It’s hard to write about Jonathan Franzen’s work without writing about Jonathan Franzen the Public Figure, an entity that seems to bear surprisingly little resemblance to the man himself. Now that his reputation as a crotchety jerk is all but set in stone, it’s easy to forget that Franzen’s original sin wasn’t dissing Twitter or calling Jennifer Weiner a hack but rather some rather tepid hand-wringing during an interview with Terry Gross about whether having an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the cover of The Corrections could be construed as selling out. In the end—by which I mean by the end of his sentence—Franzen had decided that it didn’t, but that didn’t stop Oprah from disinviting him.1
The charges have shifted and morph over the years. More recently, Franzen has been assailed for being insufficiently grief-stricken at the death of his friend David Foster Wallace2 and, retroactively, for saying that his ambition for The Corrections was that it reach a male audience.4 You get the sense that these criticisms have less to do with Franzen than what he represents—an exceedingly privileged rich white male who nonetheless finds the world disappointing and unjust. Identity politics aside, I find it really hard to look at the facts of these claims and come away with any other conclusion than that Franzen has been frequently and repeatedly swift-boated. There’s part of me that wants to avoid it all, but with his new novel, Purity, Franzen seems be directly addressing—and quite possibly trolling—his critics. Here at last, he’s given them what they’ve been waiting for—a book that openly takes aim at millennial, feminism, and the necessity of secrecy in a world where privacy is becoming an ever more alien concept.
The full plot of Purity is difficult to summarize, in part because it’s not a single story but more like five. The other complicating factor is that it’s not merely a book about secrets but a book of secrets, and since I enjoyed those secrets and the way they were kept and revealed, I feel obligated to keep them as well. According to the flap copy, the story belongs to Pip Tyler, a recent college graduate who spends her days doing call-center work for a sketchy Oakland nonprofit in order to make the minimum payments on her mammoth student loan debt. Raised by an neurotic, over-protective single-mother in a small town outside Santa Cruz, Pip wants wants to find out who her father is, and she suspect that her mother’s outward devotion to quaint simplicity masks a desire to be off the grid. Enter Andreas Wolf, a charismatic Julian Assange-esque figure who runs an outfit called the Sunlight Project that publishes leaks. Raised in communist East Germany and driven by reactionary hatred of the Stasi, Andreas is by turns charming, principled, and creepy. For reasons revealed late in the novel, Andreas dispatches a former lover to California to recruit Pip to the Project. At first Pip is reluctant, but eventually, she’s tempted by money and curiosity.
Purity is also the story of Tom Aberant and his courtship of—and later marriage to—Anabel Laird, the heir to a fortune made in industrial farming. Anabel is both a staunch feminist and a textbook sufferer of borderline disorder. She’s determined to wean herself off the family’s millions. Tom, meanwhile, is a man so moderate and self-effacing that he’s willing to do anything to measure up to Anabel’s principles—even the ones she has trouble measuring up to herself. The slow-motion meltdown of Tom and Anabel’s relationship is both as hilarious as it is heart-rending. Early in their romance, when Anabel demands that Tom sit down to piss, Tom reacts with disbelief:
“I thought the problem was guys who think they can aim through the seat.”
“I appreciate that you’re not one of them. But there’s spatter.”
“I wipe the rim, too.”
“OK, room for improvement.”
“But it’s not just on the rim. It’s on the underside of the rim and on the tile. Little drops.”
Anabel’s character—and in particular the pissing scene—have drawn howls of disapproval from various corners of the internet. The long-term torment Anabel and Tom put each other through can be excruciating to read, but it’s also excruciatingly funny. Moreover, Tom’s no saint. He’s scrupulous, but he’s imperfect in his scrupulosity. In an effort to finally convince the woman he loves that he no longer loves her, he sleeps with Anabel’s best friend. This, like his other efforts to break the marriage, fails. What finally frees Tom from the relationship—or begins to—is a trip to Germany to assist his dying mother. While there, he meets Andreas Wolf, a man who he befriends and then spurns and in spurning him sparks off a lifelong rivalry.
