Back in the GDR
by Peter Marshall
Purity: A Novel,
by Jonanthan Franzen,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pp.
In Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Purity, Andreas Wolf, a sort of Julian Assange figure, speaks of his international fame, “people around you constantly project themselves on you. This is part of why it’s so lonely. It’s as if you’re not even there as a person. You’re merely an object that people project their idealism onto, or their anger, or what have you”. Along with being a cogent statement about the trappings of fame, something of Franzen’s personal experience seems to resonate with these lines.
Since The Corrections shot him into the stratosphere of literary fame almost fifteen years ago, Franzen has become a lightning rod of controversy. It’s hard to think of a writer in the recent past who has stirred up so much controversy over so little. He had a minor spat with Oprah that caused legions of readers to cry “Elitist!” For the elitists, Ben Marcus wrote a long polemic in Harper’s about how Franzen was a promoter and writer of middling, conventional literature. Freedom got him on the cover of Time, which caused a flood of contempt predictably predicated on the words “white” and “male,” and then people got really upset because he wrote about how he didn’t care much for the Internet.
Pettiness and spite are fun, as is proclaiming the second coming of Tolstoy, but behind all the fuss, Franzen remains an immensely talented writer. Freedom and The Corrections are addictive novels populated by full-bodied characters (though sometimes ridiculous subplots) and it’s hard not to be in awe of how much detail and life Franzen brings to his work.
Purity leaves his more familiar territory of the Midwest and its unhappy middle class for would-be revolutionaries and counter-cultural activists living in a squat in Oakland, California. Purity “Pip” Tyler, the central character of the book, is saddled by $130,000 of college debt. Pip is angry, easily provoked, endlessly jealous, and feels powerless. Her mentally needy mother has refused to tell her anything about her father, and the question of her origin, of her paternity, has bothered Pip for years.
A German squatting in the house, Annagret, convinces Pip to apply for an internship with The Sunlight Project, an organization dedicated to exposing cover-ups and shedding light on government secrets. Annagret was once very close to Andreas Wolf, the founder of The Sunlight Project, and encourages Pip to reach out to him. At a point of economic and emotional desperation, and with the prospect that she might be able to learn the truth about her father, Pip is accepted as an intern and travels to The Sunlight Project’s headquarters in Bolivia.
The trademarks of Franzen’s writing are all here: characters are given fully explored backstories that conveniently touch on major issues including college loans, gentrification, the occupy movement and green energy, but Franzen falters. He doesn’t have the pulse of his characters. Much of the attempts at satire in this opening section come off as a groaner of a Portlandia sketch. For example, a middle-aged couple in the house decides to legally adopt their housemate who is in his mid-thirties, and once this couple breaks up, they have to work out custody issues. Oh, those quirky alternative lifestyles! But beyond the weak satire, much of it is overly constructed. At times, the attempts to unpack a character are labored. Much of it feels like a bad imitation of Franzen, at which point you sulk as you realize about 500 pages remain.
The best authors nod, and great novels often contain great mistakes. There is a point in the next hundred pages or so where it looks like this might be the case for Purity, which thankfully, takes a turn to become an engaging and intriguing work that is so good the beginning can be forgiven. The novel jumps back to 1980s East Germany, where we meet Andreas Wolf, the trouble-causing son of a high-ranking Party official. Ignored by the State and forgotten by his parents, he works with troubled youth in an old church. Here he meets Annagret, who at the time is a shockingly beautiful fifteen-year-old who has been sexually abused by her stepfather. Andreas falls violently in love with Annagret and proposes that they kill her stepfather. Together they do this and bury his body behind his parents’ country chateau.
This takes us to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginnings of The Sunlight Project. From here the novel jumps to Leila Helou, a reporter investigating the disappearance of a thermonuclear warhead from a facility in the Southwest. It turns out that Pip is interning for the online newspaper Leila works for, which her partner, Tom Abberant, owns in Denver. Pip has come to this internship after her stay in Bolivia, and there are many questions as to why Pip turned up in Denver, a question that collides with the mystery of who Pip’s father is, Tom’s estranged wife, and the decades-old connection between Tom and Andreas.
One of the truly great aspects of Purity is its construction. Franzen shuffles back and forth in time, introducing new characters who in turn reveal aspects of other characters. He creates tension by jumping around time periods and locations, withholding information and then providing a full picture of past events and the future consequences. With numerous coincidences (most of which are later explained so as to become believable), the multiple plot-lines, the enormous fortune waiting for an heir, questions of paternity, and most obvious, the title character’s nickname Pip, I am sure that roughly three-quarters of all reviews will make some comparison to Dickens. But the author that I see Franzen most in debt to, at least when it comes to the construction and method of laying out the novel’s plot, is Alice Munro.
