Purity by Jonathan Franzen
October 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
I’m not ashamed to say that I think The Corrections is a really good book. It came out just before I really found my adult place in the world of books, so I didn’t read it until perhaps 2004. So it’s not hard for me to see why The Corrections remains so important in my reading life. I read Strong Motion and The Twenty-Seventh City soon afterwards, but they didn’t have the same impact. I also didn’t love Freedom, and couldn’t even tell you why now, beyond a vague feeling of disappointment. So I wasn’t desperate to read Purity (and certainly didn’t intend to write about it), but when I put a hold on it at the library (a few weeks after publication date) I turned out to be the first in the queue. Then a week spent in bed allowed me to catch up on my reading, including finishing Purity in just about a single sitting. (But please, that cover–those covers! I’m a fan of simple covers, but seriously? Did every person involved in designing and approving these covers just say, “Screw that, it’s Franzen, it really doesn’t matter what it looks like”?)
Franzen is talented at creating characters, at least as an opening gambit; it reminds me of reading Stephen King books when I was really not a fan of horror in any form, but could happily read his novels for the setting up of the characters. Each massive section of Purity is devoted to a different character, spending time on their backstory and seemingly irrelevant details, pouring it all out in a fascinating torrent. It makes you feel as if you can almost understand people; it’s quite basic in a psychological sense of character being created by experience, although perhaps less so than in his earlier novels. It’s a bit of a conundrum all round: how can a writer so patently misanthropic write so seemingly illuminatingly about other people?
The plot of Purity is more expansive, structurally, than Franzen’s other two big novels, focusing only intermittently on family units and the difficulty of having (but also of not having) such a thing as a family. Purity Tyler is the central character in the novel. Known as Pip, she’s 24 and has little idea of what to do with her life. Purity as a concept is, naturally, of great importance to her, but it’s hard to find and even harder to pin down, which means she’s currently working for a shady eco-energy company called Renewable Solutions that doesn’t “make or build or even install things.” Instead, “it ‘bundled,’ it ‘brokered,’ it ‘captured,’ it ‘surveyed,’ it ‘client-provided.’” Pip’s issue with Renewable Solutions is that she can “never quite figure out what she was selling, even when she was finding people to buy it, and no sooner had she finally begun to figure it out than she was asked to sell something else.” When not at work, Pip lives in a squat with a motley crew of misfits: Stephen (with whom she is in love) and his wife Marie. There’s also the couple’s adopted child, Ramón, and the schizophrenic Dreyfuss, also the house’s former owner.
The compelling thing about Franzen is how, in Pip’s seventy pages, we feel as though we’ve already had a novel’s worth of information about her and her life. So much of what Franzen does is, generally speaking, a creative-writing course no-no: the acres and acres of telling, the enormous flashbacks interspersed only briefly (but very strategically) with contemporary action, the fact that each time we do get close to some action, there’s a sudden stop and a shift to another character. (I wonder: when Franzen does finally resolve these scenes, much later in the book, does he have to write them as flashback or character history first so they don’t come out totally dead?) And yet it all works, at least until it turns out to have the nutritional value of a drive-through meal.
The next character is Andreas Wolf, a sort-of Assange-like figure obsessed with purity of information while having layer upon layer of murky past himself. Pip goes to intern for Andreas in Bolivia before being sent back to the US to spy on another internet concern, Denver Independent. The story starts to write itself from here, and to summarise much more would be to start giving the plot away, which, rickety as it is, is still part of the fun of the book, at least for as long as Andreas himself doesn’t make you put the book down in disgust.
For me, reading Purity was a bit like seriously overdoing the wine while knowing you’ve got an early start the next day. I devoured the whole thing in just a few hours in bed, but afterwards could only grumble about it. The misogyny! The constant, all-consuming, relentless, unconscious misogyny. The main character is a women, sure, and the misanthropy haunts the pages like the taste of one piece of banana colours every piece of fruit in the salad, but really, did all the mothers have to be quite so insane? Why were so many of the women, major and minor characters, crazy mothers or crazy lovers, so messily hysterical, allowing their craziness to spill over into other people’s—usually their son’s–lives? Why were the men, to the extent that they were indeed also mentally troubled, so quietly stoic about their problems, bearing them with fortitude and—apparently—not letting them affect other people (despite Franzen’s own evidence to the contrary)? Also, there is essentially no sympathy for mental illness, except perhaps for Dreyfuss’s properly managed and medicated schizophrenia (and Dreyfuss is, not coincidentally, fairly hostile to human interaction himself, while simultaneously being a Franzen-esque pithy observer of humankind).
The problem with the book is that although initially it feels enjoyable, the more you think about it, the worse it seems. It’s like a soap opera for people who don’t watch TV, or maybe for people who do watch TV as well, given the sales figures. The men can’t stop thinking about their penises–or more accurately, can’t stop being controlled by their penises, poor old chaps. What trials they suffer! The women–especially Pip’s mother, Annabel–are like Macbeth’s three witches given back stories and starring antagonist roles. Do they have any redeeming qualities? You’ll have to look carefully. The effect is to reduce and restrict the humanity of the characters that Franzen spent so many painstaking pages creating. Their histories give them far more intellectual capacity than their impulse-driven, primitively instinctual present moments can sustain, switching them from blank slates moulded from past experiences to collections of cells propelled by the most basic, and most base, principles of evolutionary biology. The Corrections will always be important to me, but I might not pick it up for a while, just in case.