Jonathan Franzen’s Icky Secrets
The novelist’s new mega-tome is a strangely needy book, chock full of autobiography, from a domineering mother to a friendship-rivalry mirroring his own relationship with David Foster Wallace.
Charles Blenheim, a writer in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, thinks of himself as “a major American novelist,” if not quite the “great American novelist” that a Time cover story called Franzen when Freedom was released.
Blenheim tortures himself with writing a “big book” because “now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.” When his novel is finally published, it is judged “‘bloated and immensely disagreeable’” by Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times reviewer Franzen once called “the stupidest person in New York City.” Blenheim buys a motorcycle, maybe intentionally crashes it, survives (unlike John Gardner), and becomes an embittered paraplegic. Franzen, after the 562 pages of Freedom, comes back with the 563 pages of Purity, a book even bigger in its historical and geographical scope than the widely praised Freedom. But Purity is also smaller because Franzen exhumes and exploits autobiographical issues—parental, marital, filial—that he would seem to have adequately buried in his non-fiction.
Purity is about secrets, its characters’ and cultures’, perhaps its author’s, and the novel’s own withholding of information. Purity “Pip” Tyler, a recent college grad sharing a foreclosed Oakland house because she’s impoverished by student loans, wants to know who her father is, but her off-the-grid mother refuses to tell her. Pip travels to Bolivia to work for the famous Assange-like leaker of secrets Andreas Wolf, a German citizen on the run from European law. Pip hopes his group’s hacking capabilities will help her find her father, but Pip discovers she is sexually attracted to the mid-50s Andreas—one of many Electra or Oedipal relations in the novel. After Pip displeases Andreas, a longtime seducer of vulnerable young women, he sends her away to spy on Denver Independent, an investigative journalism website run by Tom Aberant, who shares a criminal secret with Andreas.
This much Pip knows when she begins working for Aberant who, only devoted Franzanies [sic] will know, has the last name of a character the author killed off when writing The Corrections. Because of lengthy flashback chapters to Andreas’s youth in Germany and to Tom’s early marriage to an eccentric woman in New York, readers know more secrets than Pip does. I can’t disclose them but will say that a murder in East Germany would be more probable in a Dostoevsky novel and that Tom’s spontaneous complicity in burying the body, though symbolically fitting, would be improbable in any novel attempting plausibility. When Pip arrives in Denver, Tom discovers a crucial secret about her, Andreas emails a secret about Tom to Pip, and she must sort out just how and why she has been manipulated by her mother, Andreas, and Tom. In the world according to the NSA and Purity, secrets are everywhere and none of them is safe.
Franzen’s start-and-stop plotting alternates chapters between Pip’s present and other characters’ pasts to delay revelations and to develop in detail his male doubles. Andreas and Tom have domineering mothers they love and resent. As young men, they fall in love at first sight with beautiful but inappropriate women, Annagret and Anabel respectively, for whom they make heroic sacrifices. In Germany before the Wall came down, the men have a sudden bromance. After living for a time with the women, Andreas finds Annagret dull, and Tom realizes Anabel is crazy. Both men think about killing these women they love and hate, but instead escape into professional activities that compete with each other to reveal secrets. Andreas founds The Sunlight Project, Tom creates Denver Independent.
Franzen’s non-fiction has shown he knows all about a domineering mother, he has written several times about regretting his self-sacrificing early marriage to another artist, and has published a shamefully self-pitying and self-promoting New Yorker essay about his competitive friendship with David Foster Wallace after his suicide, so the backstories of Andreas and Tom should carry some authority. But it is undermined by Franzen’s overdetermined doubling and by his predictable punishment of the fame-encapsuled Andreas, whose desire for Internet “likes” and “follows” represents much of what Franzen has excoriated in his essays. More problematically, Andreas shares with Wallace the predatory womanizing that D. T. Max reports in his biography of Franzen’s friend. Like Wallace the sick genius, the gifted Andreas destroys himself. Like Franzen the once depressed plodder, the realist Tom soldiers on. As in Franzen’s New Yorker essay about Wallace, in Purity there’s an ugly current of cruelty.
Young Pip is the come-on for Andreas and Tom, and for the reader. She recalls, of course, Dickens’s secret-seeking Pip in Great Expectations but resembles even more the spunky, kind of punky, and wise-ass quester/researcher Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Pip doesn’t tell Andreas why she’s really in Bolivia or Tom why she’s in Denver, but Pip has trouble keeping secrets. Although not sexually pure, Pip has some of her reclusive mother’s “moral absolutism,” which makes Pip feel as guilty as the men when she fails to live up to her mother’s standards. After Pip realizes millions of dollars may be hers if she can identify her father, she becomes increasingly clever at manipulating those around her, so Purity is crime novel, contemporary Odyssey, and Dickensian bildungsroman. Franzen may even think of Purity as a feminist fiction because it celebrates Pip’s eventual empowerment and critiques patriarchal domination. Authorial stand-in Tom has a “morbid fear of reproach, especially from women,” but I expect Franzen’s presentation of mothers and wives and other mature women will bring him even more distaff criticism than he received with Freedom.
I thought Freedom was over-praised, but for the most part it worked adequately within its realistic, social-novel genre. Purity is even more up-to-the minute in its subjects, just as maniacally specific in its settings, and extended in its dialogues, but the novel is more like a 19th-century American romance than, for example, Jamesian realism. Franzen’s characters, like Poe’s, are obsessed, doubled, and fearful of literally buried secrets; the plot has Melvillian bulges and lacunae; and the Manichean terms in which moral matters are expressed are Hawthornian: pure versus dirty, good versus bad, powerful versus weak. The effect of these stylistic choices is to make the characters in Purity like the “stuffed animals” Pip and her mother played with “for hours on end, giving them voices, inventing moral crises to resolve.” If one measures Franzen’s characters and their actions against one another, a moral hierarchy does emerge, but the novel’s “moral calculus” arises from a clash of stagey extremes, not from subtle and, yes, Jamesian differences. The highest motives are inseparable from the basest desires. Secrets pollute social relations but are necessary for a private identity in a time of universal surveillance. These are the kind of banal conclusions to which the moral combats of Purity lead.
