As every schoolboy knows, Jonathan Franzen is one of the world’s great living writers, having emerged from the shadows of obscurity and straight into a spotlit Oprah brouhaha with his novel The Corrections in 2001, a book about a dysfunctional family that told us everything we needed to know about a dysfunctional America. And, as every schoolboy also knows, his work tends to irritate and annoy almost as many people as absolutely adore it.
One of the main complaints about Franzen is that he’s really just an old-fashioned realist passing off a 21st-century version of middlebrow lit-lite to an audience who should be reading something altogether more challenging. Another is that he can’t write female characters. And another is that he shouldn’t be getting so much attention anyway. On these terms alone, Purity is guaranteed to enrage his critics and delight his fans. It is a dense, serious, entertaining read that features a female protagonist and is sure to attract plenty of attention because it addresses a whole host of bang-up-to-the-minute issues, including the Occupy movement, state secrets, surveillance and whistle-blowing. It is, in other words, classic Franzen. For a man who famously keeps the modern world at bay, preferring to work in silence in a dark room, wearing earplugs – when he’s not out bird-watching, that is – Franzen seems peculiarly, unnaturally alert to the many stupidities and sublimities of the modern world. He’s not a Proust in his cork-lined study, but a Dickens, with his notebook out, on the streets.
The book tells the story of Purity – known as Pip – Tyler, a young woman of uncertain parentage making her way in the world, stuck in a dead-end job, saddled with student debt and living in a squat with a bunch of Occupy movement veterans whose idea of a good time is sitting around talking about ‘wage/price feedback loops’. The name Pip is the giveaway. Just as in his previous novel, Freedom (2010), Franzen gave lots of nods and winks towards War and Peace, so here all the allusions are to Great Expectations. This will doubtless antagonise some readers, who will regard it as a sign of Franzen’s pretentiousness. Personally, I thought it was thoroughly amusing.
Pip finds herself caught up in a complex set of hostile relationships, confused and betrayed by her own desires and by her idealism, and subject to vast, familiar – and contemporary, or contemporised – emotions. ‘She was like a bank too big in her mother’s economy to fail, an employee too indispensable to be fired for bad attitude.’ The trials of mother-love are a constant theme in Franzen’s work, though he plays it rather more for laughs here than previously, as in his description of Pip’s mother’s highly unsuitable choice of suitors: ‘Potential candidates over the years had included their next-door neighbor Linda, who was likewise a single mom and likewise a student of Sanskrit, and the New Leaf butcher, Ernie, who was likewise a vegan, and the pediatrician Vanessa Tong, whose powerful crush on Pip’s mother had taken the form of trying to interest her in birdwatching, and the mountain-bearded handyman Sonny.’
The other major figure in the book is the mysterious Andreas Wolf, ‘the famous Internet outlaw’ who runs a WikiLeaks-like organisation called the Sunlight Project, based in Bolivia, and who ‘in terms of universal admiration … was right up there with Aung San Suu Kyi and Bruce Springsteen’. One part Magwitch to three parts Julian Assange, Wolf serves as a mouthpiece for many of Franzen’s own preoccupations, much in the same way that cranky old Walter Berglund served as his mouthpiece in Freedom. The difference in Purity is that Wolf turns out to be a murderer.
But none of these lively plot twists, psychodramas or broad social themes would matter if it weren’t for the fact that Franzen’s use of language is so subtle and alert. Frankly, you can forgive a writer any kind of tub-thumping and state-of-the-nation pontificating for a single golden sentence and Franzen clearly puts much store by the quality of his prose. One character is subject to perpetual ‘medium-grade dread’. There is a beautiful description of the complexions of middle-aged drinkers: ‘With whiskey, the capillary bloom was more diffusely rosy than with gin and less purple than with wine. Every university dinner party was a study in blooms.’ He simply can’t resist extended metaphors and similes, which are indeed often irresistible. A throwaway remark, for example, sends Pip into a rage:
like tossing a match into an oven of unlit gas, the ready-to-combust anger that she walked around with every day; there was a kind of whoosh inside her head … The note of self-righteousness in his voice set fire to a larger and more diffuse pool of the gas, a combustible political substance that had seeped into her from her mother and then from certain college professors and certain gross-out movies.
I think one of the reasons people take offence at Franzen – one of the reasons he sets off such a tremendous whoosh – is that he’s rather unkind, in so far as he’s not primarily interested in getting readers to sympathise with his characters, or indeed with him. In all of his novels he tends to include a slightly ludicrous self-portrait. Here he appears in the form of the thoroughly irritating Charles Blenheim, writer and author of a book called Mad Sad Dad, who has now ‘settled down to write the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon’. This is Charles, in his cups: ‘So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition. Vitality.’ In-joke? Self-slap?
Franzen’s purpose seems to be to encourage the re-education of his readers, insisting not only that we are challenged and chastised by the sheer hard work of reading his massive novels but that we positively enjoy the experience. He sets out to make us complicit in our re-education. In 2002 he published an essay in the New Yorker titled ‘Mr Difficult’, in which he made a plea for a ‘contract’ between writers and readers. ‘Every writer is first a member of a community of readers … and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.’ Purity is a book about an enlightened despot by an enlightened despot. Ambitious, ludicrous and humbling, it proves once again – as if we needed reminding – that there is no such thing as purity.