Like a lot of people, I realised pretty early on that one of the potential upsides of lockdown was the opportunity to spend more time reading. There’s always the question of what to read, though. For some reason, I decided that I was feeling like a Big American Novel, and so I turned to an author who is usually seen as one of the best recent purveyors of Big American Novels: Jonathan Franzen.
The first Franzen novel I read was Freedom, which I decided to pick up purely for the fact that one of its main characters goes to a Bright Eyes concert. Yes, really. To my surprise though, it doesn’t only feature a Bright Eyes concert; it also namedrops Jeff Tweedy and Michael Stipe. Wow! While the book as a whole isn’t without its faults, I still found it enjoyable enough to buy The Corrections a couple of years later. The Corrections is commonly heralded as a 21st century masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece. As with Freedom, it has its good bits and its not so good bits. As with Freedom, it spans decades and examines, in detail, the conflicts within a suburban American family. And as with Freedom, there’s a lengthy scene which involves human faeces.
Yes. In Freedom, Joey Berglund, after swallowing his wedding ring, has to search for a ‘glint of gold’ among ‘four large turds’ , first with his eyes, then a fork, and then his hands. In The Corrections, the aging Alfred Lambert, suffering from Parkinson’s and dementia, has a hallucinatory experience in which he argues with an anthropomorphic ‘sociopathic turd’ . Now, I don’t exactly want to admit that the sole reason I decided to read Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, was to see if he would once again turn his cringy pen to the subject of faecal matter . . . but it was. And I have to think that if the main reason I want to read a third Franzen novel is to find out whether there’s an ‘interesting’ trend toward using shit as a plot device, then maybe the literary qualities of Freedom and The Corrections weren’t all that high in the first place.
To my disappointment – or relief (I’m not sure) – there’s no faecal scene in Purity. There’s a moment when a character wonders why a journalist has likened him to ‘a four-year-old flinging poop’ [493-4], but that’s as much as we get. There are none of the in-depth faecal explorations which have brought Franzen so much critical praise in the past. However, maybe Franzen’s done something clever with Purity. Instead of simply featuring a turd in his novel, he’s made the novel itself a turd. If this was his intention, then Purity is visionary, ground-breaking, cutting-edge. But it wasn’t intentional, of course. It’s just that Franzen isn’t really that good a writer. Oh sure, at the prose level – as long as he’s not writing yet another abysmal sex scene – he can certainly craft a nice sentence once in a while. But when it comes to the overarching narrative and, most significantly, the characters, he can be woefully substandard.
The problem with Franzen’s writing style is that he delves – with sometimes excruciating detail – into the inner lives of his characters. Obviously, this is not a bad thing in and of itself, but the deeper Franzen takes us into his characters the more apparent it becomes that they’re mostly all the same person. No, no – that’s unfair. All the female characters are the same person, and all the male characters are the same person. In Purity every man is a sex-obsessed predator, and every woman is hopelessly infatuated with older men.
In the first chapter, our title character, just out of college, pursues her housemate Stephen, a married man in his mid-thirties. She goes to his bedroom and finds herself ‘pulling off her sweater, and then taking off her bra, and then dropping to her knees on the bed and pushing herself at Stephen, abusing him with her nakedness’ . In her next POV chapter, Purity throws herself at her much, much older employer, Andreas Wolf.
Wolf himself is a highly problematic character. An Assange-esque internet outlaw, he spends his twenties hiding from the Stasi and using his role as a youth councillor to sleep with as many teenage girls as possible. But don’t worry, he ‘never knowingly […] slept with anyone below the age of consent or anyone who’d been sexually abused’ . How considerate of him. Despite his preying on teenagers, Franzen hopes that ‘if [Wolf] actually loves somebody, it might redeem him enough to take the edge off the ickiness’. Who is it he falls in love with then? Well, it’s fifteen-year-old Annagret. But hang on, it’s alright because he waits a few years before actually sleeping with her. He also helps murder Annagret’s uncle, who has been abusing her. Franzen is keen to repeatedly inform us, however, that for the first few months of this abuse, Annagret was seducing her uncle and ‘consenting’ to it. Tell you what, it would be interesting to see these events from Annagret’s perspective, wouldn’t it? That could be compelling – exploring how her uncle’s abusiveness drove her to plotting his murder. But no. We never get inside Annagret’s head. That’s not what interests Franzen. He’s not interested in how Annagret might have been affected. No, the true victim of this thing is Andreas Wolf! After all, he must deal with the guilt of killing someone because he wanted to sleep with a fifteen-year-old. Franzen chooses the wrong viewpoint to explore these events. Like the notorious scene of Sansa Stark’s sexual assault in the fifth season of Game of Thrones, the victim’s perspective is ignored in favour of centring that of a male onlooker.
The longer Wolf and Annagret are together, the more obvious Wolf’s paedophilia becomes. He correlates her beauty with her youth , and ‘the more she [becomes] her own person’, the more difficult it is for him to see in her the ‘fifteen-year-old’ he fell for. He finds her to be ‘a person with no resemblance to the object he’d desired’ . After ten years together, they split up.
Years later, when Purity becomes infatuated with Wolf, he initially swears that he’s not into younger women anymore. But this isn’t true. He begins ‘to think she [is] the woman [he’s] waited all his life for’, and that, unlike Annagret, she ‘could save him’, because that’s what women are for in a relationship, you know – stopping your murderous impulses. He falls in love with her. We know this because even though he feels ‘like strangling’ Purity when she refuses to have penetrative sex with him, this is ‘only a moment’ .