Late in the 19th century, the symbolic methods of the romance were combined with new scientific knowledge by naturalists such as Norris and Dreiser. A more recent example is Tom Wolfe’s Man in Full with its crude Darwinian presentation of human relations. Purity has none of Wolfe’s stylistic whomp, but Purity shares with Wolfe and earlier naturalists a vision of human existence as predator versus prey. Although Franzen creates few metaphoric patterns in Purity, references to predators and prey pervade the book from the early murder to the cat and mouse (or sometimes “pussy” and mouth) games of sex to the predatory practices of banks and corporations, journalists and Internet do-gooders. Altruism and cooperation exist, mostly in Pip, who was raised in a remote natural setting—not by wolves but by a single spiritual woman who is the distinct opposite of the novel’s Wolf. I don’t mean to suggest that Franzen should have a sunnier view of global existence—from East German socialism to the hacker commune in Bolivia to contemporary western America—but that the cultural critique of Purity too often depends for its expression on the retrograde metaphor of biological reductionism. Perhaps Franzen has watched too many cats eat too many birds.
In Franzen’s famous distinction in Harper’s between the “novel of status” (what might be called the “pure” novel) and the “novel of contract,” he chose the impure contract with readers as “friends.” Purity wants to connect with more than “friends.” In Facebook terms, it wants to be “public,” and how better to please the public than to “reveal” the author’s personal secrets (see Knausgaard), to create a young heroine who bests bad guys (see every other movie and television series), and to contrive a happy ending (see Freedom)? Franzen has said Purity is his riskiest novel yet, but I see it as his safest because of its entertainment enticements, including a stray nuclear warhead that might incinerate Amarillo if the bomb weren’t a red herring in the plot and a jejune parody of the rocket as sex object in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
Like an imagined Kakutani on the invented novelist Blenheim, I found Purity “bloated” and “disagreeable,” puffed up with page-filling verisimilitude from Franzen’s youthful experiences in Germany and “icky” (to use a word repeated in the novel) with its reliance on emotional sludge represented by Tom’s sentences about Andreas: “It hurt my pride to be so much the asker, but I was determined to be his friend. He had an irresistible magnetism and an air of secret sorrow, secret knowledge. Years later, when he became internationally famous, I wasn’t surprised.” Still, I can imagine that the novel’s clever parceling out of secrets and reveals will make it more popular—and more often finished—than the more realistic Freedom.
The “big book” that Blenheim wanted to write would have the intellectual amplitude and originality that Purity lacks and should have at least a modicum of stylistic finesse. Blenheim’s first novel was compared to work by Elkin and Barth. Franzen has never been a sentence-maker in the same league with Elkin or an elegant formalist like Barth, but Purity is particularly slack. The novel has seven long chapters, all but one in third-person omniscience limited to the particular chapter’s main character. But Franzen doesn’t make the Andreas chapters sound very different from the Tom chapters, and the Tom chapters don’t sound very different from the Pip chapters. Banalities don’t come as fast and thick as in Freedom, and yet Purity often seems carelessly composed. For example, Franzen has Andreas the German-speaker in 1990s East Germany use anachronistic words such as “dirtbag,” “stiffy,” and “sleaze.”
One chapter is told in the first-person by Tom, who hoped to be a novelist when young, and it’s possible he is the secret narrator of the whole book, which would make him—not Franzen—responsible for the chapters’ sameness of expression. I know the advantage of blaming stylistic deficiencies on characters. But even if Tom the journalist is guilty of the pedestrian expression in Purity, Franzen is still guilty of the novel’s intellectual stenosis. Knowing how much Franzen prizes and parades his own guilt, I wonder if the book could be the great American novel of narcissistic masochism, a bad book written to punish the author for being a bad man in the past. Such is the kind of speculation that the self-indulgent farrago of Purity inspires.
A biography of Franzen—Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage by Philip Weinstein—will be published next month. It’s not a full-scale biography, one for which the author interviews hundreds of the subjects’ friends and former lovers, but the book synthesizes from Franzen’s conversations and correspondence with Weinstein, extant interviews, and Franzen’s own writings a convincing psychological portrait of an author who recovered from depressive years of being angry with himself by projecting that anger and rage outward and then finding love of himself and others. Weinstein calls Purity “stunning” and “spell-binding.” Weinstein also believes Purity is Franzen’s most “mature” work because its autobiographical elements show that Franzen recognizes he is “comically implicated in the numberless scenarios that enrage him.” Me, I believe a mature artist writing a “big book” could use his personal secrets without spilling them, without spewing them into two characters who seem created to dramatize psychological issues I expect a 55-year-old man to have settled by now. I also believe a fully mature work about the perils of male dominance shouldn’t need to use an attractive young woman to solicit readers and give them pleasure at the book’s happy climax. In his contract and status essay, Franzen wrote off William Gaddis as “Mr. Difficult.” In Purity, Franzen is “Mr. Easy,” taking the easy way out of his shame and rage by turning them into psycho-melodramas, which just happens to be an easy way to gain the mass readership Franzen requires to validate his needy contract with the public. He destroys the crowd craver in the novel but designs Purity to be a crowd pleaser, thus demonstrating his aesthetic impurity. Or hypocrisy.