Phoebe Maltz Bovy fails to be swept away by a Sweeping Novel
JONATHAN FRAZEN'S PURITY has made the rounds in my bag. It’s been to my favorite Japanese coffee shop, the Purolator near my office. I’m not going to say anything definitive, but it may or may not have been inside of an Aritzia.
Franzen’s buzzed-about latest is certainly sweeping, which is to say, a lot of ground is covered generationally and geographically, and isn’t the sort of work that anyone could ever accuse of smallness. (That perhaps inadvertently backhanded compliment one sometimes sees floating around: a nice little essay.) But if it gives off a sense of importance (President Obama just bought it!) it also has little to show for it. The hype around Franzen in recent years, and his coronation as America’s official white-guy novelist, had, in some perverse way, raised my hopes for it. Here was a book that was going to really tell it like it is, except in some literary, left-of-Trump sense. I’d tried to avoid reviews, but ended up seeing, in Emma Brocke’s interview with Franzen, a reference to a part of the novel where a character’s wife makes him “atone for his maleness by sitting down on the toilet to pee.” This had potential. Unfortunately the rest of the novel offers less innovation along these or other lines.
For all that happens in Purity, the central story is fairly contained, and unravels without a tremendous amount of suspense. Purity “Pip” Tyler goes on a post-collegiate finding-herself mission, except she’s literally trying to find out who she is—the true identity of her parents has been kept from her. The big reveal drags out too long to be properly surprising, and yet Pip is too flimsy, too much of a generic stand-in for Recent College Grad for the reader to ever much care about on any deeper level.
And in defiance of Tolstoy’s classic opening line, we meet several unhappy families who are just a bit too much alike for me to tell you, with confidence, without the book in front of me, which clingy or East German mother was whose. Yes, there are East German bits, because Franzen has something important but unspecified to say about totalitarianism, or because a sweeping novel demands a change of scenery every now and again. South America also makes an extended appearance.
All along, I kept thinking, it could have gone otherwise. I have fond, if distant, memories of The Corrections. And there are moments, early on in Purity, when it seems as if we’re getting the great American liberal hypocrisy novel, which would have been fun: a German woman and her boyfriend “were vacationing in various American slums, ostensibly to raise awareness of their international squatters’ rights organization, and to forge connections with the American antinuke movement, but primarily, it seemed, to take pictures of each other in front of optimistic ghetto murals.” Then there’s Pip’s post-collegiate life, the bit about how she “wanted to do good, if only for lack of better ambitions.” And then we’re neck-deep in a boring story of a personality-less (but ambitious!) Strong Female Character of non-WASP extraction, Leila, whose midlife compromises and regrets would maybe hold more interest if the strength were in the characterization, not merely the depicted individual’s professional drive.
And then there’s the promise, never met, that the novel will say something about the Internet’s impact on secrets. While technology (specifically, facial-recognition software) does eventually facilitate a revelation, I kept wishing Franzen would have used the more everyday ways the private becomes public (privacy settings, momentary social-media lapses, and so forth) to drive the plot.
There’s something about the novel that lends itself more to a book report than a book review. (Female purity! Ideological purity! Great Expectations! The burden, in adulthood, of an infantilizing nickname! The structural symmetry and neatness of the plot!) Purity is well-pieced-together, and revealing of a curious mind, I suppose, but doesn’t ever quite hit that mix of personal and political that can make a novel in the contrarian-white-guy genre (like, say, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission) really powerful. It reads as somehow too personal, too wrapped up in Franzen’s in-jokes about himself and his own grievances and his reception, to fully sustain the interest of someone who didn’t himself write it.
Also worthy of book-report mention: while the rest of the novel is in the third person, one chapter gets to be in the first. And that’s the one in which a talented male writer of a certain age, named Tom Aberant (rather than as one might suspect Jonathan Franzen) offers insights on what he really thinks about women, feminism, talent. Needless to say, for a voice to be privileged in this way seems significant!
More specifically, the chapter consists of Tom recalling his failed marriage to Anabel, an aspiring artist turned recluse. Anabel is less a character than an amalgam of converging cultural clichés: the vegan anorexic, the privileged-rejecting privileged person (who retains her snobbery and her vanity despite rejecting an inheritance and literally spitting in a loving parent’s face), and the feminist-dependent spouse. She’s the neurotic, the hysteric, the wannabe victim who goes in for feminism as a way of highlighting the one area in which she was not systematically #blessed. She’s the Difficult White Lady, set against a saintly, sensible everyman.
And in case all of this weren’t enough, the otherwise mostly-frigid Anabel manages to conceive a child with her by-then-ex without his knowledge. (Condoms are tampered with. Because this is a thing women totally do all the time. And because women in their late 30s with lifelong eating disorders conceive as readily as 16-year-old girls in afterschool specials, the moment one condom doesn’t do its job.) All of which is to say, she’s less a woman than a fictional rendering of a men’s-rights-movement grievance checklist. Wait, I forgot one! She lies about being a victim of domestic violence. Women!
But the Anabel interlude kind of works, because we’re hearing it (mostly) from the chapter narrated by her aggrieved ex, who’s of course going to be biased. Tom, meanwhile, has his own victim complex going, convinced as he is that the world’s out to get him because he’s a man (despite a brilliant career as a journalist, at a level comparable to that of Franzen’s own), and still furious at an ex-wife whose main lasting impact on his life has been to leave him—albeit indirectly—with more money than anyone would know what to do with. As a sketch of what a man might think about an ex-wife (or, who knows, does), it’s pretty spot-on.
The issue with Anabel, then, isn’t that she’s “problematic” from a feminist perspective. Or not quite. There’s a literary weakness to Anabel’s opacity: much of the plot hinges on her having kept a big secret, and yet it’s never quite clear why she did so. Andreas—the character who both is and isn’t Julian Assange—has a whole slew of dark secrets: liaisons with teen girls, political dissidence, and a quasi-justified murder for good measure. Meanwhile, Anabel’s maneuverings are so simplistic, so predictable, that they could be best explained with a rhetorical, ‘Women, amiright?’
As frustrating as the first-person interlude is in what it fails to illuminate plot-point-wise, and as much as the world maybe didn’t need another novel in which a white male character holds forth about his bratty, parasitic ex, that chapter, as a stand-alone novella, could have worked. It held my attention, at least, in the way that the interludes giving third-person accounts of cardboard-cutout-student-thingy Pip and look-see-I-read-the-news-thingy Andreas did not. Those bits served mainly to give Franzen some Sweeping points, to show that he’s able to get just enough details right-or-plausible about everything from student loans to Stasi record-keeping to count as having written a novel that someone more suggestible (or, fine, with different taste) might qualify as Great. When he might have opted for a good little story instead.
PHOEBE MALTZ BOVY is working on a book about privilege for St. Martin's Press (2017). Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.
Photo of Jonathan Franzen by David Shankbone, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.