Franzen’s consistent victim-blaming, poor POV choices, and personal views on his paedophilic character aside, simply having a character like Andreas Wolf is not necessarily a bad thing. No doubt there are indeed many men like Andreas Wolf out there and if you are, as the Sunday Times describe him, ‘an American master of realism’ like Franzen, then you’d want to depict all the facets of reality. But surely then, that would mean including male characters who aren’t predators and female characters who aren’t prey? That would be good. It could provide contrast and emphasise the vile aspects of Wolf. Maybe we could see the female characters who were preyed upon develop their own agency.
None of this happens, of course. Aside from Purity, the other female voice is provided by Leila Helou, a journalist who, back in her college days, fell in love with – and went on to marry – her creative writing professor. It is yet another example of Franzen’s female characters being purely obsessed with men in positions of power. Leila’s chapters are even flatter than Purity’s. While Purity herself as a character does at least have some sort motivation, she is strangely absent from the novel which bears her name. The catalyst for Purity’s journey is her desire to find her real father. But when the reveal arrives, we don’t see it from her perspective, which seems like a strange decision since it should be the peak of her character arc. And although the reveal is later reiterated from her viewpoint, because we already know the identity of her father, we don’t connect with the moment as emotionally as we might have done had Franzen delayed the reveal.
One answer why Purity might seem like she’s missing from her own novel is that Franzen didn’t want the novel to be entirely from her perspective. This on its own is fine, but his reasoning behind the decision isn’t. He is of the opinion that if he had ‘written an entire book about a young woman’ then it would have been ‘a little creepy’. Is Franzen so insecure in his own masculinity that he is squeamish with inhabiting a ‘feminine’ perspective? His immediate association between creepiness and writing points towards an assumption that the only way a male author can depict a woman is through a voyeuristic lens. Above all, Franzen’s statement strongly suggests that he is reluctant to write female characters, which might explain why Purity and Leila’s chapters are so dull. Despite all their problems, the Andreas Wolf chapters are at least written with some semblance of passion. (It’s also worth mentioning that Franzen’s evocation of East Germany during these sections represents a significantly stronger incorporation of political history than was evident in The Corrections’ Lithuania-set subplot.)
Purity’s other male POV is Tom Aberant, Purity’s long-lost father. When we first meet Tom, he seems like he might be a refreshingly different character, but as soon we get into a first-person account of his college days and marriage, we discover he is the same as Wolf. Okay, to be fair, he’s not quite a murderer and he’s not quite into underage girls, but he shares that same creepy objectification which by this point in the book I’m really starting to tire of. He describes sex with his wife, Anabel, as ‘assault’ . ‘I considered’, he says in one instance, ‘strangling her to death while I fucked her’ . At one point during sex he says: ‘I wasn’t raping Anabel, but I might as well have been’ . He sees in Anabel’s eyes ‘the love […] of a child’ . When we flashback to Tom’s pre-Anabel days, we find him trying to hook up with someone because of ‘the vile male motive of finally having sex’ , as if only men experience desire, as if all desire is necessarily ‘vile’. Whereas I said Wolf’s POV was written with passion, Tom’s is written with hatred. While you could make the case that this is all in character for Tom, it’s impossible to not see it in relation to Franzen’s own opinions on misogyny.
Franzen appears to be under the impression that his portrayals of women have been criticised simply because he is a man, not because they are not very good portrayals. ‘There’s no way to make myself not male,’ he says, and, since he mistakenly thinks his merely being male angers readers, he won’t actually try to write well-conceived female characters because that won’t solve the perceived problem. Instead, he packs his novels with ‘ammunition’ that he knows critics will hate. Tom’s wife, Anabel, is a feminist, and Franzen constantly ridicules her for this. She undertakes an art project to reclaim her body and is nearly driven mad by it. Her most heinous act is to force her husband to pee sitting down [379-80]. This is presented as the point at which their ‘feminist marriage’ begins to fall apart . Franzen’s lack of respect for Anabel is appalling. She is constructed not as an actual character but as a tool for the author to poke fun at his critics.
None of the characters in Purity acknowledge, tackle, or overcome their problems. Worse is the fact that Franzen attributes his characters’ problems almost exclusively to their upbringings. Purity’s mother is controlling; she is brought up without a father. Wolf’s mother is controlling; his real father is absent. Annagret’s mother is an addict; her father is absent. Tom Aberant’s mother is controlling; his father dies when Tom is a teenager. Anabel’s mother drank herself to death; her father is distanced by wealth and ideology. Whereas the family dynamics in The Corrections and Freedom did at least have some nuance to them, the underlying message of the depictions of parenthood in Purity is very clearly that a child needs a strong father figure and a submissive mother.
As if the terrible female characters, the victim-blaming, the poor POV choices, the implicit ideology, the intentions of Franzen, and the badly written sex scenes weren’t enough, Franzen tops it all off by trying to invoke Great Expectations. You see, Purity’s nickname is Pip, and it’s certainly no coincidence. In the final chapter, Purity tells her mother: ‘as long as you’re alive, it’s just going to be great expectations for me’ . The thing is, references like this only remind us how much better Great Expectations is than Purity. Great Expectations succeeds in almost every area in which Franzen’s novel fails because Charles Dickens could actually write female characters and understood that kind-hearted people can be just as interesting to read about as corrupt ones. Above all, Great Expectations shows how an individual can learn from their mistakes.
Will Franzen learn from his mistakes, though? Probably not, because he’s made it clear that he doesn’t read criticism of his work, and so he doesn’t ‘have a clear idea of what anyone’s complaining about’. If Franzen refuses to try and understand why his books might be problematic, then it’s unlikely he’ll ever change his writing for the better. Because he could be a great writer; there are enough strong passages in The Corrections and Freedom to point towards that. But until he examines himself and takes some time to listen to his critics, he’ll never move on from the things which consistently trip him up. If nothing else, let’s hope his next novel contains more turd scenes. At least that stuff is worth reading just for the laughs.