August 30, 2015
By Heather Mallick
The American novelist Jonathan Franzen is under fire for being interesting in an era when the only safe thing to do is hide. I shall spring to his defence, as is my natural inclination.
Why pick on Franzen? The man coats his books in shame, after pre-soaking them in shame and storing them in a shame vault. You can see the problem here: shame is not the predominant emotion of the West at this time, though we have so much to be ashamed of.
Franzen’s new novel, Purity, takes on the big issues of our era: online privacy, extremist rights movements, state surveillance, investigative journalism, communism, Occupy, piratical banking, all the things covered in any media outlet worth its salt. Decades from now, when we want a snapshot of 2015, we’ll turn to Purity.
He follows seven characters — Californians and East Germans, good parents and bad parents, journalists and leakers plus a girl named Purity — and links them all through coincidence and pursuit, while infusing the novel with a gas of destructive attitudes and emotions.
First is shame, as I said. Then comes the most extraordinary attitude to sex I’ve ever encountered: sex not as a pleasure or duty but as a continuing ferocious argument between men and women. You’ll meet a woman called Anabel. You won’t like her.
Then comes guilt, money regarded as dirt rather than a force for good, and terrible loneliness. Franzen characters have no one they’d happily die for. It knifes them.
I’m writing about Franzen because I have few other writers to turn to in understanding the era. His big ambitions are unfashionable. Most writers are Eleanor Rigbys lurking in their own solitary little heads, which would be charming if their heads weren’t quite so stupefying, their landscapes so teeny, their tweets so bitter.
Why not head out for the territories where there are new stories and huge concerns? Why not write a doorstopper? If Upton Sinclair got a great novel, The Jungle, out of turn-of-the-century meatpacking and Larry McMurtry tried to destroy the 1800s cowboy myth with his anti-western, Lonesome Dove, why not write about global drought? Or the coming wave of gay divorce?
Everyone’s so thrilled about gay marriage, but wait till 25 per cent of those marriages turn into Tom and Anabel.
Anabel can only reach orgasm during a full moon. What this means, in reality, is that she and Tom only have sex three days a month. Is this fair? Discuss. Tom pees standing up. She is politically offended by this, so he sits down. (When she’s not around to hear him, he pees in the sink.) She’s working on an experimental piece of art, inking her body with tiny cubes. A year later, she’s still on her left ankle.
So what does Tom do? He marries her.
The Anabel section is a warning to other writers about literary claustrophobia. See what happens when you lock your reader in a tiny room with a loopy person with as much body fat as a Shaker chair and an aversion to smells? It’s the worst literary marriage since Middlemarch.
“Here’s what’s sexist: when women are literally getting killed for being feminist, you write a character that reinforces a neg view of feminism,” one Twit wrote of Purity, channelling Anabel even before reading the book. If Franzen likes anyone, it’s women. Take Denise, the indomitable lesbian Lambert in The Corrections, or pure-hearted Lalitha in Freedom.
The American novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, hygienic and twee, writes that she is “disinclined to recommend this book to her female friends [as] I suspect that they’d feel their time is too precious” — she actually writes this way — to read about “male rage.”
But good novels don’t say things, they suggest. For one thing, does purity exist? I think Franzen’s East German character, Andreas Wolf, is the impure Julian Assange. Investigative journalism is the last pure form of narrative, now boiling down to a residue. Both communism and U.S. totalitarian surveillance are pure in their moral certainly and both are purely awful.
What is the purest way to live? I say with patient self-control and an adherence to human decency. But in times like these, this seems an extreme view.