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.