What Started As a Review of Jonathan Franzen’s New Novel, “Purity,” but Turned Into an Essay About How Terrified I Am of Other People’s Talent

While it isn’t always the case that a novel will be good just because the writer took a long time with it (Norman Mailer’s once-ridiculed and now-forgotten Ancient Evenings took eleven years to write; Faulkner took a little over a month with As I Lay Dying) there’s the hope, as Jonathan Franzen suggested in a 2011 interview with Oprah Winfrey, that the reason the writer’s taking so long with a c project is because she’s making sure she has something new to say. Not to mention the labor of saying it clearly and lyrically and well.

So when you look at Jonathan Franzen’s own track record and see that his last two novels, The Corrections (released on September 11, 2001) and Freedom (2011), each took about a decade to produce, and that both were hailed as masterpieces and Great American Novels, it’s fair, I think, to be a little wary of the fact that his new novel Purity (to be released on September 1) is just as long as those previous novels, just as complex and ambitious, but was written in only four years (during which he released two books of non-fiction: Farther Away (2012) and The Kraus Project (2014)).

But the book is good. Very good. Compulsively readable and insightful, funny and sad, and — a first for Franzen — genuinely exciting in one sub-plot about murder and another about a “misplaced” nuclear weapon.

Very very good as it is, and emphatically as I’d recommend it to almost everybody, Purity isn’t quite so Great as the last two novels. Though its scope is larger, geographically, and it manages some remarkable feats of pacing and plot-juggling that a younger Franzen might not have pulled off and stands, overall, as the work of a stronger writer than the one who wrote Freedom, and The Corrections, the story in Purity doesn’t seem as emotionally immersive as its predecessors’. Like this one maybe came more from the brain than the heart. Perhaps it’s because the gaps, in space and time, between its characters are too broad? Going from modern-day U.S. to 1980s Berlin to modern-day South America and then back to the U.S., again in the 1980s. Compare that to Freedom where, although the book goes off and spends roughly a hundred pages at a time in the company of a certain character, and the settings change and we jump around in time, you never get a sense that the characters are too far removed from each other. It feels like we’re in the same world throughout. And the feeling is intimate.

Seems to be necessary of book reviews that a summary be provided; but since, like Franzen’s last two novels, this book is comprised of several novellas that track the intertwining affairs of several characters’ lives, a summary’s hard to do. And harder, here, than it is with those previous novels because of the mystery and intrigue and plot-twisting elements in Purity that I don’t want to risk spoiling (because it’s seriously a really good book and you should definitely read it).

But the broadstrokes are these: a 24-year-old woman named Pip, to escape both a disastrously unrequited love for one of her middle-aged housemates as well as the needs of a painfully neurotic and emotionally fragile mother, joins a group of whistle-blowers in South America. The group is led by a cunnilingus-crazed, Oedipal, Dostoevskian Cassanova named Andreas, whose backstory in the German Democratic Republic is as engaging a section as anything Franzen’s ever written. Maybe the best.

Usual Franzen themes abound of family and love, the tricky relationships between people and their country, young people with strange relationships to their mothers.

Also there’s a subplot concerning a nonprofit newspaper’s efforts to get a lead on the story of a missing nuclear weapon. Not even sure how to talk about this part of the story, and Pip’s involvement, without blotting out certain surprises in the novel.

Which I really don’t wanna do because the book is terrific, I’m not kidding.

But my issue here, as somebody who reads a lot of fiction and cares a lot about it and wants/tries to write it, is that it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from Franzen at this point in his career. And I know it’s probably wrong to expect anything of an artist, that expectations are usually a hope that they’ll please you rather than just be true to themselves and do their own thing, but Franzen is a particularly interesting figure in the book scene today and so, I think, commands a bit of attention himself. This attention being merited, first, by his throne-like perch in the ranks of serious contemporary novelists and but also his great commercial success. The Corrections has sold over three million copies and Freedom probably the same.

