Breach of Contract

Purity: A Novel BY Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 576 pages. $28.

The cover of Purity: A Novel

When I was asked to review Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, I happened to be in the middle of Timothy Aubry’s Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans (2011). Aubry argues that middle-class readers “choose books that will offer strategies for . . . understanding, and managing their personal problems,” explore “the psychological interior,” and present familiar characters and conflicts that validate and confirm “their sense of themselves as deep, complicated . . . human beings.” Above all, they avoid “difficult” books that compel them “to question either the value of the book or their own intelligence.” Franzen isn’t discussed, but I thought of his work immediately. His dreadnought best sellers are as full of interiority, backstory, complicated motivation, scrupulously documented social detail, and overdetermination as they are empty of “difficult” ambiguity and illative suggestion. They strike a rare chord that resonates lingeringly, calling members to order at a hundred thousand book-club meetings.

Franzen also had anticipated some of Aubry’s observations in “Mr. Difficult,” a 2002 New Yorker essay that employed a takedown of novelist William Gaddis to illustrate Franzen’s own binary view of fiction: on one hand the “Status model,” which prizes its difficulty and allegedly rejects as “philistine” those readers unable to master its intricacies; on the other the “Contract model,” where “a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader” in which the ideal writer “sustains the reader’s trust” by providing a good read. The argument doesn’t hold up: For one thing, Franzen’s idea of a page-turner isn’t exactly that of someone who buys his books at Costco; for another, his criterion for inclusion within the Status category seems principally to be “postmodernism,” while that for Contract merely involves sharing traits with the (generally realist) books that Jonathan Franzen has enjoyed. Mostly, it’s a call for the quarantine of a certain strain of postwar American fiction. As a personal rule of thumb, it works fine; as a Kantian universal law, it has problems.

“Mr. Difficult” adopts the stance of an aggrieved reader, but it’s really an oblique justification of the work Franzen was doing as a writer: If The Corrections (which was published the year before “Mr. Difficult” appeared) provided what “middle-class Americans” want, it said, it certainly wasn’t at the expense of quality. The essay is, finally, another version of Franzen’s apology for having seized up with, ah, status anxiety when Oprah chose The Corrections for her influential and middlebrow book club. But the argument already was academic: Oprah and The Corrections had made Franzen America’s most celebrated “literary author.” The book certainly had held up its end in the Contract it had made with readers, but, interestingly, what separated it from the run-of-the-mill family melodramas it superficially resembled was Franzen’s effective co-optation of forbiddingly elitist qualities supposedly inherent in Status novels (e.g., intertextuality, maximalist superabundance, parody, pastiche); this was what had made the writing pop and feel fresh.

But in literature, getting it right doesn’t necessarily mean that you should try to repeat the exercise. By 2010, when Freedom was published, what had been fresh in The Corrections had gone off. Where The Corrections was witty, Freedom was snarky; where one was moving, the other was sentimental; where one was insightful, the other was trite. Full of tone-deaf misfires and half-baked “ideas,” often mean-spirited and class-baiting, it chugged to a resolution as contrived as that of a fairy tale. Asked about his audience, Don DeLillo once responded that he didn’t have an audience, only a set of standards; Freedom reads like the work of a man who’d bored himself half to death writing a follow-up that would satisfy an audience’s expectations.

Consider that the downside of the Contract model.

If fulfilling the terms of the Contract, supplying the thing that “contemporary fiction does for middle-class Americans,” begets a book that, however readable (and, whatever else it is, Freedom is compulsively readable), somehow feels onerous, badgering, pegged to the itinerary for a didactic tour of Dysfunctional America, and reliant on bedtime-story contrivances to keep it from plunging into the despair that might have redeemed it, it may be time for an author to examine the fine print. With Purity, Franzen seems to be informing his fellow readers that we should ask not what Jonathan Franzen can do for us, but what we can do for Jonathan Franzen. William Gaddis could have provided the answer: Concentrate, pay attention, and try to figure out what he’s up to.

Purity is, overall, Franzen’s best book: challenging, limber, inventive, full of rue and reflection, and retaining the best of his beloved realism—not book-club realism, but the gimlet-eyed realism of Hardy, Galsworthy, and Fitzgerald. It expands familiar Franzenian themes—the internal politics of malfunctioning families; the ambivalent, or contingent, nature of virtue and its relationship to self-awareness—while introducing new ones, such as the selfhood-distorting lens of fame and the way that secrets, keeping and discovering them, hold sway over people, whether within the bounds of individual lives or across a global landscape hooked on instantaneous data.

