With Updike now gone, and Roth no longer writing, the baton of “Great American Novelist” has been passed to Jonathan Franzen. After all, he was anointed as such by Time Magazine after the publication of his last novel, Freedom. Sure, there are other important American novelists; John Irving, Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oats, to name but a few. But Franzen happens to stand out, although John Irving also merits such consideration. Irving is the more prolific and they share a Dickensian perspective on character development and social commentary. These are writers of substance and so when Franzen’s Purity was published, I made sure I was first on Amazon’s list to receive a copy – it was even delivered on a Sunday.
I wish I had had the time to simply sit down and read it through in a couple of days. Instead, my usual routines encroached as well as my propensity to draw out the books I enjoy the most, lingering over certain passages.
Franzen, like Irving, is a writer’s writer, possessing a unique take on story development, the intersecting of characters, the timelessness of subjects he covers, as well as his observations of contemporary life. Remember Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities – his social commentary on the themes of the 1980’s, greed, racism, politics and class separation? Franzen addresses the “new” issues of the post millennium, power struggles between men and women, global warming, the changes wrought by the Internet – both in how we communicate and how it’s impacted interpersonal relationships – and the hanging Sword of Damocles which is nuclear catastrophe. These are high wire themes, anxiety producing, and disturbing.
So one could say that social realism is Franzen’s strength, but his writing is more than that. In reading this novel I had the sense that it was writing itself, it having an internal energy that flowed through, rather than by, the author. I know that sounds otherworldly, but I felt as if I was witnessing something that is happening in the here and now, a story into which the reader gives himself over, with characters that are real.
I used to rely on Updike’s Rabbit novels, a new one published approximately every ten years for four decades, to capture this nation’s Zeitgeist, and I felt part of it. Franzen is like Updike in this regard, not to mention matching Updike’s towering intellect. These are two very smart, robust writers. Updike was elegantly fluent with language, whereas Franzen’s prose hits you like a sledgehammer, delving deeply into his characters’ inner lives. Purity expands upon his last novel, Freedom which concludes with the first few years of the 21st century. The state of our hyper world is evolving faster than in Updike’s time and it is remarkable to see those changes so well documented in this novel.
At the heart of the story is a literal murder, but there are symbolic murders throughout, men and women in sexual power struggles, adult children and their parents who have their own special power struggles, identity crises in abundance. Through their actions, these characters bring about an existential disconnection that seems to epitomize this second decade of the 21st century. There is a healthy dose of misanthropic analysis to be pondered.
Structurally the novel consists of several intersecting stories, timelines sometimes out of order. At the heart is “Pip” as Purity Tyler is known. Pip’s nickname is Franzen’s hat tip to Dickens’ character in Great Expectations. Like Dickens’ Pip, Purity is the thread that ties together many lives. First our Pip is on a quest to discover the identity of her father – and by so doing hoping to eradicate a student loan of six figures (“her student debt was functionally a vow of poverty”), and find out exactly who she is, intellectually, morally, socially. She is adrift and works at a “shit job” (the implication being all loan-burdened graduates are subjugated to those kinds of jobs) as a cold call sales agent for “Renewable Solutions” -- selling home owners on using government renewable energy tax credits by investing in projects for their homes, the firm taking a big slice of the tax credit.
The work is demeaning to her intellect. Her boss is demeaning. She retreats each night to a rented room in a home populated by a number of dissidents who have a Utopian vision – under the rubric of the “Occupy movement.” Their theory was that the technology driven gains in productivity and the resulting loss of manufacturing jobs would inevitably result in better wealth distribution, including generous payments to most of the population for doing nothing, when Capital realized that it could not afford to pauperize the consumers who bought its robot-made products. Unemployed consumers would acquire an economic value equivalent to their lost value as actual laborers, and could join forces with the people still working in the service industry, thereby creating a new coalition of labor and the permanently unemployed, whose overwhelming size would compel social change.
She considers the name “Purity” the most shameful word in the English language because it was her given Name. It made her ashamed of her own driver’s license, the Purity Tyler beside her sullen head shot, and made filling out any application a small torture.
There are two male figures dominating her life, Andreas Wolf, an East German ex-pat, and now a renegade charismatic leader of a Wiki-leaks kind of organization dubbed the “Sunshine Project,” and Tom Aberant, a brilliant on line journalist, founder of the Denver Independent with money left to him by his ex-wife’s father.
Tom’s ex-wife, with whom he was madly in love, Anabel Laird, eschews money as the root of all her family’s sins, and during their eleven years of marriage leads Tom around like a trained animal. Hilarious – getting him to pee sitting down as that’s the way women do it! And she can only have sex during the three days around the full moon. Anabel impresses me as a nut job.
Nonetheless they endure a marriage mired in a “vow of poverty” which culminates in a power struggle sexual conquest. In a departure from Franzen’s third person narrative, there is one chapter with a first person narrative from Tom’s perspective in which he describes their very strange relationship (in my day, you simply fell in love, got married, and had kids – not so simple any more).
Earlier, Tom had met Andreas, both as relatively young men, a chance meeting, like many of the crisscrossing incidents in the novel (a little like Hardy!), so they have a long standing connection. Andreas Wolf is compared to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, although Wolf considers his “Sunlight Project” more “purpose driven.” He becomes an Internet rock star and having come from a totalitarian regime in East Germany finds the Internet at first his savior and then his burden. He is plainly a sociopath.
