Purity

By Jonathan Franzen

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

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.

Americanah

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s always interesting, being shown your own culture from the outside.  Depending on your inclinations, it can either be great fun, or, I sense, really not fun, irritating, wounding even.

Probably, the sense of the fun of the thing, the jolt of the change of perspective, that strange thrill of recognition of behaviors you know seen from a different angle, is directly related to your own personal distance from those behaviors: it’s neat to see your neighbors in the fun-house mirror, not yourself.

AmericanahBut that can’t be the whole story, because sometimes it’s even fun to see yourself, your own quirks and artifacts and preoccupations, examined by a mind which has not bought in to your norms, your assumptions.  It makes you uneasy, yes, but it’s still kind of mesmerizing, right?  In a slightly narcissistic way?  It’s like watching a video of yourself when you hadn’t known you were being filmed – do I really do that?  Is it that obvious?  Is that how that shirt actually looks?

Books about America are usually written by Americans (we’ve been very lucky that way).  Sure, every once and a while some acidic European will launch an attack at us from across the pond, but since they do it from a safe distance, and since their tone is always a little hysterical, it’s easy for us to ignore them.  We roll around here, enormous and convivial, and most of the culturally critical literature that we read comes from within.

And there is enormous value in criticism of Americans by Americans.  To put it plainly, we understand ourselves in a way no one else does.  But there is something bracing in reading about what we look like to transplants, immigrants, people who have come here, who have, in some senses, opted in to our systems and values, but who nonetheless see us as alien.  A good book which does that, shows us what it feels like to walk, as an outsider, among us, is really fun to read.

Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from The Guardian

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria.  She came to the United States when she was 19.  Her list of degrees and accolades is enormous – among other things, she is a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient (for the record, there is almost no single award which impresses me more than this).  She spent decades living and studying in the United States, now splitting her time, apparently, between Nigeria and the US.

And that’s what ‘Americanah‘ is about: it is about a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu who comes to the United States, studies, lives, becomes a writer, and returns home.  It is about what Nigeria is like, what America is like to a Nigerian, what it means to return home, how you love people who are like you, how you love people who are not like you.

And it’s about race.  Ifemelu rises to prominence in the United States as a race blogger, someone who writes about race in this country from the perspective of a non-American African, someone who is simply a person in her home country but, upon arriving in ours, discovers that she is now considered ‘black’.

Adichie is, I think, kinder to Americans than we deserve, essentially amused and frustrated by us.  White Americans (of which I am one) are, in her book, mostly well-meaning but oblivious, or irrelevant, or genteelly racist.  The incredible toxicity of the race divide in the United States, the deaths and incarcerations, shootings and violence and long economic oppression, all form the backdrop to this novel, but they are not foregrounded.  It is, at its heart, a love story, and I experienced it that way: as a story of two lives who wind around and around the world before they find their way back to each other.  Their racial otherness in other countries is part of their journeys, but ‘Americanah‘ is their story, not the story of civil rights in the United States.

One of the blurbs on my copy is from New York Magazine: “Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness: its most obsessive taxonomist, its staunchest defender, and its fiercest critic.”  I don’t know about everything after the colon, but the first assertion makes sense to me.  Roth’s books, though so much less humane, less lovely than ‘Americanah‘, are also about Jewish people rather than about Jewishness.  It is possible to connect with his protagonists as individuals, not merely as racial stand-ins, and their stories are wider than their categories.  Imefelu is like that – she is having a whole, complicated life, of which her blackness is but one part.

Americanah‘ is the kind of novel I really struggle to judge critically.  It comes down, I think, to the question of what novels, as an art form, are for.  Some novels, a very, very few, are Great Novels: when you read these novels, you have the constant awareness that you are in the presence of Art.  Sometimes, you enjoy them; sometimes, you don’t, but you always feel enriched, and virtuous, for having read them.  These novels have characters, but they are about Humanity.  For me, the best example of this kind of novel, the one I perhaps love the best, is ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

Then, there is another kind of novel, the kind where, as you read it, you aren’t aware of anything at all.  These novels are so absorbing that you get lost in them – you forget your own name while you read them.  I tend to fly through these novels, carry them with me everywhere, read them in line at the grocery store and in the bathroom during the work day.

But is magnetism, the ability to captivate your reader, the same thing as greatness in a novel?  These novels rarely, say, impress me with the beauty of their language (in fact, in order to be really absorbing, in some ways the language needs to not be great – if you notice a lovely sentence, you are pulled out of the narrative).  They do not employ sophisticated or subtle metaphor.  They don’t push the boundaries of the form.  They are excellent stories about fascinating characters, but maybe those specific characters are all they’re about.  Is that a Great Novel?

Jonathan Franzen is, for me, the best example of this kind of novelist.  I devour his novels, just blow through them.  I live in them while I read them – I find his world-building super thorough and effective.  But, when they’re done, they don’t stay with me at all.  I can remember only the barest outlines of the plot.  Are they Great Novels?  Or are they simply great reads?

Americanah‘ was like this for me.  I was glued to it.  I really cared about what was going to happen next; I was invested in the characters.  I loved the experience of reading it.  But there was no passage which will stay with me.  There is no beautiful description, no language to which I will refer again and again.  I don’t even remember, now, the name of the man Ifemelu loves, though I remember descriptions of him, I remember his story.

However, in some ways I expect that ‘Americanah‘ will stay with me more than other novels.  Adichie’s depiction of my country has lodged in my mind, and will tweak the boundaries of my perception a little, widen out my scope.  When someone shows you yourself from the outside, it’s almost impossible to unsee.  I guess I’m one of the people who finds getting a different glimpse of myself fun, even when it isn’t flattering.