In 1996, several years before The Corrections came out, Franzen published an essay in Harper’s (originally titled “Perchance to Dream”, later reprinted with the title “Why Bother”, but which is still mostly just referred to as “the Harper’s essay”) wherein he explores the novel’s dwindling cultural significance, the novel(ist)’s duty, and also the line between commercial and literary fiction. He talks demographics and sales figures and what seems like the hopeless fight for Americans’ attention among film and TV and literature, but he also talks about how an artist forges and preserves the integrity of her self and work, and of the idea that, if these bits of integrity are to be preserved, the artist isn’t allowed to really pay attention to the business side of things (demographics and so forth) lest she be tempted to forego her honest vision and go, instead, for the bigger payday by slaking the mass-market’s thirst for something generic and vapid and predictable (not that there’s any sort of moral component here, like an artist is suddenly a bad person to be producing stuff that’s mean to just placate a big audience, but it doesn’t do much for the culture when the only media that’s consumed is that which poses no challenge, intellectual or emotional or moral, and it certainly doesn’t help the overall discourse within the medium). That great art — if I’m reading him correctly — is usually, and perhaps necessarily, born of honest expression and that it’s risky to be totally honest when you consciously want people to buy your book because honesty is volatile, and usually less-than-sympathetic, and so runs the risk of offending or depressing or repelling your audience and thereby hurting your sales, your career, self-esteem and so on.

That there’s more integrity in honest obscurity than vapid popularity.

And yet Franzen, for The Corrections and Freedom and soon for Purity, embarks upon these huge international book tours to promote his novels and, in the process, he talks to readers. Which he says he enjoys, to an extent, and that these interactions are an influence on what he writes thereafter. Or at least how he writes it.

Not slavishly, of course; the subject matter of his novels often goes to weirder (a session of phone sex in which a woman’s clitoris stretches out and spaghettifies so as to slip down her partner’s urethra) and more esoteric places (Franzen’s general interest in science leads him into expounding on geology, or the economics of war, or the jargon-laden assessments of Alzheimer’s and depression) than any novelist who wrote solely for the purpose of entertaining a massive audience would bother/risk exploring.

What’s remarkable about Franzen though is his discipline; whereby, for all of his linguistic and syntactical savvy, a reader of these three recently novels will almost never come across a sentence that feels senseless or purple or lazy. His interest is communication, storytelling, efficiency.

And that this is fine, is what I’m basically starting to tell myself.

I work at a high school and at a college and so for the entire month of August I basically have nobody expecting anything of me and I’m free to float around as I please. So this August, alone for the entire month in the house where I grew up, I decided, after reading Purity, to go back and re-read The Corrections and Freedom.

Although I like to read, have always liked to read, and often devour articles where people explain why they too have always liked to read, the explanations I tend to hear other readers give for why they love literature often sound foreign. Particularly the idea of “escape.” That if the reader feels stressed about something in their personal life, or if they’re heartbroken or angry, they’ll just crack a book and feel suddenly “transported.” Distracted and soothed if not healed.

And yet I know that, in my own life, anything I do when I’m angry or sad tends to get caught up and mishandled in the petulant little dustspouts of that anger or sadness. I don’t read or write very well, I’m unpleasant to talk with, and apparently emanate something disagreeable such that my dog sleeps at my feet as opposed to my hip. My experiences of book effectively transporting me from a bad place of mind, or guiding me toward some real type of inner peace, have been so rare and exemplary that I have a hard time understanding what these other readers are talking about when they say that all of literature, every book, is hypnotic and magical and lifting.

What it is for me, if the writing is good and I’m interested in the subject, is engaging. Particularly in the past couple months, as all my reading has been somewhat sidelined by efforts to finish up the second draft of a really long writing project. A project that by now is legitimately horrifying and keeps me awake at night and vacant-eyed in traffic because the manuscript has basically reached a point where, to put it casually, it is what it is. Maybe it’s good, maybe it sucks. I really don’t know, and I’m scared about it. All of this time and effort and disclosure I’ve put down and it’s very likely that nobody will want to read it. And not even necessarily because it’s bad. Or so I tell myself. But just that it’s not the sort of thing people wanna read. So it goes.

