Our Bodies, Our Selfies

Purity cover

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Following our first review “#JonathanFranzen #Purity,” we present a second opinion on Franzen’s latest.

I found Purity a wholly enjoyable reading experience. The pleasure of the novel kept me up far past my bedtime on multiple nights. Like Freedom and The Corrections before it, Purity showcases Franzen’s extraordinary ability to pull together disparate story threads in service of a sweeping literary statement.

But here’s the thing about Purity: I’m not entirely sure it works. 

I have read most everything Mr. Franzen has published and take great pleasure in seeing his favored themes emerge from the mouths of different characters over the years. Within a few pages, I had already encountered radical environmentalism and references to birding, and was particularly charmed to see his love of the German language come through in this novel. However, I submit that one of the issues with Purity is Franzen’s overreliance on well-trodden territory – I believe that a solid chunk of Purity consists of discarded pages from The Corrections.

In a recently-published lecture, Franzen spoke about the once-main character of The Corrections – a man named Andy Aberant sentenced to prison for a crime his wife committed. This was before Franzen became more interested in the story of two other characters, Enid and Alfred Lambert. He wrote:

Although it’s obvious to me now that Andy didn’t belong in the book, it was anything but obvious at the time. I’d spent a number of really bad years in a marriage becoming intimately and encyclopedically acquainted with depression and guilt, and since Andy Aberrant was defined by his depression and guilt (especially regarding women, and especially regarding women’s biological clocks), it seemed unthinkable not to make use of my hard-won knowledge and keep him in the book.

The only first person section of Purity comes from the character Tom Aberant, a man who, while recounting his ill-fated marriage to his first love, advises the reader, “not to talk to [him] about hatred if you haven’t been married.”

I don’t know Jonathan Franzen, but I do know his writing, and I think it’s a fair proposition that Purity contains more of the author than the works that precede it. Indeed, the “Tom” section is one of the novel’s most captivating, but it does feel a little, well, smushed, into the middle of Purity.

Much of Purity focuses on the vehicles of our lives: our bodies. The characters bemoan their inability to escape the fundamental pains that accompany existence – the trials of aging and the physical breakdown of the body, not to mention the psychic pain that comes when we are separated from those with whom we were once physically close.

The mother of our heroine Purity (Pip) Tyler, spends much of her time engaged in a spiritual “Endeavor” – a continued meditation with the goal of parting with her physical presence. She shares her belief that, “life is nothing but one long process of bodily betrayal” early in the novel.

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Portrait of a Franzen Obsession: The author’s workplace/sleep space while reviewing Purity.

Tom Aberant’s ex-wife has a similarly sick relationship with her body – she’s an anorexic performance artist who refers to her own body as “[her] meat.”  In her mind, her body is an inextricable connection to the sins of her parents.

Maternal influences are a focus of Purity – and the mothers described are various shades of fucked. We see multiple characters renounce their families, their mothers in particular. Even Pip’s mother has tried to escape her heritage – going as far as concealing the identity of Pip’s father. Still, her body gets in the way: her connection to the family she disowned remains in the face that stares back at her in the mirror.

The question of Pip’s parentage is the mystery that drives the novel – taking characters everywhere from the jungles of Bolivia to Oakland, CA to the German Democratic Republic of the 70’s and 80’s. I wasn’t kidding when I said this novel weaves its narrative out of disparate threads. Still, this shouldn’t surprise Franzen fans – remember Joey Berglund’s ill-fated trip to Paraguay in Freedom? Chip Lambert’s dubious business dealings in another failing socialist nation in The Corrections? Both adventures echo in Purity.

Purity unfolds like a detective novel that allows its author to explore the grotesque depths of (I believe) the most pathological characters he’s ever created.

He also finds incredible opportunities for levity. A minor character, Charles Blenheim, a novelist at the “apex” of his career, hard at work on his big book, provides Franzen a fantastic opportunity for self-parody. Charles invites Pip into his home telling her that he has, “great expectations” of her, and after interviewing her about the work of Jonathan Safran Foer, bemoans the, “plague of literary Jonathans.” Charles, blowhard that he is, continues, “If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.”

Right?

I get the feeling that Jonathan Franzen had fun with this novel, which made it a delight to read. It’s a novel that finds meaning in both the inescapable darkness and astonishing beauty that comes with having a life, with having a body.

I’ll end with Franzen’s own words about the erasure or Andy Aberant from The Corrections:

I drew a little tombstone for him in my notes and gave him an epitaph from Faust II: ‘Den können wir erlösen.’ I honestly don’t think I understood what I meant then in saying, ‘Him we can redeem.’ But it makes sense now.

 

Andra Belknap is an actress, activist and writer based in Washington, DC. She writes occasionally self-indulgent essays here.

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