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Books: In Which Jonathan Franzen Gives Birth to a Giant Turkey

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

 

‘All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Given how routinely Jonathan Franzen is now compared to Tolstoy it’s easy to imagine the iconic opening line of Anna Karenina speaking to a younger Franzen as a kind of career modus operandi. True, his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, which appeared in 1988, was an awkward political thriller, a book so obviously aiming for Pynchon and so clearly missing that it could only be the work of a writer still wet behind the ears and wide-eyed with postmodern wonder.

And yet even there, at the heart of that wayward debut, lay the territory which Franzen would slowly make his own with subsequent novels: the nuclear family depicted in slow-motion meltdown, the anatomisation of contemporary complacency delivered as a statement of artistic intent.

The precision and breadth with which Franzen dissected Midwestern familial unease to make a coded complaint with globalised consumerism in his 2001 breakthrough, The Corrections, earned serious critical attention and a worldwide following. On the back of that novel (his third), comparisons with Tolstoy and Dickens began to flow, as per historian Sam Tanenhaus at his most triumphalist in The New York Times:  ‘Like those giants, Franzen [in The Corrections] attended to the quiet drama of the interior life and also recorded its fraught transactions with the public world.’

While that might be a fair enough description of what Franzen was up to, it’s hardly an analytical literary appraisal. But then again, Tanenhaus’s crafted exuberance is exactly the kind of response which Franzen’s work invites by the bucket-load, probably because it’s the natural register of Franzen himself in full stride.

Overall, the plaudits garnered by The Corrections were broadly justifiable—it was a good novel, compulsively readable and thoughtfully engaged in the world it set out to construct and critique. Amid the prizes and the breathless hype of the giddiest reviews, however, James Wood reminded everyone how to review a fashionably acclaimed novel in its own terms when, in New Atlantic, he took Franzen to task justly for breaking his own contract with the reader. In his now famous Harper’s essay (there called ‘Perchance to Dream’ but since reprinted and retitled as ‘Why Bother?’), Franzen had seemingly argued against the ongoing relevance of the avowedly social novel to contemporary America, suggesting the more pertinent concern for novelists at the millennium had to do with a return to aesthetics instead: ‘Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems—seems to me a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?’

Wood wholeheartedly agreed that the real value of fiction ought to rest with its formal element, but, rather damningly, dismissed Franzen’s reasoning: Franzen could sue all he liked for the autonomy of art, he would never convince Wood that he really believed in it. What kind of ‘refuge’, wondered Wood, is ever completely free from moral or authoritative imperatives? What kind of artistic gesture truly escapes social concerns of one stripe or another? For a start it would have to be one which forsook all of its own sociological and autobiographical anchoring, and it’s there that Franzen’s real interest is so baldly exposed. In the Harper’s essay he wondered aloud at the failure of the socially-engaged novel, but mainly because his own novels had failed to satisfy what actually remained, to Franzen himself, the highly covetous terms of ‘social engagement’. Clinically depressed to boot, he diagnosed contemporary American literature with the same affliction. Dwell on that equation for a few short seconds and the full blast of Franzen’s hubris hits like a sonic boom.

As if to prove Wood’s point, even as he looked longingly towards an autonomous aesthetics of literature, he never turned completely away from the social novel either. Because he wanted it both ways, what he was really after was a social novel that earned its wings with a refined sense of aesthetic concern—a return to humanism without completely cashing in his postmodern cred. Part of Franzen’s answer was to trade the hysterical realism of Pynchon for the social realism of Tolstoy and thereby deepen (rather than dispense with altogether) the texture of American postmodernism. Like his sometime contemporary, David Foster Wallace, Franzen seemed to realise that inheriting the mantle of the king of the American giants, Don DeLillo, meant neither widening the already panoramic frame of reference to include ever more quotidian detail, nor doing away with such proliferations altogether.

DeLillo himself had shown how far it was to go along that particular avenue of the hyper-realist line: while his 1997 masterpiece Underworld was a supernova exploding with a relentless, compelling beauty over 800 or so pages, his novels since then have felt as cold as the deep space such brilliant stars leave behind.

*

Franzen’s answer has been to find another avenue altogether. In The Corrections he changed the point of entry to pay richer attention to the human intimacies of those whose private and professional complications alike were irreducibly caught up with the capitalist machinations of the everyday. Franzen’s world was suddenly fleshed out with vividly drawn but still real-seeming characters, not simply profiles of types designed as suitable inhabitants of the superstructure of the fiction. The nuclear heat of Pynchon and DeLillo was turned down to allow a far more humane sense of warmth.