In a review Franzen wrote of Munro’s book Runaway, he rightfully praised her ability to create suspense, to make the reader follow every twist to the “moments of fateful, irrevocable, dramatic action.” Munro’s shifts in time, her sudden introduction of new characters and the suspenseful act of bringing it together into a sharp emotional point, has a fingerprint in how Franzen has constructed Purity. However, though Franzen may be an expert pupil of Munro’s when it comes to structuring a narrative, he stumbles when he approaches that other element Munro has mastered: psychology.
The character that suffers the most from what can generously be called a fumbling psychological portrait is Andreas Wolf. And there are hundreds of pages given to Andreas. From his erotic yearnings for his mother when he was young, to the sense he has of killing himself when he murders Annagret’s stepfather, Andreas is smudged and splattered by lazy psychological brushstrokes. Much of this is pardonable, a series of weak points in an otherwise compelling narrative, but when we return to Andreas’ story in the second-to last section of the book, the earlier faults are amplified. The failings of the novel become glaring as we enter the halls of Andreas’ guilty mind, where, decades after murdering Annagret’s stepfather, he is haunted by the Killer within him:
Although he knew the Killer was his enemy, he could never quite bring himself to hate it. Whenever he tried to tell himself that he hated it, his mind took a step back and saw that he was lying; he didn’t honestly want to be anything but exactly who he was. (466)
Here, and throughout the novel, the portrayal of Andreas is rather sophomoric and comes across as the product of an amateur who is in awe of Dostoevsky, has taken notes on the sexual perversities in Philip Roth (a la Sabbath’s Theater, Andreas masturbates on a grave,) and who’s buzzing after his first course in Freudian psychology. It would be one thing if Andreas were merely a psychological hodgepodge of a character. Far more egregious, from a literary standpoint, is the degree by which Franzen fails in his attempts to portray this inner world.
As in his other novels, Franzen exposes everything about his characters. Their feelings, their past, their motivations, fears and desires are all laid out in plain view, and it would be hard to argue that the reader is ever called upon to connect the dots. Andreas is presented as a psychological specimen, as if we are reading a dramatized piece of journalism, not entering into the living and suffering mind of a guilt-ridden man wrestling with his psychic demons. Paragraph after paragraph dissect and lay out abstract descriptions of his fears and motives, draining the novel of vitality in an attempt to say something about identity in the internet age:
He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self. The eyes of the world, even the eyes of his followers, didn’t matter for their own sake, in the physical world. Who even cared what a person’s private thoughts about him were? Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, diseminable, and readable way that data did. (492)
And there are countless instances of these expository digressions. They are long, somewhat interesting, but expose a severe limitation of Franzen’s “tell everything” style: He simply doesn’t trust his readers.
While finishing Purity, I was reminded that one of the things that makes certain authors so successful in expressing the psychology of their characters, authors such as Chekov, Munro, or Kafka, even verbose authors such as Joyce or Henry James, is that they take readers into a subtle and ambiguous territory where they must call upon their imaginative resources as they encounter the dark, often unannounced psychological aspects of the story. Of course, this isolates many readers and makes the works of these authors rather difficult.
Richard Strauss once said of himself, “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.” Such a statement might also describe Franzen. He does not make things difficult; he does not, as Wallace Stevens said, make the visible a little hard to see. As realized and accomplished as Franzen’s novels are, they do not challenge our perceptions or sense of life. His direct, never-very-subtle way of writing excavates and leaves little for the imagination to feast on. Despite the superficial appearance of having many pages, many details, and very the literary manners of a verbose style and plenty of metaphors, he is essentially a creative journalist.
Purity is an incredibly uneven book; both Franzen’s fans and detractors will have much to celebrate. Like his other big successes, Purity can be a bit overstuffed with newsworthy items and references from the past several years of American life. He seems to want to write novels that would be candidates for the time vault, so that if people ever wonder what life was like in America at a certain point in the past thirty years, his novels, with all their material and cultural details, will let them know. Franzen succeeds in this, often wonderfully, but leaves us wishing that he would attempt a more daring, more imaginatively demanding expression of his age.
About the Author:
Peter Marshall is a writer who currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.