Jonathan Franzen’s career offers a cautionary narrative — for us as much as him. As far back as 1996, with “Perchance to Dream,” his long essay published in Harper’s on the state of contemporary fiction, he has filled the role of both avatar and scapegoat, an ambitious writer who can’t (or won’t) steer clear of controversy.
Such a process began in earnest with “The Corrections,” his masterful 2001 portrait of a Midwestern family, that led to an infamous tiff with Oprah Winfrey after he objected to her book club logo on the cover. More than a decade later, “Freedom,” a moving meditation on marriage and friendship, provoked a campaign on Twitter, under the hashtag “franzenfreude,” protesting the attention Franzen had received.
For the Record
Oct. 6, 2:35 p.m.: This review incorrectly quotes the following passage: “Only love, only long empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is your capacity to be hurt by her.” It should end with, “her capacity to be hurt by you.”
By now, Franzen is often regarded less as writer than as cultural signifier, emblem of white male hegemony. That this has little if anything to do with the substance of his novels is (perhaps) the point and the tragedy; when it comes to Franzen, the writing is where we go last. Just consider the recent uproar over his remarks about wanting to adopt an Iraqi war orphan — tone-deaf, yes, but irrelevant to the success or failure of his work.
This is the culture into which Franzen is releasing his fifth novel, “Purity,” with its admonition that one “could either ignore the haters and suffer the consequences, or he could accept the premises of the system, however sophomoric he found them, and increase its power and pervasiveness by participating in it.” Such a line captures almost perfectly the key conundrum of the Digital Age, with its easy (and dangerous) sanctimony.
Is that self-serving? Certainly — one of the perverse pleasures of this novel is watching Franzen defend himself without overtly defending himself. If his stand-in of sorts in “Freedom” is rocker Richard Katz, here he reserves his closest commentary for the character of Andreas Wolf, an East German dissident turned Julian Assange-style leaker, who sees the Internet as both necessity (how else to get his documents to the public?) and source of infamy.
It’s a fool’s errand to conflate novelists with their characters; as Franzen notes in his 2009 essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” “The deeper the writer digs for meaning, the more the random particulars of the writer’s life become impediments.” And yet, in that same essay, he acknowledges, “My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life.”
Autobiographical, in other words, in terms of emotion, which is a good way to approach “Purity.”
Like Franzen’s earlier books, “Purity” involves a shifting cast of characters — Wolf; his onetime friend Tom Aberant, who runs an investigative journalism start-up in Denver; Tom’s former wife Anabel, an heiress who has turned her back on the family money; and the 24-year-old title character, a woman who brings these disparate lives together. It gets at many subjects: love, loss, secrets, transparency.
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How, the novel asks, do we make sense of an era in which information has become a burden? “Like the old politburos,” Franzen observes, “the new politburo styled itself as the enemy of the elite and friend to the masses, dedicated to giving consumers what they wanted, but to Andreas … it seemed as if the Internet was governed more by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out.”
That this is anathema to his characters should go without saying; a deep loneliness pervades the book. Sometimes, the loneliness is shared, as in Tom’s relationship with Anabel, who restricts herself until they are a miserable society of two. Sometimes, it is cultural, as when Purity, or Pip, as she is known, goes to work for Andreas, only to find herself surrounded by true believers, as if his mission were a source of faith.
Always, there are bad mothers (the bad mother is a staple of Franzen’s fiction): Andreas’, Purity’s, Tom’s. “He watched as a strange thing happened in her face,” Franzen writes about the first of these women, “a subtle but crazy-looking modulation of expressions, some interior struggle made visible — her fantasy of being a loving mother, her resentment at the bother of it.” The description brings to mind Enid Lambert, the damaged matriarch of “The Corrections,” and her struggles with the children she by turns torments and loves.
What makes Enid so vivid, however, is the acuity with which Franzen traces her troubles; she is three-dimensional in the sharpest sense. That depth, that texture, can be elusive in “Purity,” which is a more plotted novel, sometimes to its detriment. At its center lies a homicide — I’m not going to say whose or who commits it — but if this represents an attempt to raise the moral stakes, the crime at times unmoors the narrative by lifting it out of the day-to-day.
What is “Purity” about, after all, but the efforts of its characters to find a place in a world that resists reconciliation, in which we always and forever fight to be understood? That’s why the best stuff here is the most personal: Pip trying to pierce the surface of her mother, who conceals everything, including her real name; Tom wrestling with the ghosts of a past he cannot put away.
“Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married,” he tells us in the book’s one extended first-person sequence. “Only love, only long empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is your capacity to be hurt by her.”
That’s fierce writing, and it does what fiction is supposed to, forcing us to peel back the surfaces, to see how love can turn to desolation, how we are betrayed by what we believe. It is the most human of dilemmas, with which we all must come to terms.
“We’re not like you,” Anabel tells Tom’s mother, but the older woman knows better. “That’s what everyone thinks,” she says. “They think they’re not like other people. But then life teaches you some lessons.”
Such lessons have long been the most resonant aspect of Franzen’s fiction, which deals with what happens after life disappoints. This is true of “Purity” also, although it feels less revelatory here. The novel is a bit of a mixed bag, largely because of all the plotting, which has never been the author’s strong suit; both “The Corrections” and “Freedom” succeed despite, not because of, their narrative contrivances. All the same, it remains compelling to read Franzen confront his demons, which are not just his but everyone’s.
How has constant accessibility rendered us inaccessible? What must we do to reconnect? These are the sorts of questions the novel as a form was made to ask, if not to answer. The corollary is that we must remain patient and think this through for ourselves.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 564 pp., $28