In hindsight the blueprint was foreshadowed in the Harper’s essay all along. Ostensibly his purpose there was to find a way of reconciling the creative freedom of the writer with the familiar sense of duty to reflect on the wider culture—the very culture which, after all, writers themselves inhabit and are thus inescapably shaped by. Notwithstanding Wood’s objection to Franzen’s dubious appeal to the primacy of artistic ‘authenticity’, the essay at least indicated the problem which every writer of serious fiction deals with in one way or another: how to write literature that is both of its time and impervious to it.

The extended portrait of the dysfunctional Lambert family in The Corrections was, arguably, Franzen’s more thoroughly thought-through articulation of, and response to, that question, but, ironically enough, the novel was convincing for the same reason the essay wasn’t. In ‘Why Bother?’,  Franzen’s descent into subjectivity gave him away as a writer for whom anecdote, not aesthetics, was the first principle. Unsurprisingly his discussion never really rose above the level of a soft-intellectual memoir. And yet while the essay might have been patchier than an old quilt in the argument department—the worn stitching only just holding together its inquisitive pastiche of autobiography, history and cultural observation—the same fraught disjointedness not only made The Corrections such a radiant, readable book, but was central to its sense of a higher purpose: what looked like incoherence in the essay was, itself, fundamental to the human condition evoked in the novel. Franzen offered characters whose distinguishing features inhered in the complexity of the familial and psychosexual relations on the point of breakdown; whose actions in their relationships were underpinned by the pressures brought to bear by society, but a society which, equally, crucially, they themselves helped constitute.

*

Franzen’s new novel Purity is, by comparison, such a hollow piece of writing that one of the most remarkable things about The Corrections appears, in hindsight, to be how it was achieved at all. Some of the new novel’s multiple failures have been narrowly avoided before—the preposterous plot twists now seem ominously prefigured by some of The Corrections’ more outlandish and convenient moments, while the symptoms of caricature which were beginning to present in 2011’s Freedom have now developed into full-blown soap opera. Wood criticised Franzen for occasionally allowing a strain of ‘debased journalism’ to inflect his tone in The Corrections, but in Purity it’s virtually his first language. Here he is starting the novel’s third section, rousing all the intrigue of a paint-by-numbers human interest story:

Ordinarily, Leila looked forward to traveling on assignment. She was never more of a professional, never more defensibly excused from her caretaking duties in Denver, than when she was locked in a hotel room with her green-tea bags, her anonymized Wi-Fi connection, her two colors of ballpoint, her Ambien stash. But from the moment she arrived in Amarillo, on a commuter jet from Denver, something felt different.

With the possible exception of ‘never more defensibly excused from her caretaking duties in Denver,’ there’s barely anything to distinguish the tone from Reader’s Digest. The language is so formulaic that every detail, every texture, is flattened into a lifelessness as dull as it is cheap. As for narrative interest, in such wooden storytelling hands, ‘Ordinarily’ can only be a signpost to a hackneyed ‘something felt different.’

Because Leila herself is a journalist the tawdry intonation might work as an ironic frame of reference: a nod to the reader that she is rather a bad journalist. Except that she isn’t. Franzen wants us to think she’s a hotshot. We hear how, as a student, Leila’s pretensions to fiction-writing were scuppered by her tendency to ‘her flat reportorial style’ and how, accordingly, she fell into being a brilliant journalist. Never mind that Leila’s story—something about a fake nuclear warhead—is no more than another tedious plot device which fails to detonate in any respect. Franzen’s problem isn’t simply that Leila’s story goes nowhere, but that it goes nowhere to no good purpose—Franzen himself has little, if anything, to say about investigative journalism. Instead the reader trawls through acres of plot written like so many column inches:

She met Tom Aberant in February 2004. Tom was a well-regarded journalist and editor who’d come to Washington to poach talent for a non-profit investigative new service he was starting, and Leila, who by now had won a shared Pulitzer (anthrax, 2002), was on his wish list. He currently lived in New York, but he was divorced and childless and thinking of situating his non-profit in Denver, his hometown, where the overhead would be lower.

And so it yawns.

*

When Franzen does attempt the ironic gesture it goes badly. Leila’s first husband was the major American novelist, Charles Blenheim, whom she met when he ‘was at the apex of his career, coming off a Lannan Fellowship year and a front-page Times review that had anointed him as the heir of John Barth and Stanley Elkin.’ Unfortunately for Charles ‘he didn’t know it was the apex.’

We don’t read anything that Charles has written but we don’t need to; we can rest assured of his brilliance because his students are queueing up to sleep with him. He has ambitions to write a big novel, which he eventually does, but to terrible reviews—‘bloated and disagreeable’ discerns the critic, Michiko Kakutani. In real life Kakutani once eviscerated Franzen’s ‘preening’ memoir, The Discomfort Zone, and hence, even as a fictional shadow, could be the most intelligent presence in the entire novel.

