I remember where I was standing rather clearly, despite it being five years ago now. It was the Oxford Book Fair, and I’d just come from seeing a panel of British writers and speakers discuss their work, their process, and the state of publishing. Publishers from all over the U.K. displayed their novels in eye-pleasing ways, and in one of those mounds, standing tall above the rest, was a thick book with a black and cream cover from a writer whose name I’d heard only vaguely. I picked it up out of curiosity, though the title bored me (Freedom reminded me of hard line American conservatives). I began to page through when my professor, the lovely James Hawes, told me that the book I was holding was from that of Jonathan Franzen, who was, as he said, “supposedly the best American novelist of all time.”
Big words, yes, but I had arrived in Oxford as a nonfiction writer but was steadily veering away from my Joan Didions and Joann Beards, and was now at the point of desperately wanting to increase my fiction knowledge. So, feeling that I was holding the Great American Novelist in my hands, I paid the 20 quid and began to read that night. Thus began my love for Jonathan Franzen, and came with it my incessant need to defend his long (sometimes meandering) novels, his grouchy media outlook, the perhaps-too-honest things he says to college interviewers. I had become a Franzenophile.
In case you’re just now emerging from under a rock, Jonathan Franzen wrote a new novel, this one called Purity. It follows the story of several main characters, as Franzen is wont to do, including Purity “Pip” Tyler, a girl in her 20’s with a lot of student loan debt trying to support herself without the aid of her mother, an artist who doesn’t work; Andreas Wolf, a mercurial, deeply troubled Julian Assange-like character who is detestable throughout 99% of the book; and Tom Aberrant, a journalist living in Denver who runs an independent news organization that spends at least some of their time competing with Wolf’s media-dump style news leaks. Each of the main characters are cleverly connected to each other in ways that stretched the imagination but didn’t exactly feel unrealistic. As always, Franzen manages to build narratives that deeply endear each character to the reader (with the blatant exception of Wolf, though I believe Franzen made some attempt to find him at least a bit empathetic that just failed on me). We perhaps spend too much time with some side characters (I found the relationship between Tom’s girlfriend and her wheelchair-bound husband interesting, but the story stayed where it was, a fixture in the center of the novel that never resurfaced and That I had mostly forgotten about by the end), and there are some things that grate: there are a few too many Great Expectations references. There are constant reminders of how much debt Pip is in. This felt presented as though she was the only 20-something in America with such debt. This feels symptomatic of a generation (Franzen’s) who didn’t have to deal with this now ubiquitous problem. When financial gain factors in much later it seems to make more sense for its focal point in the book, but still, as a 20-something with her own debt, I kept wanting to say: WE GET IT. NEXT.
There’s been some talk of Franzen’s use of feminism in the novel, and rightly so, as it’s made clear that each woman in the book identifies as a feminist (which, truthfully, YAY! Totally down!) My frustration came with how this self-identification played out in every single decision each one of these women made. It’s a fallacy to believe that every woman who declares herself a feminist is then spending headspace to measure her feminism against her choice to accept money from a man, or a living situation, or a sexual encounter. It just doesn’t work that way. Franzen’s overt use of this paradigm became quickly exhausting. It gave the novel an overall feel of manness. Not necessarily wrong—Franzen is a man, after all—but this had a way of casting the entire novel in a type of hetero male shadow that was, well, just very apparent, and surprisingly not talked about. Interestingly, most of the reviews I read spend a lot of time focusing on Franzen’s “ability” to write from the POV of a 20-something girl.
I found it interesting that Franzen used in Purity the same method to expose information meant to be kept private, i.e., journaling, as he did in Freedom. In Freedom, Patti’s memoir exposed her affair with her husband’s best friend. Likewise, the biggest give away (which I won’t spoil here) in Purity is discovered through Tom’s journal. In both situations it works, and maybe it’s not such a big deal to make an argument about, but it did feel a bit odd. (Or maybe it was just Franzen’s use of the first person here, which he almost entirely avoids doing, that felt somewhat cumbersome.)
Re: Wolf, while Franzen goes to serious lengths to invite the reader into his mind, (to the point at which I thought, Dear God can we get the hell out of 1980s Germany already?) I found him a horrible character. Necessary for the story, sure, but there wasn’t a thing that made me like him. Maybe this is intentional. Maybe this is okay.
What Franzen does, what he will always be able to do with incredible skill and which, I believe, will always keep him at the top of the novel writing pack, is create intensely small, private worlds between two characters. He does it twice in this book (arguable three times): once with Leila (Tom’s girlfriend) and her husband, once with Tom and his now ex-wife, and I suppose one could make the argument that Wolf has some kind of deep relationship with the Killer, which is just a troubled side of himself that he has personified. I’ll avoid discussing this last one because it feels like the weakest example of this type of relationship and also because I fear I’ll give away too much. The relationship between Leila and her husband is magnetic and guilt-laden, and I felt for her and understood her reasons for not divorcing him. Franzen created that understanding for his reader, and knew most, if not all, readers would feel the same way. The second and most intense example is Tom and his then-girlfriend-turned-wife, Anabel. Like the characters in his previous novels, Tom and Anabel have a troubled power-struggle relationship that is of their own making and almost entirely hidden away from the public. When Anabel asks Tom if he wouldn’t mind sitting down to pee because she has to, (noting that this creates a biological deficit for her), we as readers recognize the insanity of the request but understand where it came from and why Tom would obey. When Anabel decides to take on an art project of cataloguing every square inch of her body, we understand why Tom agrees to support her through this, despite knowing that it would take ten years.
Franzen is fascinated by the limits two people in private relationships can push each other toward, and likewise, we as readers are just as enthralled. Like Joey and Connie (Freedom) and Denise and Julia (The Corrections), Tom and Anabel have a relationship that the reader can’t help but become pulled into, feeling viscerally both their struggles and desires, and understanding just why their relationship is so extreme. This is why Franzen is so consistently good.
So, while it wasn’t my favorite novel, there’s no denying that it isn’t still very good and that Franzen isn’t a master at creating characters and strong narratives. He deserves the praise he gets just as much as the critique, and perhaps this is the true symbol of what makes a Great American Novelist.