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Jonathan Franzen Pulls a Convincing Authorial Disappearing Act in ‘Purity’

Franzen's latest is a fulfilling if frustrating exploration of our modern identity crisis.

Franzen’s Purity is driven by Pip’s quest to find her father and pay-off insurmountable debts, but it’s defined by an opening plea for anonymity. “…The terrible thing about bodies [is that] they’re so visible, so visible,” complains Pip’s mother, Anabel, as she reflects on a drooping eye-lid, the latest in a parade of “bodily betrayals” that have come to define her life. “You have no idea how I envy your cubicle. The invisibility of it.” Though it’s an exchange immediately dismissed for laughs – “Let’s not romanticize the cubicle,” Pip counters with a dead-pan that suggests an attendant eye-roll — like an echo it fractures and disseminates until it becomes part of the novel’s very atmosphere.

When Andreas Wolf, the celebrity leaker who runs The Sunlight Project, warns Pip of is the danger of celebrity, of being truly visible (“You will be a kind of damned person… divide(d) you from yourself and… your soul. It sucks to be well known, Pip.”) he’s really just pleading for his own invisibility. “ When Tom Aberant, the investigative journalist who stands as one of the few exemplary adults in a venal world is so tormented by his status as a man (“I felt…as if simply being male…[that] placed me ineluctably in the wrong”) that he idealizes his own “emasculation” at the hands of his wife as a kind of “dissolution of the boundaries of… selves,” it’s just another expression of the need to vanish.

Indeed, each and every character is trying, in ways they all know to be futile, to shed all of the inconveniences of a life weighed down by bodies, by pasts, by consequence. If this attitude seem naïve at the worst and insane at best, at least it’s not unfounded. These are people haunted by the inescapable: Tom and his lover Leila both are so plagued by the memory of Tom’s estranged wife Annabel that she’s regularly described as a presence “haunting” their house; Andreas’ youthful encounters with a lost father he describes only as “the ghost”, the emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother and the memory of a murder he committed when he was younger so consume his thoughts so that he’s grown dangerously paranoid of any system “that (is) impossible to opt out of.” Even Pip, whose birth name is Purity, is defined by her need to escape her mother’s smothering affectations and her father’s pressing absence.

Having come of age in eras and states where mass surveillance is the norm, shaped by their painful pasts and low-hovering absences that inform their every decision, these characters have learned that invincibility and intangibility are inseparable. And so they are desperate to become invisible, to become ghosts. To become pure.

Such purity is, of course, ultimately impossible. Every attempt to transcend to that idealized state is doomed to failure.

Even Andreas’ seeming success only ends in failure. He may have built himself a cult of personality that spans the globe and isolated himself so tightly behind a veil of carefully disseminated rumors and secrets that he’s become a virtual existence, a character “famed for his purity”, but this ultimately leaves him so isolated from the only people he’s ever loved that he is in turn separated from himself, his personality a mishmash of his public persona and a more insidious interior character known only as “The Killer” that drives him to devour whatever purity he sees in others (“people who expose dirt do it because they’re hungering for clean”). Ultimately the divide leads him to suicide and, ironically, “deification:” ultimately, Franzen seems to argue, it’s only in death that one becomes wholly pure, suicide the only way to opt out of the “everyday and subtle totalitarianism” of life and a past that “define(s) every term of your existence”.

Purity is a dark novel, yes, with a misanthropic streak that often makes The Corrections’ most sadistic jokes seem like playground limericks by comparison. The funniest moments are often the starkest, as with the revelation that a supposedly live nuclear missile was taken out of storage to serve as a sex prop for rednecks and that this is all tied into the movement of Mexican cartels into America. It seems there’s no personal action too venal, too petty, out of which larger societal ills do not grow.

It’s also dense, unleavened by the excessive and unbelievable generosities of Freedom. Absent are the convenient twists of fate or easy resolutions between characters that made that novel saccharine at times. A promised reconciliation between Anabel and Thom that seems set to mark the book with a happy ending instead devolves into a fight that stalled some 20 years ago and leaves Pip doubting her ability to fix the “broken world” left her by earlier generations.

Even sex, which seems to promise a temporary dissolution of self and so salvation, is so inextricably linked to violence that it comes to seem a kind of damnation. Whether it’s Andreas standing before a grave with erection in hand, Thom fantasizing about killing and raping Anabel or Anabel stabbing Thom’s last condoms “dead” so that Pip might be conceived, there’s no escaping death in these lives. In a world where one’s selfish interests can have unintended multinational consequence and where even the most minor action seems destined to harm, Wolf’s early suggestion that “the only right thing for the predator to do… is betray its nature and starve to death” can sound like more than foreshadowing: it can sound like the only sane, moral advice.

Yet for all its cynicism, Purity wholly rejects the kind of Western Buddhism that would have made Schopenhauer proud. If Franzen never allows his characters a happiness that’s not also tinged with pain, it’s not because he despises them or the audience, but because he well knows that joy necessitates being present in the world. Joy is a condition which, in turn, necessitates being vulnerable.