While still in East Germany Andreas meets the beautiful but very young Annagret. Although she is half his age, Annagret becomes Andreas’ first real love. He is willing to do anything for her. Ultimately Annagret becomes part of the Sunlight Project and she is the one who inveigles Pip to join and be an intern in Bolivia where Andreas’ operation becomes ensconced. Pip becomes Andreas’ new love object as by that time Annagret is out of the picture. He allows Pip access to some of his inner thoughts: There's the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you're a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don't, there's no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity. But identity in a vacuum is also meaningless. Sooner or later, the inside of you needs a witness. Otherwise you're just a cow, a cat, a stone, a thing in the world, trapped in your thingness. To have an identity, you have to believe that other identities equally exist. You need closeness with other people. And how is closeness built? By sharing secrets. Pip to Andreas: But it's a pretty weird theory for a person who exposes people's secrets for a living.
Andreas remembers the Old Republic in light of today’s massive disintermediation by technology, an interesting passage which in effect describes a “new class” that is nonetheless as heartless as the class it replaced: The privileges available in the Republic had been paltry, a telephone, a flat with some air and light, the all-important permission to travel, but perhaps no paltrier than having x number of followers on Twitter, a much-liked Facebook profile, and the occasional four-minute spot on CNBC. The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory over the class enemy was assured…. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic's buzz-words, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.
After Tom’s torturous relationship and parting with his wife, a professional journalist, Leila, enters Tom’s life. Leila’s relationship with Tom is an unusual one as she continues to be married to an over-the-hill, and now partially paralyzed, novelist /professor, Charles, keeping two homes, one with Charles and the other with Tom. One of the overarching themes of the novel – the “new” feminism is expressed in her relationship with Tom: Tom was a strange hybrid feminist, behaviorally beyond reproach but conceptually hostile. ‘I get feminism on an equal-rights issue….What I don’t get is the theory. Whether women are supposed to be exactly the same as men, or different and better than men.’ And he’d laughed the way he did at things he found silly, and Leila had remained angrily silent, because she was a hybrid the other way around: conceptually a feminist but one of those women whose primary relationships had always been with men and who had benefited professionally, all her life, from her intimacy with them. She’d felt attacked by Tom’s laughter, and the two of them had been careful never to discuss feminism again.
After Pip interns for Andreas on the Sunshine Project (naturally, Andreas falls for Pip but Pip keeps her distance with some regrets), she winds up as Leila’s protégé in Denver, learning the craft of journalism. (Long story about the “coincidence” that leads to that connection and a spoiler as well, so enough said.) But Leila is jealous of Pip’s good looks and youth.
Leila – with Pip as her researcher, skills she learned from the Sunshine Project --is trying to scoop a story for Tom’s online Denver Independent before the Washington Post gets to it: the lack of controls of a nuclear arsenal in Amarillo. Here Franzen gives a humorous hat tip to the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove, with Maj. 'King' Kong played by Slim Pickens riding a thermonuclear bomb to its target. Two minor characters in the novel, Cody, who has stolen a replica of an A-Bomb, and his girlfriend, Phyllisha who thinks it is real (and it could have been because of the lack of controls) play out this scene: He wanted her to feel the kind of power he had at his disposal. He wanted her to take off all her clothes and put her arms around the bomb and stick her little tail up for him….She went ahead and did what he said….To be that close to so much potential death and devastation, to have her sweaty skin against the cool skin of a death-bomb, to imagine the whole city going up in a mushroom cloud when she orgasmed. It was pretty great, she had to say.
It is through Tom and Leila that thermonuclear anxiety and a healthy dose of misanthropy emerges: Tom's theory of why human beings had yet to receive any message from extraterrestrial intelligences was that all civilizations, without exception, blew themselves up almost as soon as they were able to get a message out, never lasting more than a few decades in a galaxy whose age was billions; blinking in and out of existence so fast that, even if the galaxy abounded with earthlike planets, the chances of one civilization sticking around to get a message from another were vanishingly low, because it was too damned easy to split the atom. Leila neither liked this theory nor had a better one; her feeling about all doomsday scenarios was Please make me the first person killed; but she'd forced herself to read accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and what it was like to have had your skin burned off entirely and still be staggering down a street, alive. Not just for Pip’s sake did she want the Amarillo story to be large. The world's fear of nuclear weapons was unaccountably unlike her fear of fighting and, vomiting: the longer the world lasted without ending in mushroom clouds, the less afraid people seemed to be….Climate change got more ink in a day than nuclear arsenals did in a year. To say nothing of the NFL, passing records that Peyton Manning had broken as a Denver Bronco. Leila was afraid and felt like the only one who was.
Amen to that, Jonathan Franzen.
Speaking of Jonathans, Franzen knows how to engage in some self deprecating humor, Leila’s novelist husband, Charles, saying to Pip: So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.
In Andreas’ life we have an overbearing mother, as we have a passive but doting mother in Pip’s life and Tom’s mother is omnipresent, warning Tom about Anabel. There are story lines galore, many characters, multigenerational dysfunctionality, and then the real world of the 21st century to channel. Franzen captures all in this episodic novel.
[Pip] and her peers were well aware of what a terminally fucked-up world they were inheriting. Towards the end of the novel Pip was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? But those thoughts did not deter her from her quest for honesty and trust which underlies her entire journey.
One can only have “great expectations” for Jonathan Franzen’s future work.