Purity’s plot unfolds over several jumps back and forth across time, space, and perspective. It opens in the present day with the postcollegiate doldrums of Purity Tyler, aka Pip, who’s buried under a mountain of debt, a shit job, an unrequited infatuation with one of her housemates in a dilapidated Oakland squat, and a crazy mother, Penelope, who’s placed Pip at the center of her universe seemingly with the purpose of making her crazy as well. Pip wants to know the identity of her father, whom she’s never met and about whom her mother will divulge nothing, so she can hit him up for financial help. All of this leads her to accept an internship in Bolivia with the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-like organization whose smoothly charming founder, Andreas Wolf, promises to help locate her father. The section ends with Pip telling a disapproving Penelope of her plans and rejecting the older woman’s insistent claim that she has “the right to love [her] more than anything” by shrieking, “No you don’t! No you don’t! No you don’t! No you don’t!”—not unlike Quentin Compson at the close of Absalom, Absalom!, another novel involving defiant children and confusing paternity.

Perhaps the Faulknerian echo is coincidental. But from the first, it’s clear that Franzen is signaling his re-embrace of a Status patrimony, or at least his intent to point out the purely literary mechanisms of his novel. We have Pip, raised by the Havisham-like Penelope, whose own name recalls Odysseus’s patiently waiting wife—throughout, Franzen refers to, quotes from, and nods at works and authors ranging from Homer to Hamlet to Poe to Pynchon. Purity’s expository switchbacks, shifting voices and perspectives, and nonlinear, discontinuous arrangement; its incorporation of a book-within-the-book that has its own pinballing chronology; its heavily underscored reliance on foreshadowing, coincidence, mistaken identity, and other devices; and the fact that it virtually demands to be read more than once: All of these deliberately put it constantly at risk of “taking the reader out of the story”—surely a breach of Contract. As resistant to easy interpretation as the shallow certitude of the Internet is compliant, Purity can be read as a challenge to the latter’s dominance. This might be expected of the Twitter-hating Franzen, but such challenging resistance is also one of the classic strategies of—you guessed it—Status fiction.

Richard Ellis/Flickr

We shift to Andreas Wolf’s upbringing in East Berlin, where we discover that Pip isn’t the only one with a demanding, seductive, and mentally unstable mother telling her from birth how extraordinary she is. Andreas, irrepressibly precocious and raised in privilege—his father is a member of the Central Committee—is a recusant but, thanks to his parents’ influence, a more or less officially tolerated one, leading him to observe frequently that East Germany has defined him to the extent that he exists “entirely in relation to it.” As a “counselor” to disaffected youth, he resides in a church basement and seduces dozens of young women. It’s a good deal for Andreas, who can’t remember ever “having treated another human being as anything but an instrumentality,” until one of his teenage charges, the preternaturally beautiful Annagret, confesses that she is being sexually abused by her stepfather. A besotted Andreas is drawn into a murder plot, and acquires a guilty secret that will shadow him wherever he goes. Soon, the wall is coming down, and Andreas brazens his way into becoming a telegenic spokesman for the dissident movement.

The Sunlight Project is the eventual outgrowth of this new renown. In present-day Bolivia, where Andreas’s adoring minions vie to be “first among nobodies,” Pip, the new girl, intuits that the Project has become, in effect, a bullshit factory tooled not to expose truth but to build Wolf’s global brand. Nevertheless, she’s flattered when Wolf takes a special/sexual interest in her, and goes along with his dubious plan to dispatch her to Denver Independent, a nonprofit news organization, where, while serving yet another internship (the alternation between internships and bad jobs is a nice millennial touch), she’s to spy on Tom Aberant, its editor in chief and an old acquaintance of Wolf’s with knowledge of Wolf’s crime.

Aberant, meanwhile, has been recuperating for years from a savagely codependent early marriage to the manipulatively clingy and Poe-ishly named Anabel, the reluctant heiress to an agribusiness fortune and a self-sabotaging “artist” who vanished many and many a year ago, leaving Tom notably skittish in his personal life, much to the frustration of his lover and star reporter, Leila Helou (who has her own marital issues). Tom and Leila eventually discover Pip’s duplicity, as well as something else that perceptive readers will see coming from a long way off.

