It is obvious from its first page that Purity is a worthless novel and its author, Jonathan Franzen, a worthless writer. Even the very first line, spoken by one of Franzen’s “characters,” is unbelievable: “Oh pussycat, I’m so glad to hear your voice”—the voice that of no human who has ever walked this earth, except an inept and pretentious novelist.
In this way, Purity, whose author aspires to universality in a way only an author contemptuous and jealous of pulp can, is worse than lowbrow genre fiction. The prose from the early chapters is less polished than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the sex is less sexy than Fifty Shades of Grey. Purity tries harder than these books, and fails more miserably—though we’re told Pip, its heroine, is “like a bank too big in her mother’s economy to fail.” You can always count on Franzen to make a lame joke six years too late, just like a parent without self-awareness.
The novel’s plot is little more than a vehicle for these jokes and “social observations”—which would be fine, were they at all pithy or original. Instead, we get a mishmash of Pip’s early-twenties struggles, her mom’s batty solitude, and Internet whistleblowers from Germany—the last of which is Franzen’s naked and futile attempt to claim relevance, or some understanding of the world. Purity’s plot sags as badly as its dialogue, such that the novel feels less like a work of art, with all its ambiguities, ironies, and complexities, and more like an overlong and thinly veiled excuse for Franzen to dully declaim his conception of life in the twenty-first century.
As entertainment, Purity is a failure. As an object of ridicule, it is entertaining and instructive. In the spirit of high-school English class, let’s try a “close reading” of an early passage:
It brought her some relief from the feeling that she wasn’t suited for her job, that she had a job nobody could be suited for, or that she was a person unsuited for any kind of job; and then, after twenty minutes, she could honestly say that she needed to get back to work.
“My left eyelid is drooping,” her mother explained. “It’s like there’s a weight on it that’s pulling it down, like a tiny fisherman’s sinker or something.”
Within is every hallmark of Franzen’s high style: the lame “turns of phrase” that stand in for jokes; the pathetic attempt at narrative development through meaningless and implausible conversation; the halfwit “foreshadowing” of the malady; the senile obliviousness to its own impotence; the telltale adverb, that fails as an attempt to approximate the way anyone talks. I cross off everything from “that” to the first quotation mark, eliminate the last sentence entirely, and know I am workshopping a moron, not learning from a great.
For Purity, like the rest of Franzen’s oeuvre, reads like a fanfic or rough draft from a creative writing student. These people and their associates form Franzen’s target audience, because he knows nothing else. For this reason, Franzen describes his spinster as “problematic,” then repeats the joke a line later, because academic buzzwords are funny, so repeating them must be funnier. An even narrower, feebler trope is the “allusions” to literature, as in the case of the “not-birthday” mentioned ad nauseam on the adjoining pages: is Franzen too stupid to know Lewis Carroll, or too stupid to emulate him? And what about the name of the heroine, Pip? Should I dust off Melville, in addition to Dickens? Does the name connote “any of various human ailments; especially: a slight nonspecific disorder,” “one of the dots used on dice and dominoes to indicate numerical value,” “a small fruit seed,” or “a short high-pitched tone”? It works on all of those levels, except as a person’s name in a “realistic novel.”
Pip’s conversation with her mother, supposed to last half her “lunch break,” drags on for several pages, in the grand tradition of writers who can’t cut a scene short or leave a joke unexplained. Most of the conversation centers around the merits of sugar versus a substitute—they might as well have been talking about the weather—but Franzen still leaves himself time for horrific exchanges like this:
“You have no idea how I envy you your cubicle. The invisibility of it.”
“Let’s not romanticize the cubicle,” Pip said.
“This is the terrible thing about bodies. They’re so visible, so visible.”
… as well as miscarriages like “greened and goldened by filtration through the redwoods’ tiny needles,” or tortured attempts at “free indirect discourse” like Pip “thinking” of her mother not as “the rock” of her life, but the “massive block of granite in the center.”
Free indirect discourse is especially useful to a fraud like Franzen because it provides a hedge to any accusations of atrocious writing: it was actually the character speaking, and not him. Hence the profusion of spineless qualifiers in sentences like: “And so—for the first time, it seemed—Pip had looked at her mother’s hands.” It only “seemed” because it would be ridiculous and factually inaccurate to write, “For the first time, Pip had looked at her mother’s hands.” This particular paragraph’s capstone is “first premonition of the granite block”—synthesizing Franzen’s propensities for the awful repeated joke, the epically turgid simile.
Free indirect discourse also provides Franzen with his semblance of empathy. In his probing review, Nicholas Dames cannily assigns Franzen the epithet “nice,” which is worth exploring in all its implications—Franzen is a “nice guy” of the Internet, a “nice person” in the sense of a friend-zoned man—and its limitations: his niceness circumscribes his self-conception to the point it cripples any attempt at characterization or complexity. In their place, we get things like Pip’s “non-sexual” attraction to her mother’s body, and preposterous “climaxes” like Pip’s mother claiming, “I have the right to love you more than anything in the world.”
And some people—mystifyingly, embarrassingly—do seem to “love” Franzen, whatever that word means to someone like him. There are at least enough positive reviews to fill the back cover of Purity, which raises a number of questions: Did the reviewers actually like Franzen’s trash? Were they paid off to do so? (Which is worse?) The only review that quite captures the whole flaccid gutlessness of Franzen’s ethic and career is John Dolan’s masterpiece.
This brings us to the Germans, discordantly shoved into the novel’s plot. They start off as Stasi officers and turn into Internet trolls. I am not making this up. Franzen clearly and unironically means for us to see the Internet as totalitarianism, and its mechanism of tyranny the mean things people like Dolan say on it. This misconception dictates the fallow sterility of “niceness”: for it is not negativity, but our response to it, that turns the Internet into hell. Think of “high-minded” Facebook “friends” sharing an article and responding with wrath at the least sign of disagreement, or how Twitter, where we pressure ourselves into looking “nice,” brings out meritless cruelty. Such a hypocrisy forms the core of tyranny—and Purity.
This is Franzen’s true use for “niceness”: he means for us all to be so polite we won’t call a piece of shit a piece of shit. His own “niceness” is nothing more than a vapid, next-level narcissism. This self-exculpation, the same as you see in Jonathan Safran Foer, is elegantly captured by the title of Purity.
The only antidote to this writing-group circle-jerk is criticism: maybe we can revitalize a moribund art form by slamming Franzen’s work for the shit it is. So I will say it again: Purity is a horrible abortion. Its characters are flat, the dialogue is trite, and plot is as predictable and hackneyed as the jokes. It is less a “great American novel” than a Guy’s American Kitchen Sink of novels.
Among this unfunny procession of brand names and “ironic” details, you can always discern the heartfelt platitude that is Franzen’s most authentic voice. One example: “You didn’t have to write to be a poet, you didn’t have to create things to be an artist.” True enough. This nice, awkward man, so clearly “not a genius,” might have made a fine middle-school math teacher. True, he’s attained some success as a writer. But of what use is “success” if it makes us all “nice”?
Writers and readers should not straitjacket themselves so readily. For Purity’s ambition, its complete failure to fulfill it, the scope of its readership and totality of our swindling, we have the right to hate it more than any book on the bestseller list. Franzen proves over and over that those who have only “nice” things to say shouldn’t say anything at all.
[Image via AP]