If the book is about anything,5 however, it’s about attacking moral absolutism in all forms. That Anabel’s medium for orthodoxy is feminism, I’d argue, says more about Franzen’s engagement with that discourse—as opposed to the easy target of, say, fundamentalist Christianity—than any apparent desire to demonize its goals. The book is also about proving that Franzen isn’t just a stodgy crank—that he gets it. In fact, if that book has a problem, it’s that reality keeps intruding on the story. Franzen take great pains to reassure his reader that Andreas isn’t Assange by openly contrasting the details of background with those of the real-life Assange. There’s even a shady John McAfee analogue whose sole purpose is to show that Assange doesn’t live up to his own image of idealistic perfection. But for me, these intrusions on the book’s internal reality are like pop-up ads encroaching on the story. With as much flak as Franzen has taken, it’s hard to fault the impulse to point out that he understand he real world, and yet these interruptions do light damage to the book.
Many have already decided that Purity amounts to little more than another wounded white male railing against feminism and the internet, but Franzen’s writing about sex and the culture of technology is much savvier than he’s given credit for.6 Because I love Franzen’s books and because his writing, more than any other, made me feel less alone, I have a strong urge to answer every commenter that dismisses it as merely another tiresome Chaitian critique of liberalism 2.0, but it’s impossible to debate the whole internet at once. And while I strongly disagree with that reading, it’s not invalid. I can argue against documentable misconceptions and lies, but I can’t argue against subjectivity itself. For those who love to hate Franzen, with Purity, he’s chummed the waters and yelled, “Come and get me!”
1. If that seems weird—and it is—it’s worth noting that Franzen delivered this supposed insult in 2001, which, aside from being the peak of Oprah’s popularity, was also just about the last year it was socially acceptable—to the extent that it ever has been—to talk about selling out. This was also around the time Moby exploded the very idea by licensing every track on his album Play for television commercials, claiming that it was OK to shill for Toyota because he was giving the money to anti-oil groups anyway. As far as know, no one has ever asked Moby which organizations he gave to, though it’s hard not to assume that he and they share both ABA routing and account numbers.
2. Regarding David Foster Wallace, Franzen was first assailed for being insufficiently grief-stricken at the death of his friend. The problem is that this claim is belied by the evidence itself, Franzen’s 2011 essay “Farther Away,” in which he expresses both sadness and anger at Wallace’s suicide. Having been touched by suicide myself, I can tell you that anger is first of many emotions you feel. You can say that Franzen didn’t love Wallace enough to forgive him or you can say that, because Franzen was a close friend, he loved Wallace enough to hold him to higher standards than the aggrieved commenters who only knew Wallace from his writing. Later, Franzen would be taken to task for admitting to David Remnick that Wallace was less than 100% factual in his essays. Wallace always claimed his essays, however shaped and styled, were fundamentally journalistic. But if you believe this claim or that the dialogue in, for instance, “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” actually happened, you are perhaps the sort of person who should, for your own well-being, avoid late-night infomercials and televangelists. Wallace created a lot of great writing, but it’s worth remembering that the core of Wallace’s first story for a major publication was a transcript from a David Letterman interview, which Wallace lifted wholesale and without attribution.3
3. Though arguably as much an homage as an act of plagiarism, Franzen cribbed a key scene in The Corrections from the climax of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
4. Keep in mind that in 2001 the internet hadn’t quite devoured newsprint but that papers, citing dropping circulation, were starting to cut their books sections, which sparked a whole hysterical discourse about the death of literature. One of most touted signs of the death of literature was the substantial decline in male fiction readers. Franzen not only took part in this discussion, his voice was one of the most hysterical. Later, book publishers would respond with some truly strange attempts to rally a male readership, including the astroturfed trend of “lad lit” and a lot of gratuitously violent Chuck Palahniuk knock-offs.
5. And of course, it is. In the past few years, Franzen has started to say in interviews that he only intends his books as entertainments, but it’s tough to find evidence of such tempered ambitions in his books.
6. The notable exception is Twitter, which Franzen admits he doesn’t use. His argument that it’s shamelessly self-promotional and lends itself to quick, reactionary responses strikes me as largely true, but he fails to recognize the voice and organization it’s given to marginalized groups and protest movements. Nor does he seem to appreciate how powerful it can be as a source of unmediated news.
– Matt Tanner is Art Director at Fiction Advocate.