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When I reached page 207 of my advance copy of Purity, I did something I’ve never before done as a reviewer, something that quite possibly was a breach of professional protocol but seemed so inevitable as to have been scripted by Jonathan Franzen himself: I used my iPhone to take a picture of a particular paragraph and tweeted it. The paragraph quotes a middle-aged writer and professor named Charles discussing contemporary publishing with a young woman named Pip:
‘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.’ He arched an eyebrow at Pip. ‘And what about Zadie Smith? Great stuff, right?’
While Franzen has, since the 2001 publication of The Corrections, been hailed for his extraordinary sentences and ability to capture the American zeitgeist, as well as reviled for ostensible arrogance and sexism (more on those in a bit), his fiction had never struck me as overtly self-referential. With this passage, was he making fun of himself? Of a false public perception of him as egomaniacal? Of publishing culture? Presumably, at the least, he was baiting someone like me to do exactly what I did.
Depending on whom you ask, Franzen is either the premier living American writer or the last literary dinosaur: a pompous white male Luddite who gazes disdainfully down at us tweeting, Facebooking fools from his comfortable perch of astronomical sales and critical adulation. But it’s impossible to read more than a few pages of Purity without concluding that Franzen is as familiar with the internet as the rest of us – that, despite the wariness he has expressed about technology, he is conversant in not just Twitter and Facebook, but also pet videos, “those revenge-on-the-cheating-boyfriend websites”, and online pornography.
Indeed, the novel’s two central characters are men whose very professions rely on the internet’s existence: middle-aged American Tom Aberant runs an award-winning website for investigative journalism, while middle-aged German Andreas Wolf runs a WikiLeaks-like site called the Sunlight Project. The way we know Andreas Wolf isn’t Julian Assange, and that the Sunlight Project isn’t WikiLeaks, is that Assange and WikiLeaks receive numerous namechecks. That these might be preemptive libel-avoiding manoeuvres is a notion undermined by the none-too-flattering references to Assange, including that he’s “an autistic megalomaniac sex creep”.
Travelling back and forth in time and across continents, the novel charts Tom and Andreas’s respective love affairs and professional ascents, including when, at two pivotal times, their paths intersect. Born in 1960 in East Germany to a high-ranking communist official father and professor mother, Andreas is brilliant and charismatic but often unpleasant, with a robust appetite for masturbation. Born around the same time in the United States to an American father and an East German immigrant mother, Tom is intelligent, responsible, and has either the luck or the misfortune to fall in love in college with an alluring and crazy heiress.
It takes a while to ascertain that the plot of Purity revolves around Andreas and Tom. The protagonist of the book’s first section, as well as two later sections, is Pip, the aforementioned young woman (and yes, Dickensian names and plot twists abound). Pip is a recent college graduate living in a group house in Oakland, California, making a mess of her love life, working at a crummy job, and maintaining a suffocatingly close relationship with her eccentric hippy mother while trying to discover the identity of her father. But perhaps because Andreas and Tom are much savvier than Pip – and quicker to discover secrets of which she’s ignorant – the weight of the novel doesn’t truly fall on her.
In theory – and as a woman – I wouldn’t be averse to reading an entire novel by Franzen from the point of view of a young woman: ventriloquism is an authorial right. And yet, with regard to the issue of gender, I came away from Purity feeling uneasy.
That Franzen’s very name is, in some quarters of the literary community, synonymous with sexism seems to me unfair. The resentment toward him, as I understand it, is due to the extraordinarily high level of media attention bestowed on him (by Oprah Winfrey and the New York Times alike) and due to the seriousness with which critics take his books, while women who write about similar subjects – screwed-up families and couples – aren’t accorded equivalent attention or respect. I agree that an imbalance exists; however, I don’t see the fault as lying with Franzen personally. Should he, for example, have told Time magazine not to feature him on its cover in 2010, along with the words “Great American Novelist”? And the reality is that Franzen is an exceptional writer, more skilled than most other men or women at producing brutal insights, perfectly evocative turns of phrase, and genuine hilarity: “Self-pity seeped into her, a conviction that for no one but her was sex so logistically ungainly, a tasty fish with so many small bones.”
Further, though Franzen himself has spoken out about gender inequities in publishing, it’s his defensive remarks that attract greater attention, along with those that appear to reflect crankiness about social media and life in general.
Given the minefield that he surely knows he is entering, it’s to Franzen’s credit that large chunks of Purity grapple with the question of how to redress inherent male privilege. In places, the book is steeped in gender awareness. And yet, if some passages are thoughtful, as when Andreas wonders whether “being male is like being born a predator”, other scenes in which characters are simply interacting rather than actively pondering feminism are gleefully (dare I say boyishly?) provocative. When Andreas is kept waiting by his girlfriend, who is visiting his mother, he thinks of the two women: “Talking, talking, talking. Cunts, cunts, cunts.”
Repeatedly, men experience homicidal urges toward their mothers, wives and paramours; I counted at least six examples of the impulse, which seems rather a lot for a novel that’s not a murder mystery (though one actual murder does occur). I trust that these men aren’t mouthpieces for Franzen himself, but I’m also not sure it matters – there’s only so much male rage I’m interested in immersing myself in.
Less provocative but more disappointing were the tedious stereotypes embodied by the female characters: crazy mothers, middle-aged women tormented about whether or not to have kids, girlfriends and wives who would rather endlessly discuss their feelings and the state of their relationship than have sex. That these cliches show up in multiple female characters reminded me of the notion that men who believe women are crazy attract crazy women (when all you have is a hammer, everything really does look like a nail). Clearly, Franzen means for Andreas’ and Tom’s lives to parallel each other – they have similar jobs and are entangled with similarly named women – but I couldn’t tell if the limitations of his female characters reflected a deliberate choice or a failure of imagination. An investigative reporter named Leila is the most appealingly complex, yet she more or less disappears for the last 120 pages.
Just as it’s impossible to watch a movie starring, say, Julia Roberts or Gwyneth Paltrow without ever losing awareness of their essential Julia-Roberts-ness or Gwyneth-Paltrow-ness, it’s impossible to read this novel without its author’s reputation looming on the periphery. I thought of Franzen himself particularly in the fascinating and poignant passages describing fame and how lonely it has made Andreas.
On the one hand, I’m disinclined to recommend this book to my female friends – I suspect that they’d feel their time is too precious for a 576-page novel in which a grown man is repelled by the “steroidal ugliness” of his mother’s face due to her medication, or another man wonders, “Might it be possible, now that he was well into his 50s, to settle down with a woman without becoming bored?”
On the other hand, if I’d been told Purity was a first novel by an unknown writer – male or female – I suspect I’d be dazzled by its rich scenes and crackling dialogue, its delicious observations about contemporary life, the breathtaking scope of its ambition. The person who wrote this, I’d think, has an amazing future.
• Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland is published by Black Swan. To order Purity for £13.99 go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Purity by Jonathan Franzen review – dazzling, hilarious and problematic | Books