I think, influences – never seem remotely pompous to me. I think they’re both funnier and less awkward. But there’s no way he’s the disaster some suggest he is. He writes big, entertaining novels, no more or less. Not many can.

  8. Shelley October 8, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    A writer’s “questionable gender politics” is nothing less than failure of his imagination.

  9. Lee Monks October 8, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    The ‘questionable’ there is my interpretation. He may well have narrowed his imagination and gone in a direction – it would seem impossible not to. His ‘take’ is not necessarily a failure, but a decision to compromise and make a statement. It sure is a divisive one.

  10. Sean H October 11, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    He doesn’t need to have “another” Corrections in him the same way Joseph Heller didn’t need another Catch-22. Franzen’s masterpiece has already been written, I agree. That said, Purity is a type of writing that almost no one deigns to even attempt anymore. This type of detailed social realism is increasingly rare in a literary climate dominated by memoirishness and postmodernism and a shrinking attention span. Purity is topical without being obtrusively so and while I’m not equally ensorcelled by each and every character and plotline, I do find it a worthwhile read. The author’s backstory, politics, comments in the media or non-fiction in The New Yorker, whether or not he writes blindfolded or not, this all has absolutely NOTHING to do with his literature. We need, as a culture, to separate the art from the artist. ie: Even if Bill Cosby IS a serial rapist, “The Cosby Show” is a canonical sit-com and essential viewing if you want to understand late twentieth century America. Franzen’s name stirs up interest, but his work has real sticking power and while Purity is not a great novel, it’s a very good one and you could certainly do a lot worse in the contemporary arena (David Mitchell’s last novel, for example, was downright dreadful; Dave Eggers has been dreck for a long time now, AM Homes might have empathy but she too has had a lot of bumps in the road, etc etc).

  11. Lee Monks October 11, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    Apart from there being moments where I felt Franzen was scolding readers that might disagree with him, I agree. His scorn occasionally gets the better of him and Purity. But that’s what’s driving the bus, and it’s a worthwhile trip.

  12. Greg October 11, 2015 at 8:52 pm

    Sean, your above comment on Bill Cosby (“Even if Bill Cosby IS a serial rapist…”) is very thought provoking for me…..I fully understand what you are trying to say and would generally agree……but if an artist commits extreme criminal acts such as rape, shouldn’t we as moral people connect the artist to his art?…..therefore, on further reflection, do you regret using Cosby as your example?

  13. Max Cairnduff October 13, 2015 at 5:45 am

    Interesting question Greg. I recommended someone a Polanski film the other day. Clearly there’s an issue there with the artist, but the art itself stands by itself and remains as good or bad as it ever was.

    The difference is Polanski isn’t at the centre of Knife in the Water (the film I recommended). He made it and that makes it inseparable in some senses from him, but he’s behind the camera. The Cosby show though we laugh with Cosby, and I’m not sure that’s possible any more.

    So, I think Cosby is in some senses a bad example not because horrific crimes invalidate the art, I don’t think they do, but because when you have to engage with the artist to engage with the art it’s then very hard not to bring the artist’s acts into the picture. A sit com is particularly bad for this. How do we laugh at Cosby’s wit and wisdom when we now know what he actually was?

    Perhaps that’s the point. The Cosby Show was based on a certain morality, that was part of its essence, and that’s been revealed to be a lie. Polanski’s movies weren’t based on anything but themselves, so remain worthwhile.

    The interesting question though is Woody Allen, whose films routinely show middle aged or even somewhat elderly men having sex with attractive young women, which mirrors his life rather uncomfortably and which definitely calls into question some of his casting decisions. Is Allen a Polanski, or is he a Cosby? And does it matter that he’s a greater artist than Cosby?

    Not sure it’s book blog discussion material though…

  14. Lee Monks October 13, 2015 at 6:16 am

    I completely agree on Polanski, Max.

    Cosby’s TV schtick is inextricably bound to homely benevolent lectures about rights and wrongs by avuncular Bill. You’re sold Cosby the man AND the character as a wizened moral arbiter and to rewatch that show now would be painful. We now know he spent his leisure time spiking drinks and sitting around waiting for his victims to become helpless. This makes a hypocrite not only out of Cosby but the viewer who can watch that show ‘for what it is’ without being repelled at least a wee bit. ‘What it is’ is a well written, entertaining family show fronted by a rapist. Happy viewing.

    I don’t like the fact that any art can be tarnished thus but that’s just tough on my part. Once upon a time I may well’ve defended the show as art separate to life. It just isn’t.

    Woody Allen, in casting young women opposite him, is dubious in the same way a lot of ageing men chasing young women are…until you consider the biography. He’s a genius, and Cosby was an incredible comedian. It really does depend on the nature of the art and the level of remove involved. David Thomson asks us to bring to bear what we know about an actor to fully enjoy a performance, and it works both ways.

  15. Lee Monks October 13, 2015 at 6:18 am

    PS y’all should try Purity! It’s worth a go!

  16. Trevor Berrett October 13, 2015 at 11:57 am

    This is how Jonathan Franzen gets us to engage with contemporary issues involving society and art.

  17. Sean H October 17, 2015 at 11:37 pm

    Nah, I don’t regret the Cosby comment. Firstly because the number of accusations means nothing. Saying, well LOTS of women have accused him so that makes him guilty makes me think not enough people have read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” As for the difference between Polanski (or Dostoevsky or Melville or Caravaggio or any other artist whose work we admire but who did horrible things) and Cosby being that Cosby was an actor and therefore his face is somehow in need of a trigger warning now seems really silly and sophomoric. He was playing a character. So even if Bill Cosby is ever convicted (of immorality or criminality) or otherwise proven to have done “bad things” I fail to see why that should taint anyone’s view of Cliff Huxtable and his fictional family. You separate the artist and their work completely, that’s just how you do it, that’s how you maintain your objectivity as a reader. It’s like grading papers; you don’t base it on whether or not you like the student, you evaluate the quality of their work.

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