“Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises,” Jonathan Franzen writes in Purity (576 pages). “But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.” Even minds undamaged by exposure to the internet will catch the phallic connotation, though they will justifiably wonder whether Franzen is having a joke at his own expense or registering a profound truth in gnomic terms.
The metaphor, like so much of Franzen’s work – and especially like this new novel – is slightly off, while containing enough of value to make it impossible to entirely discount. It is true: shifting technologies of writing – analog typewriter, digital keyboard – have ineluctably altered the manner and mode of literary production. Likewise, the hypertrophic scale of the novel today probably speaks of a lack of confidence in the centrality of the form: a puffing up of the author’s feathers, a hopeless hyperinflation to keep up with the breeding terabytes of the web.
Like one of those people whose shyness manifests itself as rudeness or boastfulness in social situations, Franzen’s fictions are considerable achievements presented with such accompanying rhetorical bristle that we feel resentment even as we enjoy and admire them. That the author is only too aware of this can be seen in the peevish, pre-emptive auto-criticism with which he armours his pages. As one character in Purity, a hard-drinking, wheelchair-bound failed novelist opines:
So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.
But the thunk of my copy as it lands on the desk, the way its massed pages sigh as they spread down the middle, make a lie of these ironic deprecations. Franzen really does possess ambition and talent; he really does mourn the loss of a heroic, masculine, culturally vital notion of the novel and the author. This makes his body of work a fascinating case study in recuperative determination – and Purity, perhaps, his most explicitly reactionary document yet.
Purity is not a virtue but a young woman who goes by the name of Pip (the Dickensian sprawl of the novel, its trafficking in lost fathers and innocent orphans and vast inheritances left in abeyance are all aspects of Franzen’s activist nostalgia). Pip grows up in a small mountain community in Santa Cruz, with a mother whose mental instability is reflected in a paranoia regarding technology, an absolute desire for privacy and a fierce attachment to her daughter. Of her father, little can be gleaned; it is only in her teens that Pip learns he was an abusive and controlling man who would steal her away should he discover their whereabouts.
Pip moves to nearby Oakland as a young adult, a college graduate with mommy issues and $130,000 in student debt, living in bohemian squalor among a community of Occupy activists and hackers. There she meets Annagret, a beautiful older German woman who invites her to join The Sunshine Project, a WikiLeaks-style outfit founded by one Andreas Wolf, a handsome and morally impeccable airer of secrets who has based himself in South America. Pip’s decision to head to Bolivia as a paid intern will draw into the young woman’s orbit a cast of disparate characters whose pasts turn out to be connected. One truth that emerges from such unlikely linkages is that we remain innocently credulous as readers: we may note the unlikeliness of the coincidence in these pages, but we welcome the frisson those coincidences generate.
And it is the retrospective explorations of significant characters that impress. Andreas, for instance, is the coddled child of senior East German party functionaries in Berlin during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It is a domestic set-up deformed by politics and addled by the fraught, damaged relationship between Andreas and his mother (as we learned from Franzen’s breakout novel The Corrections, the author is at his absolute best when invigilating the torsions of family life). When the wall comes down and Andreas heads West, eventually achieving Assange-level notoriety, his mature decisions are irradiated by experiences that shaped him continents away and decades before.
There are blind spots, however, such as Franzen’s portraits of women. In particular, Anabel – neurotic heiress and ultra-feminist – is more of a male nightmare than a breathing being, and his walk-on women are drawn with an equally crude, catty and unkind brush. Collectively they expose a glaring contradiction between the author’s theoretical support for feminism and his blokeish vision of what the novel should ideally return to being. He shows no indication of appreciating that earlier, grander iterations of the novel contained their own restrictions and flaws. As Thomas Hardy wrote during the Victorian era, that historical apogee of the novel form, it is “difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs”.
Aside from Franzen’s problems with women, there is his problem with the internet. There are enough proddingly didactic moments in these pages for the narrative to suffer, and most of them concern Facebook, the surveillance state, the destruction of old-school journalism, the depredations of online porn, and so on. Again and again the reader feels that today’s technology is taking the fall for old human atavisms. This scolding of the contemporary moment reaches an absurd upper limit when Leila, an investigative journalist who takes Pip under her wing, complains to herself about the column inches devoted to climate change over those given to loosely secured nuclear weapons. It turns out Franzen is even nostalgic about older methods for planetary destruction.
Yet for all its flaws, Purity reveals an author with a widescreen imagination, a melodramatic flair for plot, and a sense of narrative architecture so sure that it really does seem to come from another era. When he forgets his grievances, shakes off his sociopathic fugues, nuance creeps back in – and then you remember why you’re reading the guy in the first place. AF
Fourth Estate, 576pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Jonathan Franzen, Purity". Subscribe here.