I read every other novel by Jonathan Franzen during a period of about 18 months after really, really enjoying Freedom when it was new. This was about four/five years ago, and each further novel I read and enjoyed less and less.
There are three things about Franzen as a writer that I picked up from reading The Corrections, Strong Motion, The 27th City and Freedom. These are thus:
- He is terrible at writing endings.
- He is pretty bad at writing women.
- He is excellent at writing white, middle-aged, libidinous men with great jobs, rocky marriages and comfortable financial situations.
In Purity, his new novel (published over here last week), he has clearly tried to address that second point. And, alas, he has failed.
Franzen, I suppose, should be praised for his bravery in even attempting to tackle his most commonly picked-on criticism, but Purity as a novel is a disappointment and, to be honest, it’s because Franzen spends too much time doing what he can’t do well, and only about a quarter of the text doing what it is he excels at.
I read an article in New Statesman last week about Woody Allen (link here), where it detailed that the themes and the comedy in Allen’s work changed, somewhat, when the director moved from masturbation to murder.* This exact same transformation happens to one of the central characters in Franzen’s novel – Andreas Wolf, the charming, Assange-like leader of a WikiLeaks-like company called The Sunlight Project. Wolf starts off by being a character who is described as “charming”, but he does little to evidence this until far into the novel. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Quick synopsis first:
Purity, known as Pip, is a young woman living in a squat in Oakland, California. She is recruited by a beautiful German woman to join The Sunlight Project as an intern at its base of operations in Bolivia. The fruit that is used to tempt her is the opportunity to discover the truth of her parents. Pip’s mother lives in a shack at the top of a mountain, but used to have a completely different life – she ran away from the man who was Pip’s biological father, changed her name and raised the child, alone, in the countryside. Pip has already realised that her mother’s various stories about her past are evasive and inconsistent, and wants to know the truth. This leads her to the truth-telling organisation, which in turn leads her to the Denver Independent, a high brow news organisation whose founder is the only person in the world who knows about the murder I mentioned above that Wolf committed.
We then get a flashback to Wolf’s youth in East Germany in the ’80s (where he matures from masturbation to murder), the collapse of the Wall, the set-up of his organisation and his rise to international fame, surpassing that of Julian Assange because, as Franzen repeatedly has characters tell us, Wolf didn’t do any weird sex stuff (that anyone knows about).
This section in East Germany is where the novel picks up – all of a sudden the cadence of Franzen’s prose is better, the way he writes about sex makes more sense, the value judgements and opinions and aspirations and thoughts within his writing all fall out more effortlessly once the narrative focus is on an intelligent, successful, prominent man of Franzen’s own age. This bit is fun, frivolous (perhaps), all murder and sex with teens and spying and strange relationships with mad mothers**. After this, we go forward to Pip in Denver, with a bit of close indirect discourse from the guy running Denver Independent and his partner, then we go back to Pip in Bolivia, then we go back a long way into the real best bit of the novel.
‘[le1o0n8a0rd]’ is a novella within the novel. It is 125 pages long (about a quarter of the whole) and a fully-fledged first person account of the life of Tom, the guy who runs Denver Independent. It is witty, prurient, glamorous, international; it is about money and sex and murder and jealousy and fame and self-interest; it is far simpler than what Franzen is trying to do with the novel as whole (and what he’s tried to do with every novel he’s written), but he can do it. It is the memoir of a middle-aged man and his adventures in the world. It is picaresque, it’s fun, it’s exciting. It’s easy, though, and Franzen does not have the status he has today because he wrote easy books. These novella, though, is a GREAT easy novella. I came in from work at 12.30am*** and intended to read a few pages before going to bed. I stuck out all of ‘[le1o0n8a0rd]’ and went to bed at 3ish. Franzen, by setting his sights within the level of his abilities, wrote one of the most engaging things I’ve read in a while.
We then return to the present day, with Wolf in Bolivia, then there’s a sentimental ending with Pip where she finds a nice boyfriend with a nice dog.
There’s nothing, unlike in his other novels, that feels out of place. Everything that seems jarring, plotwise, is pulled together tightly by the end, and the whole thing feels less rushed than one would expect, Franzen having taken about the half the time with this one that he usually spends on a novel.
The ending was smaltzy, but didn’t leave me unsatisfied and confused. Pip’s character was vastly overshadowed by the far better written men around her, who are in theory background characters to a novel about her. Franzen tries to sound young and hip in his treatment of the internet, but we all know he hates it and you can tell, really – he drops names and companies like he knows what he’s talking about, but there is only scorn, ultimately, as there is in the infamous scene (if you’ve read other reviews) where a white male novelist talks about white male novelists. Franzen doesn’t seem to like the world he lives in, and even this technically internationally-minded piece – Germany in the 50s through 90s, America in the 70s through the present, Bolivia now (though a Jamestown-like settlement within Bolivia) – isn’t actually international at all. It’s all Western, it’s all establishment, and the discussion of technology feels that it’s present by rote than because it’s anything Franzen is passionately interested in. Political structures and corruption in the past are the bits Franzen gets excited about, but you can tell that he doesn’t have an interest in WikiLeaks, and you can tell he feels alienated by technology, not liberated by its usefulness.
If Purity is meant to discuss the capitalised Internet in the same way that Freedom discussed the capitalised Environment, Franzen has been found lacking. If Purity is meant to prove that he can write women now, the far better way he writes men shows that to be false. It’s fun, but a bit under-edited; the bits that are best are the bits that were easy – when Franzen tries to push himself here he doesn’t quite make it.
Then again, I worry that Franzen only really had one novel in him. With each extra one I’ve read, I’ve had diminishing returns, and I’m scared to go back to Freedom in case the magic my younger, optimistic, self found there has maybe been worn away.
Purity isn’t a bad novel, but it’s not a great one. Inside is a fun, frothy, prurient, novella. And is that the best thing “America’s greatest living novelist” should be producing?
Oh, and he also tries to write about tennis at one point, clearly trying to be David Foster Wallace. He can’t compete.
I wouldn’t bother.
* There is no indication that this happened anywhere other than in his films.
** All the women – with the exception of Pip – are pretty much insane. Even those that are not are irrational and lack a full understanding of their own aims and expectations from life. Also, everyone is really rich. Even people that are meant to be poor, they’re always comfortable.
*** I manage a bar, The Dolls House, in Islington, London. Come visit. Or check out the website.