Consider Pip’s exploration of Los Volcanes’ — its “olfactory revelations,” its “clambering guans” and “tipoteing tinamous” – and how she’s able to experience this tropical “heaven” because she is wholly of the world and not apart from it. Or Thom’s reflection on his first night with Anabel, so perfectly agonizing because he’s so completely open to the complicated mixture of pleasure, melancholy and the unreality of distance that marked the night and that marks his every memory of it:

I wish I could remember the sensation of being taken by her, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I wish I could go back to that moment as the person I am now, could be in that state of trembling wonder but also have enough experience to appreciate how it felt to be inside a woman for the first time; to enjoy it, basically… The beauty of Anabel naked literally made my eyes hurt, and I was nothing but a thousand worries. If I remember anything from the moment at all, it’s the dream-like sensation of walking into a room where two figures had been for my entire life, two figures who knew each other well and were talking about realistic adult things I knew nothing about, two figures indifferent to my very late arrival.

One gets the impression from reading this and a dozen other masterful passages that the author is a kind of frayed man. That his senses are so unguarded, so open to the world around him and to his own thoughts that he must be in a state of constant psychic pain. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else finding real horror in the plains of Texas and yet making them somehow sublime, “so flat that (they were) paradoxically vertiginous, a two-dimensional planetary surface off which, having no trace of topography to hold on to, you felt you could fall or be swept. No relief in any sense of the word.”

The problem with this kind of unguarded exposure is that it doesn’t allow for discrimination. Each experience is felt so acutely that even the most minor of stimulus calls extreme attention to itself; everything is experienced at once and so each sensation blends into every other.

The same holds true for Franzen’s prose: it’s as if no detail of place is so minute that it doesn’t warrant three or four lines, no past too trivial to escape a three paragraph summary, no character so unimportant they can slip by without receiving a page explaining their history. It’s a quirk easy to indulge – the writing is penetrating, the prose gorgeous and perfectly paced – but it quickly becomes taxing. There’s so much information and so much detail coming so quickly at the reader that they might feel themselves flayed, unable to distinguish the difference between the most important of character points and the most minor physical detail in the environment.

Such an excess might be explained as thematically appropriate, but it reads like an authorial self-consciousness or showmanship that suggests the writer is as haunted as any of his characters. The themes are so painstakingly expressed (the word “purity” or some variation of it shows up in the novel what feels like hundreds of times, as does some variation of “ghost”), the characters’ psychologies so transparent (nearly every character who encounters Pip remarks that she “has a daddy thing”, the story is constantly drawing attention to the “icky” relationship Wolf shares with his mother), the parallels with Great Expectations and Hamlet so readily remarked upon by every character that it feels as if Franzen has misinterpreted the own advice he once offered in his essay, “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books”.

Indeed, he seems so afraid of alienating his readers, so concerned about offending his critics and his fans, and so acutely aware of his place in the literary landscape, that he must anticipate the thousands of charges that could be leveled at him and his work. Sometimes, as when the failed novelist Charles sneers at the “plague of literary Jonathans… synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality,” it’s a pitiful apology that’s too self-effacing to be sincere. It feels as though Franzen is demanding praise for his own humility.

Other times it feels cowardly: while it makes sense that Andreas would launch into an eloquent and scathing tirade about the parallels between Soviet totalitarianism and digital networks, the language and the structure of the argument recall earlier essays of Franzen’s to such a degree that his decision to couch this passage in a free indirect style seems like a hedging of the bets. His presence is too keenly felt yet remains ultimately elusive. One gets tired of him hovering around the edge of his novels like some neurotic ghost who occasionally possesses the residents of the house he built long ago to make sure they keep it in order.

What’s so frustrating about this authorial presence is not that it is Franzen’s – even at his most curmudgeonly the man’s a charmer, so intelligent and gracious that even if you disagree with him you’d be happy just to argue – but that it’s in such stark contrast with those passages wherein Franzen has shed the self-consciousness that marks the worst of his work as self-indulgent.

Thom’s memoirs are, again, stand-outs, their style at that exact crossroads of poetic and quotidian one might expect of an accomplished journalist who has never quite been able to give up his youthful artistic aspirations. There are moments when the subject matter uncomfortably mirrors certain elements of Franzen’s own life; there are elements of Thom and Anabel’s relationship that should be familiar to anybody who’s read The Kraus Project or any of Franzen’s other essays about his doomed first marriage – but the narrative remains its own, the style remains Thom’s.

The illusion that Thom’s life is his own so gracefully maintained that it’s easy to forget this same writer was responsible for the the Patty passages of Freedom, in which her psychologist commended her again and again on a writing style that was indistinguishable from her creator’s. Pip may not be exempt from the occasional obnoxious comment about her literary heritage, but her actual character is free of overbearing authorial influence. This may be why she actually sounds and acts like a 20-something-woman and not some condescending caricature drawn from an old man’s anger with youth. Her actions may be foolish and her emotions unbalanced, but the novel is smart enough to never make her some cautionary tale or case for moral instruction.

While she’s the only character who comes to feel “happy in her own body” by the end of the novel, it doesn’t feel as if she’s been maneuvered to this revelation through narrative manipulation, but has arrived at it by her own actions and choices. Of course she hasn’t – no novel exists without a writer, and even within the narrative Pip only achieves this peace because she’s been directed by systems and histories she’s only dimly aware until the end of the novel – but the authorial disappearing act that Franzen pulls is so convincing and such a marked contrast to his lesser instincts as a writer that the reader is eager to at least indulge the illusion that an absent narrator is even possible.

Ultimately, ironically, Franzen leaves the the reader wanting the opposite of what he’s cautioned his own characters against: a pure experience unburdened by the reminders of some inescapable presence.

RATING 7 / 10