The irony of the egomaniac novelist laying a giant egg of a book is plainly of the cruellest and most unwitting kind, but Franzen doesn’t do himself any favours: when Charles is introduced to the novel’s central character, a listless young woman called Pip, his literary self-satisfaction allows him the finesse of a smug undergrad:

‘Pip,’ Charles boomed, looking the girl up and down in open sexual appraisal. ‘I like your name. I have great expectations of you. Aieee—you must get that a lot.’

‘Seldom so neatly put,’ Pip said.

Seldom so neatly put? The joke that many will have been inwardly cringing away from since the start of the novel is delivered in flashing neon. Later in the same passage Franzen, Charles—whoever—has a crack at the fashionable, and implicitly unearned, reputation of the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (whom he tediously renames ‘Jonathan Savoir Faire’). But why would a writer of the calibre that Jonathan Franzen clearly believes himself to be even bother with this ego-driven balderdash? Logic allows only one answer.

In the same scene Charles offers an impromptu creative writing lesson. This gives him a chance to show off to Pip that he has done cocaine like a real writer, and Franzen a chance to harp on in familiar fashion, fusing his extra-literary interests with his poorly managed characters to make a Point:

‘The soul,’ he said to Pip, ‘is a chemical sensation. What you see lying on this sofa is a glorified enzyme. Every enzyme has its special job to do. It spends its life looking for the specific molecule it’s designed to interact with. And can an enzyme be happy? Does it have a soul? I say yes to both questions! What the enzyme you see lying here was made to do is find bad prose, interact with it, and make it better.’

Certainly part of that function seems borne out. This is a novel teeming with bad prose. ‘Willow’s research chops were awesome,’ writes Franzen. Arguably excusable if it was dialogue—it’s not—it is, at least, in keeping with the inane conversations which routinely drive the narrative, as if the characters had accidentally wandered in from an airport novel:

     ‘I’m sorry.’

     ‘No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I ruined everything.’

     ‘Don’t blame yourself. I’m a grown man. I can take care of myself.’

     ‘I’m never going to betray you,” she blubbered. “You can trust me.’

     ‘I won’t pretend that I don’t love you. I do love you.’

     ‘I’m sorry,’ she blubbered.

     ‘But here, enough of that.’ He took off his slicker, draped it over her, and sat down. ‘Let’s think about what you want to do now.’

That’s not even the clumsiest of it: ‘going forward,’ someone is heard to mutter. In East Berlin. In 1989. Whatever he once wrote in ‘Why Bother?’, the latter-day Franzen couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about writing authentic sentences.

*

The best writing in the novel is found—nay, buried—near the start of the section narrated by Tom. He offers up his backstory with enough wry humour and, that most un-Franzen of qualities, self-deprecation to rank as a first-rate memoirist:

With college looming, I made a bloodless but nonetheless exciting pact to exchange virginities with my senior-prom date, Mary Ellen Stahlstrom, whose romantic sights were set on someone unattainable, and so it happened that, on the last possible weekend of the summer, in an Estes Park cabin belonging to the parents of a mutual friend, at the crucial moment of entry, I accidentally delivered a sharp masculine poke to the very most sensitive and off-limits part of Mary Ellen. She gave a full-throated shriek, recoiling and kicking me away. My attempts to comfort her and apologize only fed her hysteria. She waited, she thrashed, she hyperventilated, she kept babbling a phrase that I finally deciphered, to my immense relief, as a wish to be taken home to Denver right away.

Mary Ellen’s anally violated shriek was ringing in my ears when I matriculated at Penn. My father had suggested that I choose a smaller college, but Penn had offered me a scholarship and my mother had seduced me with talk of the wealthy, powerful people I would meet at an Ivy League school. In my first three years at Penn, I made not one wealthy friend, but my intimations of male guilt were given a firm theoretical foundation. ‘

This is good writing. The only problem is that this isn’t really Tom talking at all. It’s Franzen channelling his essay voice. At its best it’s a voice strong enough to hold an entire novel. Engaging, funny, and intelligent, it conveys a personality that feels properly human. But it’s not the voice of the Tom we meet elsewhere. A few chapters back he was just another two-dimensional character priding himself on his perfect Manhattans. Far too quickly his measured, congenial tone dissipates altogether, and he is, once again, one of Franzen’s hideously melodramatic cast: ‘When I looked into the house again, Anabel was not in sight. I considered, quite seriously, strangling her to death while I fucked her and then throwing myself in front of the 8:11 bus. The idea was not without its logic and appeal.’ Except, it is. Entirely.

