My biggest gripe is with a central tenet of Jonathan Franzen’s fiction: communication between generations is impossible.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $28.
By Ted Kehoe
Jonathan Franzen finds himself at the center of literary controversy more than most contemporary writers. At times, he even seems to court it—snubbing Oprah after she selected The Corrections for her book club, or saying that he wants to adopt an Iraqi war orphan to better understand the younger generation. For a writer who admires Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, and Don DeLillo for their media-shy ways, he has a funny way of following their lead.
But Franzen is also at the center of a particularly contentious debate not of his devising, one about gender bias within the publishing industry. He has been singled out as the apotheosis of a book culture dominated by privileged white males. Sure, he is liberal and self-loathing, but there is something about him some readers find smarmy—an Updike in progressive clothing. Maybe it’s that many of characters are upper middle class, hyper-educated neurotics starring in somewhat banal family dramas. Maybe it’s the way he depicts sex in his novels, which is, well, kind of icky. (How else to describe, when a bout of anal sex is imbued with symbolic weight?) Maybe it’s his smugness in deriding his characters’ foibles. Maybe it’s the audacity of, every couple of years, dropping a six-hundred-page tome on us with a one-word title intended to evoke the zeitgeist. As a writer and reader, the only thing I really care about is the work. But as much as I want to ignore the media clamor, I find that some aspects of these disparate criticisms do connect to fundamental flaws in Franzen’s work in general, and Purity in particular.
Franzen is a black humorist, plain and simple. As such, his books dwell on the existential absurdity of everyday life in the shadow of economic, sociopolitical, and environmental catastrophe. But the black humorist mocks at his peril because once he has made his characters’ lives ridiculous, it is difficult to make the reader care about them again.
Like The Corrections and Freedom before it, Purity takes the form of a series of long narrative sections told from the perspective of one major character. In Purity, we follow Pip, Andreas, Leila, and Tom. Each section provides another element to the main drama. The jump from one narrative strand to the next (as with Andreas’s to Leila’s) can be as jarring as being dropped in the middle of the desert—you have no idea where you are and you know you’re going to be there a while. But the novel as a whole is essentially Pip’s story and how she comes to be involved with activist/hacker Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange-type figure.
Franzen’s books are often hilariously, scathingly funny. I found Purity to be less so. When social criticism creeps in and Andreas Wolf rails against the totalitarian nature of the Internet and social media, I wasn’t charmed by how smart and topical the novel was. Maybe I’ve been reading too many interviews, but all I could hear was Franzen’s voice in the character’s head.
The author does a wonderful job skewering macho writers in the form of Charles Blenheim, Leila’s first husband. And there is a funny bit when Leila is sent to write a news story about a numbskull stealing a nuclear warhead from a storage facility to impress his girlfriend. But the humor in this latter instance felt elitist and mean-spirited: look at the white trash and their benighted Texas existence.
Traditionally, the black humorist does not hold himself above the ridiculousness of his characters because all of our passions and devotions, in a life lived so precariously, are equally foolish and meaningless. Does Franzen really see himself in the rube waitress at Sonic? Does he see himself in Pip’s hippie mother?
There seems to be no depth to which Franzen will not stoop to debase his characters, scatological humor being second only to sexual humiliation as his favored tool. In Freedom, Joey Lambert digs through his own excrement to retrieve the wedding band he swallowed while contemplating infidelity. In Purity, Tom’s mother Clelia suffers from a case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome rendered terminal by her neuroses. Isn’t that hilarious? Franzen devotes many pages to the various indignities the human body affords us. Is he wrong? No. But does he need to take such pleasure in it? I’m not appealing for mercy but questioning his motives—at what point does a barbed joke become a gross-out?
Purity is not as funny as Franzen’s earlier work, but it does offer more in the way of thrills. For me, the Andreas Wolf section (set in the 1980s) is the most absorbing. Wolf, the dissolute son of an East German party member, counsels at-risk youth, but just as frequently takes advantage of them. But then he meets a young girl whose tale of woe compels him to desperate action. I am not revealing too much by describing Wolf as amoral and, as such, sort of fascinating and creepy. He does and says some pretty vile things. The other characters talk about his being mentally ill, but I began to think of his occasional and capricious malice as nothing short of evil. Wolf has a predilection for performing oral sex on young women, and here, again, we have Franzen’s gratuitous employment of sex as characterizing detail: Wolf eats these young women alive.
Will my Serious Critic credentials be forfeit if I say I hated Pip? Is she really the sort of young person a psychologically mature reader is supposed to find interesting? Is she really anything like a real person at all? Or is she merely one of Franzen’s caustic renderings of young people—all technological know-how and emotional infancy? Here is Franzen’s old trap again—how to make a character seem ridiculous while maintaining the reader’s sympathy. I had the sense that the author himself didn’t know what to do with Pip. She was somehow supposed to be a research savant but also devoid of any experiential wisdom. She strong-arms the corporate attorney of a billion-dollar agribusiness firm, but has never contemplated the fact that her mother is an individual outside of her maternal role. Give me a break.
Pip’s scenes with Jason, her romantic interest, were excruciating. It’s difficult to dramatize a relationship between emotionally distant characters, but too often I wondered what was happening on the page and why I was reading it. Franzen assigns Pip crushing student debt, which in spite of its timeliness as a reference, felt clumsy and arbitrary, like Esther Summerson’s disfigurement from fever in Bleak House. In fact, the entire plot with all its contemporary signifiers (social media, hacking scandals, the Occupy movement) felt oddly retrogressive, like the book wanted to be a 19th-century novel. And speaking of Dickens, of course we’re meant to think of that other literary Pip and his mysterious benefactor. I was irritated when Franzen overtly makes reference, in final pages, to ensure we get it.
I keep reading Franzen’s novels even though his defeatist worldview irks me. He can be arrestingly funny (“The kitchen smelled like a mental illness” and “Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married.”), but how self-interested and small he perceives people to be makes his work not just depressing but fundamentally limited, myopic, graceless. For all his towering rage and bottomless mirth at the human condition, for all the grand ambition of his novels, I confess that he seems, at times, petty. Tom Wolfe has a bit of the same problem.
My biggest gripe is with a central tenet of Franzen’s fiction: communication between generations is impossible. Andreas’s mother is a lunatic, a Clytemnestra, and essentially unknowable. Pip’s mother is foolish, childlike, and essentially unknowable. So, too, are the daughters and sons to their parents. I object strenuously. Where there is love and admiration, we will always strive to connect with our children, our parents, our grandparents. So what if true understanding lies out of reach. Don’t we share something in the yearning? Some might argue that the parents, particularly mothers, in Franzen’s novels dote on their children. But adoration is not as clear-eyed as love.
I also often wonder about the accessibility of his fiction. His novels seem to attract attention when they’re released, but how many people can identify with the privilege enjoyed by an art-school heiress or a diplomat’s son? I have friends who eagerly anticipate Franzen’s new novels and they are exactly the sort of people whom you would envision doing so. In many ways, Purity offers things we haven’t seen in Franzen’s earlier work. But this new novel is inhibited by old failings because Franzen can’t escape his essential mistrust of the human heart.
Ted Kehoe was a teaching/writing fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Epoch, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and Shock Totem. He won Prairie Schooner’s Bernice Slote Award for Best New Author. He teaches writing at Boston University.