Purity: Three Things to Say About Jonathan Franzen at a Cocktail Party


Everyone has an opinion about Jonathan Franzen: great American novelist; sexist scumbag; piercing insight; overhyped nonsense. If you don’t have an opinion about Jonathan Franzen you make one up. You nod knowingly in bookish conversations about that time he refused to let Oprah endorse his book because his books are Literary and Important and her book club is for trash (trash like Toni Morrison). Or you sheepishly admit to not having made your way completely through The Corrections but you know about the scene with frozen salmon and doesn’t have something to do with the American family? Jonathan Franzen has the quality we most want in a novelist who writes 500 page novels: you don’t have to read the to have an opinion about the book and its author. No wait, that’s not what we want? We want people to properly engage with the story?

Well if we did read the book, and if we did want to talk about the book (and not about the pretensions of its author), we could say three things:

  1. It’s funny. Read out loud to the person in the room with you funny. On purpose funny (a disclaimer I feel I have to make with Franzen, though I’m not sure why – his other novels are funny, too): demonstrate the absurdity of our mores, the logical extension of our ideology. Sure, the wack-a-doo feminist asks her husband to sit down to pee because that’s how we’ll take down the patriarchy: one seated-peeing-man at a time.
  2. It doesn’t want you to miss the part about it being an Important Commentary on Our Times. It wants to comment on secrets, surveillance, (unintentional) self-sabotage through social media/technology, the state of reporting in a post-wikileaks/social media era. Mostly it’s about things being Clean and other things being Dirty, and there being Secrets and there being Truth. And that we want the truth but we can’t handle the truth. Titled ‘Purity’ the novel follows Purity, or Pip, as she tries to find her father. Along the way we encounter the stories of her father, her mother and for reasons unclear, the backstory of the Julian Assange-esque Andreas, founder and leader of the Sunlight Project (aka: wikileaks). [I say reasons unclear because I think the novel could do without the entire character of Andreas, his backstory, his motivations, his involvement with Pip and lose nothing but 250 pages.] Mostly YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH.
  3. It’s too long and not that interesting. I almost cared about the scene when Pip confronts her mother with the truth about her father. To be fair it took me ten days to summon the strength to finish the last thirty pages, so saying I almost cared is a bit of a stretch. I was sufficiently motivated by the danger of not finishing after having already read 520 pages that I put myself in the bath with a bottle of wine and refused to come out until the damn thing was done. So what you might want to say instead: it’s a bit bloated. Scenes describing bird song that are only there because Franzen is kinda into birds (see Freedom). And really, what does Andreas add to the novel except the cache of being a bit of an expose of Assange?

Other people liked it a lot. Big fancy reviews giving it high fives for revealing the truth about American life. And sure, it takes some work to demonstrate the extent to which we all have secrets, and secrets are worth having, and maybe we shouldn’t be so excited about technology to trace our secrets and… that’s it. So you know, read it if you like, or don’t read it and you can still sound like you have (which is, I’m pretty sure, how most of the world operates when it comes to Franzen). Or you can be like me and take a month to finish it all the while hating yourself for being too proud to quit. (here’s a secret: I didn’t like it).


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One response to “Purity: Three Things to Say About Jonathan Franzen at a Cocktail Party

  1. Pingback: Crossroads: Dear, God | Literary Vice

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