These strands are ultimately woven together in a fittingly Dickensian way, but the book doesn’t feel retrograde. Apart from Franzen’s reconciliation with Status’s axiomatic belief in technique-for-its-own-sake (this book didn’t have to be written this way), Purity’s successes arise from Franzen’s anchoring insight into protean, modish issues that often lend themselves to oversimplification (e.g., the subtly ideological dimensions of Internet culture, which Franzen audaciously compares to Eastern Bloc totalitarianism), even as he mostly avoids the more stereotypical discontents of contemporary life, his frequent focus. He also gets away from himself—or, rather, from the uptight, supercilious voice that has dominated so much of his work. Although “Purity in Oakland,” Purity’s first section, is written in the unpromisingly sour register of Freedom, the book generally transcends it, opening up immediately upon crossing the border into East Germany, and not merely because Andreas seems a more engaging character than the deliberately cryptic Pip. The subject of East Germany is far more engrossing than the Northern California touchstones (millennial indecision, senescent hippiedom, new-economy rapaciousness, left-wing political feedback loops, etc.) that Franzen himself seems bored with, and pushing around a different culture’s counters forces Franzen to think, rather than react: His American vernacular and free, labile syntax spring to life when unleashed on another country’s customs and ideas. Besides, a totalitarian regime dependent on a citizenry of informers is a great setting from which to foreground his overarching themes of secrets, information, and the power and influence they harbor—as is the “Information Age” that will later put Andreas on a pedestal.

East Germany’s salutary effect on the book remains firmly in place when we return to the States—as if “Purity in Oakland” were the residue of a novel that Franzen wisely decided not to write. Here and there are dollops of the Franzen who doesn’t know when something’s not working: a goes-nowhere subplot about a stolen nuclear warhead, another with a has-been novelist who kvetches cutely about the “plague of literary Jonathans” stealing his thunder. (Franzen also needs to stop writing about minorities if he’s going to employ them only as local color or the help. Black people appeared in Freedom as “cornrowed ghetto kids in ominous jumbo parkas”; I despaired that the one black walk-on in Purity is “a cornrowed girl . . . an addict and/or prostitute.” There are, however, several Latinos serving menial roles.)

But many more things do work. The first-person narrative-within-the-novel, “le1o9n8a0rd,” Tom Aberant’s “memoir” about his marriage to Anabel, for example, is a revelation: Who knew Franzen could impersonate someone else so well, so movingly, with such rueful compunction? Tom’s memoir draws out one of the book’s other themes, the compulsion to remain faithful to a person, alliance, or belief long after it becomes detrimental to one’s well-being. This, too, cuts across the book—the main characters’ struggle with relationships that are a mixture of love, obligation, faith, habit, and pathology. This tendency is exemplified both by Andreas, the creature of contemporary life, who fights to break old ties and ends up famous, alone, and paranoid, and by Tom, the traditionalist, whose devotion and recall are rewarded with a life full of conflicted loyalties and haunted by regrets.

For all the volleying and emotional one-upmanship that occurs between Purity’s various tortured pairs, it’s the parallel relationship between Tom and Andreas—not quite friends, but intimately bound nonetheless—that sits at the novel’s psychological center. I thought about this: There’s no reason for their friendship, whose active period scarcely takes up more than a few days in the novel, to be more than a device deployed to advance the plot. There’s an elegiac longing to it, though, that stayed with me.

Then it struck me that the reserved Tom, flat-footed but resolute, and the flamboyantly clever and self-possessed Andreas, devoured by self-loathing and uncertainty, bear more than a passing resemblance in many particulars to Franzen and his lost friend David Foster Wallace: both in the same field, with Aberant’s traditional practices contrasting sharply with Wolf’s radical departures from convention; one respected, the other idolized and ultimately deified, etc., etc. The search for clues to a novel’s correspondence with reality is always a mug’s game, but I wanted to point out that Purity feels like a book in which Franzen has, probably in many ways, a deep personal stake, which contrasts sharply with the somewhat theoretical ambience of Freedom’s clockwork survey of its various subjects.

And what about those books Aubry writes of, with which Franzen at least seemed to have declared an affinity, that offer readers “strategies for managing their personal problems”? Franzen has expressed his disbelief in such a thing as “midwestern values,” but there’s nevertheless a standard against which he measures his characters, and against which they usually measure themselves, often after they’ve entered a Zone of Contamination—New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Academia—and realized that they’ve lost touch with something Important to which they need to return in order to be redeemed: In The Corrections, lapsed academic Chip Lambert’s redemption is to surrender Lacan for La Leche; Walter and Patty Berglund’s, in Freedom, is to surrender to each other. It’s sometimes seemed such a comforting contrivance, and so unexamined, this idea that some bedrock set of standards can provide deliverance. In Purity, the instantiation of those standards is Tom Aberant. But the book winds toward a conclusion that, even as it holds out hope for Pip and her ability to move forward, seems for Tom to be deeply regressive. At the end of a novel largely about its characters’ “morbidly overdeveloped sense of duty,” it’s the oppressive and claustrophobic aspect of those standards that Franzen throws light on. As far as managing problems goes, well, I’m afraid our time is up and we have to stop. Franzen, however, has made a breakthrough.

Christopher Sorrentino’s new novel, The Fugitives, will be published by Simon & Schuster in February.