By Jonathan Franzen


We were going to have to talk about Jonathan Franzen eventually.

Whether you like him or not, Franzen has earned (by skill or notoriety) consideration as one of the preeminent living American novelists. He keeps churning out novels that keep being taken very seriously by the critical establishment, and, like, Barack Obama.

I have a complicated emotional relationship with Franzen. On the one hand, I suspect Franzen is probably kind of an asshole, and I don’t think he’s the sort of generation-defining novelist he clearly believes that he is. On the other hand, I find his novels bizarrely absorbing. They are almost astonishingly vividly imagined – you get the sense that if you asked him where the aunt of the ex-boyfriend of the main character’s best friend went to college, he would know that.

I’ve read ‘The Corrections‘ and ‘Freedom‘, which are about the normal existential angst of normal people as they normally age (sort of, but essentially). I was therefore surprised to hear that he had written a novel about a young woman who, while, yes, having existential angst, rather non-normally joins a group of anarcho-hackers in Bolivia who are led by a charismatic Julian Assange-like figure. It sounded like of a departure, and I enjoyed his other books enough anyway, so I decided to read it.

Purity‘ turns out to actually be several stories. It is the story of the eponymous Purity “Pip” Tyler, a 23 year old woman who has been raised in Northern California by her lunatic mother Penelope, who will not tell her who her father is or even her own family name.

Pip decides to accept an internship with the Sunshine Project, a possible-cult which collects incriminating documents about governments and corporations from leaks and hacks and then publishes them. The Sunshine Project is lead by Andreas Wolf, who is handsome and charismatic and German and psychotic.

Purity‘ is also the story of Andreas Wolf, and of the one man he ever considered a friend, Tom Aberant, who is now the editor of the Denver Independent. Tom is one of the two people who know Andreas’ darkest secret, that he once killed a man, and so he will send Pip to work at the Denver Independent, to spy on Tom and threaten him.

And it’s also the story of Leila Helou, Tom’s partner, who is married to someone else and who is trying to help Tom get over his catastrophic first marriage to a woman named Anabel Laird. Anabel was a mentally unstable heiress and performance artist who destroyed his life.

Purity‘ is complicated. And, in this way, it’s a departure from Franzen’s novels (at least from the ones I’ve read). His other novels are intricate, but they are realistic. ‘Purity’ is not realistic. It is about absurd people, celebrities, and unlikely, impossible, coincidences. It’s about messianic hacktivists, and secret billionaires, and surprise children.

If this plot sounds furry and outlandish, it is, but in a good way. It’s like Franzen has loosened up, and decided to write about things that actually entertain him (murder), rather than things he thinks are going to earn him awards (midlife crises). And the new, loose look really works on him: ‘Purity‘ is really fun to read. Much funner than ‘The Corrections‘, that’s for sure. It’s got that usual Jonathan Franzen pull, but with way more plot than his other novels.

But there’s a problem, and I’m not quite sure how to express it.

Ok, how about this:

My father once said something about Phillip Roth that really stuck with me.

I’m sure you know this, but many people think quite highly of Phillip Roth. One of those people is my mother, who has all of his books and thinks that he is one of the greatest American novelists.

My family was arguing about Roth one day – someone (I don’t remember who) had ventured the possibility that he is overrated (it was me) – and my mother was outraged. My father listened patiently to her arguments and then, at the end, simply said, “I don’t know. I want to like him, but it makes me feel weird that, in every single one of his novels, the “narrator” has to blow a load on a woman’s face. I don’t want to know that much about Philip Roth.”

My dad was exactly right: sometimes, an author reveals himself a little too intimately for the comfort of the reader. Something about their fiction feels too real, they seem a little too fixated on something, or something is described a little too lovingly, or in a little too much detail. And you know that you have, unwillingly, gotten a little peak into their mind. That they have shown you their own predilections, without your consent.

Jonathan Franzen

That you can never know for sure only makes this feeling creepier. Maybe you’re wrong – maybe Philip Roth doesn’t get off on degrading women, not even a little, not even the slightest tiny bit, and it’s a coincidence that it happens in basically every single one of his novels – and you’ve falsely convicted some innocent author, in your mind, of a preference they do not have. It’s a suspicion you can never prove. But what distinguishes this feeling is a certainty that you have learned something about the author, and not about the book.

What I”m trying to say is, I’m a little creeped out by the emphasis on cunnilingus in ‘Purity‘. Normally, I’m very pro, but I’m getting hung up on how much time Franzen spends talking about how much his adult male characters enjoy going down on young women. Very young women.

Maybe it’s just super necessary for the plot that several middle aged guys get an enormous amount of sexual enjoyment from going down on barely-legal women in their care. Oh, yes, in their care, or employ. So, I suppose I should have said: middle aged guys get an enormous amount of sexual enjoyment from going down on barely-legal women over whom they have power.

It’s a whole skeevy thing, and it’s really tainting my impression of a book that I otherwise enjoyed a lot more than I thought it would. I was glued to ‘Purity’, but I kept being yanked out of my single-minded absorption by the awful feeling that I was spying on some private fantasy of Jonathan Franzen’s. Not a fun, sexy one. A yucky one.

Purity‘ is a fun read, it truly is. It made me want to like Franzen more, it made him seem less pretentious. ‘Purity’ doesn’t read like a novel written by a man desperate to prove he’s serious; it reads like a novel written by someone who loves to write novels, and it’s so much more enjoyable.

If it weren’t for the Humbert Humbert thing, this would be a mild rave review, a sort of rave-by-comparison. But the truth is, I remember a lot more about the cunnilingus than I do about the rest of the plot. And not in a good way. And it’s left me with an uneasy feeling. I want to like Jonathan Franzen, but I didn’t want to know that much about him.

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