‘Purity’ book review: White, Male, Educated Middle Class

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel is blindsided by his characteristic conservatism and tendency to take himself too seriously.

Written by Shougat Dasgupta | Updated: October 3, 2015 12:00:41 am
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Title: Purity
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publihser: Fourth Estate
Pages: 576
Price: Rs 555

Jonathan Franzen is an American cultural phenomenon. Before he attained this ubiquity — a famous Time magazine cover anointed him the Great American Novelist in 2010, before the release of his last novel Freedom — he wrote an essay in which he mourned the cultural irrelevance of what he described as “the traditional social novel… a la Dickens or Stendhal.” What he really appeared to be mourning in his self-serving, circumambulatory lament was the slide into cultural irrelevance of his favourite novels and perhaps of his kind — white, male, educated, middle class writers. His first two novels, even if the reviews were respectful, had met with what he believed to be undeserved indifference, that is modest sales. Still, his anxiety for his prospects, for the cultural heft and wide audience he craved, proved to be misplaced; The Corrections, his third novel, won prizes and was so hyped that Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club on publication, a fact which troubled the self-serious Franzen who told reporters that such an endorsement was not in keeping with his “high art” status as literary novelist.

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By the time Franzen wrote Freedom and Time put him on its cover, he was commercially savvy enough to reconcile with Oprah. He had become so feted for Freedom, so rapturously and widely reviewed, that a couple of disgruntled writers on Twitter wondered if his whiteness, his maleness, his middle-classness (the very things he suspected, back when he was a struggling novelist, had conspired to rob him of his due) were at the root of all the fawning, the outsize attention. The response was that writers such as Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, the chief Franzenfreudists, were simply not good enough, not serious enough, not literary enough to be in the same conversation as Franzen. Once again, Franzen was cast as an American bastion of traditional, elite, literary values. He had got the role he had long been pining for — the public face of Literature. In his new capacity, he writes long-winded essays in the Guardian newspaper decrying the internet and social media.

Purity, Franzen’s new novel, has been met with the same full-body prostrations from critics at smart metropolitan newspapers as Freedom, the same over-wrought comparisons to Tolstoy, to Dickens. Franzen helps, of course, by naming the book’s protagonist Pip; her given name is Purity, the first of the great expectations placed on shoulders rounded into a self-deprecatory, self-protecting hunch through much of the novel. Pip is an ingenue from the sticks, from the Californian mountains, raised by an unbalanced, unworldly mother who is hiding from Pip’s father and about whom she refuses to say a word. In a style familiar to readers who have read The Corrections or soldiered through Freedom, Franzen leaves Pip for extended digressions into other lives, into big-ticket issues such as youthful idealism, the necessity of secrets, East Germany, WikiLeaks, the future of journalism, love and duty, violence and marriage; no one will ever accuse Franzen of not having enough to say.

Other pivotal characters, connected in often far-fetched ways, are: Purity’s mother, Penelope Tyler; Andreas Wolf, the Julian Assange-like founder of the WikiLeaks-like Sunlight Project, located in a paradisical Bolivian valley whose devotion to bleaching secrets in strong sunlight doesn’t extend to the dark, dank alleys of his past; there’s also Tom Aberant, who runs a website that publishes investigative journalism, stories that are exhaustively sourced, researched, and reported by old-fashioned shoe-leather journalists like his girlfriend Leila Helou, a deceptively slight Pulitzer prizewinner. Much of the narrative is also taken up by the stories of Wolf’s parents, high-ranking apparatchiks in East Berlin, by Aberant’s East German mother and kind American father, and by Aberant’s ex-wife, an heiress who spits in her billionaire father’s face. The section on Aberant’s torturous marriage is written, unlike the rest of the novel, in the first person, in Aberant’s voice, a trick Franzen tried in Freedom in a section written as a major character’s diary. It works better in Purity, a bitterly funny account of marriage with a woman so highly strung she will only have sex on three specific days a month, a woman who makes radical art, spending eight years building up reels of film on parts of her body but never quite getting beyond her navel, a woman who will spend hours “discussing” the most incidental of perceived slights. It is a section that reinforces why Franzen is a writer who angers so many women.

I am not quoting from Purity because Franzen has cussedly chosen to write an unquotable novel, prolix and ungainly, each sentence seemingly crafted by a spatula. The book is propelled by plot, by Franzen’s ability to keep you reading through the absurd coincidences, the melodrama, the tedium of various subplots. It takes undoubted narrative skill and energy but a reader who knows Franzen only by reputation might wonder why this priest of art, of seriousness, has written a novel so bereft of either art or seriousness. As in Freedom, Franzen makes a show of confronting issues of the day but his insights are largely vapid. Even as someone who does not have a Facebook profile and does not tweet, I roll my eyes at Franzen’s theatrical warnings of the totalitarian Internet, of WikiLeaks being compared to an East Germany in thrall to the Stasi.

Franzen is at his best, at his warmest and funniest, when writing about the lies we tell ourselves, about our delusions, and about our pathetic but heartbreaking attempts to do the right thing by the people we love. He is an acute, always fascinated observer of American middle-class guilt, anxiety and desire. I have no answer, though, for why the Anglo-American literary establishment is so invested in trumpeting his greatness; perhaps, it is because Franzen saves all of his empathy, all of his much vaunted humanity, his authorial warmth for people exactly like himself, the middle-aged men who tend to write and edit book reviews and run publishing houses. Anything new, or threatening of the status quo is abjured, is sneered at in Franzen’s extraordinarily conservative novels. One character, a hard-working and admirable journalist, exclaims in horror, while trying to explain that the likes of WikiLeaks are savage, uncivilised bands of anarchists rather than adult institutions, that “Julian Assange is so blind and deaf to basic social functioning that he eats with his hands.” One should not conflate writer and character, but I confess to seeing Franzen in those words, in their careless condescension.

Franzen may be the great American novelist, but if he is, then the best American writers are writing for television.

The writer is a Delhi-based critic.

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