I send slivers of the thing out to various magazines and websites for publications and get rejection after rejection. So many rejections; all of them generic, impersonal, passionately uninterested. I got a rejection letter that began, “Dear Aaron.” (My name’s not Aaron.)

In the wake of so much rejection, all this fog clearing to reveal the enormous likelihood of failure, my relationship with books, particularly fiction, is becoming way more complicated.

Take Vonnegut, for example. I love Kurt Vonnegut. I feel a serious affection for him and his work as one feels toward any heartfelt high school mentor. But then I’ll read one of the several collections of his awful, early, pot-boiling short stories that’ve been collected and published in the wake of his death and I get irrationally angry. Livid that the publisher used up thousands of pounds of material printing these asinine books that could otherwise have been put toward publishing something worthwhile from somebody more obscure.

Like my book, basically. I seldom put it that way, but that’s pretty much what I’m feeling. It’s selfish and stupid but really severe. Like it impedes my driving if I think about it too much.

Or I’ll read any odd passage out of Suttree and feel an ineptitude that transcends writing. Like I’m not just an awful writer by comparison to Cormac McCarthy but stupid, too; weird-looking.

Or even worse is the experience of browsing blogs and online literary journals and seeing how many brilliant, talented, funny and compassionate writers are floundering in obscurity.

Every good piece of fiction I read lately makes me look over at my own manuscript with a new and visceral kind of worry, like some blind tourettic centaur I have to bring to a wedding. I’m restless about getting the whole thing done and out the door but also terrified about the feedback I’ll receive when that happens — to say nothing about the whole hangup concerning good fiction v. commercial fiction and what distinguishes one from the other and how they might both go together so that I could be not only published and revered but also enjoy the sort of appallingly lavish wealth whereby I can afford to buy a house and a Pac-Man machine and maybe a surgery if I should ever need it.

Because while I usually ascribe to this somewhat pissy idea that the artist of real merit is almost always condemned to obscurity, I just spent three weeks reading about 1,500 pages of Franzen’s recent fiction, genius books of enormous literary merit, and had the experience while reading these books of honestly forgetting where I was. 1,500 transporting, entertaining, enlightening pages. A reading experience where, routinely, I’d look up after seventy pages to see that there’d been a full and untouched — now lukewarm and inedible — drink beside me the whole time. Or that the sun had gone down. Or come up. Or that it’s actually way louder in this bar than I’d’ve normally found conducive to reading.

And it wasn’t depressing, seeing the writer’s talent. I didn’t have the experience with these books, as I’ve recently had with other great books, of closing its cover and setting it down and then eyeing it suspiciously, like I just realized I’m half-naked in the bed of somebody I’m supposed to hate. I wanted to celebrate these books. Celebrate them for capturing the vicissitudes of their subjects in an honest, smart, compassionate way. I put down a Franzen novel and find that I like my family a little more (particularly after The Corrections). I feel smarter for his having distilled enormously complicated stuff into the most clear and straightforward prose. To think, “Hm, that’s how everyday people were able to capitalize on the war in Iraq,” (Freedom) or even just getting a sense of what life was like under the Stasi or how a pharmaceutical company works its way around patent laws. Not epiphanies, necessarily, but windows into parts of life that you’d maybe never considered before. Or that you’d once glanced at but gotten sullen about, and then turned away from, because you were sure it was too complicated for somebody like you to understand (which is something I experience almost daily: whether it’s my reluctance to embark upon William T. Vollmann’s voluminous and beloved Seven Dreams series, or my total agitated unwillingness to hear you even try to explain to me how to make a lasagna).

For all of its flaws, and for all of the rocks that’ll be thrown at this book simply because it comes from the pen of a commercially successful writer, the greatest praise I can give to Purity, and to Franzen’s skill, is that it elicits, for me, the excitement and enthusiasm reserved for that one-in-a-thousand novel. Makes clearer to me why a novel can matter. Reminds me of the community of readers to which I belong, of writers to which I aspire, and overall makes me feel a good deal less lonely.

Which is something.


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