On the other hand, the usual rules of narrative logic do not easily apply inside the world of the novel. The entire plot is an extravagant, ludicrous coincidence that reads like Dickens on speed. Try this for a slice: one night, Pip Tyler nips out of her room half-naked to look for a condom, when her beautiful German flatmate talks her into completing a questionnaire. Shortly after completing the questionnaire, Pip becomes email buds with the world’s most famous dissident turned internet outlaw, Andreas Wolf, and agrees to travel to Bolivia to intern on something called the Sunlight Project. For Pip, being an intern mostly involves knocking back Andreas’s sexual advances, and, in an unforeseen but convenient turn of events, spending a good few weeks teaching herself how to be a crack journalist. Thus prodigiously qualified, she can’t not be hired by Tom on her return to Denver. Tom might have many faults, but not recognising, on sight, the adult daughter he never knew he had is not among them. It turns out that, back in the day, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tom had helped Andreas—whom he’d met a day or two before—dispose of the body of the beautiful German flatmate’s Stasi-informant stepfather who’d sexually abused her when she was a girl, and whom Andreas had decently smashed in the head with a spade. Throw in the billion-dollar inheritance which Pip’s mum feels weird about and has been hiding from her, the nonsensical story about the nuclear warhead, and the greatest American novelist of his generation, and it’s as though Franzen himself plotted the whole thing with half of Bolivia up his nose.

*

As if the writing wasn’t bad enough the book’s aspirations to social engagement have gone the same way as Franzen’s once declared but expedient commitment to aesthetics. The big topic for Franzen here is the internet itself which he compares to the totalitarianism of East Germany. This at least feels like a more serious reflection on the social role of the internet than is usually credited to Franzen, famous for his cranky disdain of the flaky superficiality of social media.

In Purity Franzen uses Andreas to deliver a string of invective which feels like the author himself in full rant:

Before he’d quit doing interviews, the previous fall, he’d taken to dropping the word totalitarian. Younger interviewers, to whom the word meant total surveillance, total mind control, gray armies in parade with medium-range missiles, had understood him to be saying something unkind about the Internet. In fact, he simply meant a system that was impossible to opt out of. The old Republic had certainly excelled at surveillance and parades, but the essence of its totalitarianism had been more everyday and subtle… The answer to every question large or small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet. Its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence.

What is any of this supposed to tell us about the nature of power, politics, and information in the internet age? I suspect Franzen is trying to do two things. First, he looks to register, at the level of the individual, the effects of the devastating Greenwaldian diagnosis which Andrew O’Hagan summarised chillingly in a recent London Review of Books:

Looking back, we might agree that 9/11 unleashed terrible furies in the minds of America and its allies, that it literally drove the security agencies and their leaders mad with the wish to become all-knowing and to make the country impregnable. Everything could go—every letter of the law or constitutional tenet—and so could the notion of freedom itself. ‘A population,’ Greenwald writes, ‘a country that venerates physical safety above all other values will ultimately give up its liberty and sanction any power seized by authority in exchange for the promise, no matter how illusory, of total security.’ This was the culture, this mindless attempt at ‘total security’, that Snowden shone a light into, a world where we forgot that it is for governments to be transparent and for individuals to be private. The reversal of these things is the spirit of the age.

Second, subscribing to Rosa Luxembourg’s maxim that history is the only true teacher, Franzen decides that social control in East Germany still has things to tell us today. This is undoubtedly true, but because he is so short on detail and depth, there is little that Franzen himself can tell us, even though it’s a point of comparison which he’s had time to ruminate on at length. In ‘Why Bother?’ he put it this way:

The American writer today faces a cultural totalitarianism analogous to the political totalitarianism with which two generations of Eastern Bloc writers had to contend. To ignore it is to court nostalgia. To engage with it, however, is to risk writing fiction that makes the same point over and over: technological consumerism is an infernal machine, technological consumerism is an infernal machine.

To begin with, the comparison itself is outrageous. American ‘cultural totalitarianism’ as Franzen understands it both trades on and manufactures a system in which the masses are happy to abuse the privileges wrought by capitalism; the political totalitarianism of the Eastern Bloc depended on the suppression of any such possibility. To even compare the two is to abuse the very privilege which is their essential difference.

In too many respects Franzen has simply wandered so far out of his natural territory that he writes like a virtual stranger to himself. He once found that his real topic was people. People who could get along neither with nor without one another. People, in other words, who called each other family. The problem with the uniquely unhappy family he’s drawn this time is that there is just too much space between them. Perhaps telling the story of a radically splintered family was meant to reflect the space which the internet itself these days tends to fill. But while the web might connect those who would otherwise remain apart, it doesn’t allow the kinds of complex relations which Franzen’s earlier characters had to contend with. Social media is, in this respect, most unsocial, and that’s fatal for everything Franzen sets out to achieve. His characters don’t properly interact and so Franzen has no way of letting them generate any real heat. The ideas and the language with which he labours to animate them are so lacking in any vital sense of purpose that the resulting novel is, ironically enough, just as thin, dull, and vacuous as those social media platforms which Franzen himself has expended so much hot air complaining about.


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