Insecurity State: Jonathan Franzen Loses His ‘Purity’


Jonathan Franzen, like it or not, is America’s premier novelist of insecurity. This is not to say that he is a nonpareil chronicler of politics in a questionable security state; what I mean is that it’s Franzen’s gift, maybe his greatest, to find singular niches in the psychological regimes of his characters for the purpose of exploiting them. Page by page, he pumps the diffidence, narcissism, and nervousness from his characters, spilling the results into chapters of accentless prose. You can’t take it away from him: it’s a skill he honed laboring for years under the American imperium. As above, so below.

The irony is that Franzen’s storytelling method is at odds with his politics. Even though his characters aren’t free artists of themselves, he writes a novel inveighing against George W. Bush’s redefinition of Freedom. Forgiving himself for fashioning subliminally toxic narrative environments, he rails against environmental destruction.

All of this, of course, betrays his true theme. Franzen knows the great source of insecurity in contemporary life is, above all, the family. (This is why reading The Corrections feels like attending a court-ordered group therapy session: the neuroses are laid bare, but it’s over faster than you’d think.) He also knows that the myth of the family unit as a sustainable, societal building block is quickly eroding. It’s a convincing lie politicians use to reinforce technocracy; meanwhile: families fall apart, insecurities multiply, a generation is haphazardly raised, and our children inherit an upended life.

Along these lines, Franzen’s new novel, Purity, begins with the story of Purity “Pip” Tyler, a college graduate who lives in Oakland with a group of post-Occupy squatters. Burdened with $130,000 in student loan debt, Pip soon finds herself facing homelessness and joblessness after a series of sexual encounters go haywire. Unfortunately, she can’t look to her mother, a caring if psychologically unstable shut-in who lives in the mountains, for financial or emotional support. Nor will Pip’s mother divulge the identity of her father, who Pip believes might somehow rescue her.

But just as the Purity risks becoming Franzen’s most valuable statement on a damning American irony — the false promise of austerity — it diversifies, like a good portfolio, spreading the risk to other sovereign funds. While remaining in spirit a Franzen novel — a story of psychologically dilapidated families — it somehow strains to become a novel of global intrigue, a multigenerational epic that spends time in pre-unification Germany (the GDR) and (more or less) contemporary Bolivia. In the process, it drops the austerity gospel in favor of other news: old and new surveillance states, the folly of nuclear weapons, the societal benefits of old-school journalism, and, most bewilderingly, our supposedly misguided search for purity.

With so much at stake, Franzen needs the help of coincidences, miracles, dei ex machina. Thankfully, he has the coincidental structure of his main allusion — Charles Dickens — to fall back on. Purity, in other words, is long on miracles.

Pip decides to bank on serendipity; she soon accepts an internship — offered by a strange, beautiful German woman — that will take her to South America, where she plans to meet a man named Andreas Wolf, who she hopes will help her find her father. In Bolivia, Wolf has stationed a highly secretive organization that issues damning leaks about private, international, and governmental misdeeds. Only Wolf, who harbors no shortage of secrets, sets himself against hacks like Julian Assange, who use dirty methods. Wolf is pure. Note the irony?

About the plot of Purity I can say nothing more; like a multi-episode TV series, Franzen’s novel can be wrecked by spoilers. Nor is Purity’s plot its only link to television: the truth is that Franzen’s new novel often reads like a lightly genre-damaged script. When Purity first moves to East Germany, for example, it borrows the femme fatale motif of film noir; when it travels to the American West, it becomes, at times, a journalistic procedural. Also: there is plenty of stupid, televisual death in Purity.

Another link to TV: Franzen’s narrative is able to move along at script speed — creating that page-turning effect casual readers love so much — because its dialogue does most of the convincing interiorization. It’s also as if — in this deeply German novel — Franzen has made a reverse-Faustian bargain that requires him to strip his prose of all musicality. It gets especially bad when he wants to force-feed the reader his bread-and-butter political themes:

How terribly easy it had turned out to be to transform naturally occurring uranium into hollow spheres of plutonium, pack the spheres with tritium and surround them with explosives and deuterium, and do it all in such miniature that the capacity to incinerate a million people could fit on the bed of Cody Flayner’s pickup. So easy. Incomparably easier than winning the war on drugs or eliminating poverty or curing cancer or solving Palestine.

This isn’t novel writing. It’s MSNBC.

But Purity’s most serious failure is the collapse of its twin leads. At the beginning of the novel, Pip shows promise as a self-overhearing (or at least self-aware) creature, a human animal with a voice who happens to have been cheated, like many, by technocratic malfeasance. By the end of the novel, she is more “sexually experienced,” which is to say that Franzen neatly rescues her from a certain Freudian archetype — I’ll let you guess which one.

It’s Andreas Wolf, though, who may become Franzen’s heaviest albatross going forward. Given how much screen time he gets, it’s alarming how allegorically pathetic Wolf becomes in Purity. An attempt on Franzen’s part to conflate the uses and abuses of the Internet with the East German surveillance state, Wolf — who harbors some, if not all, of Franzen’s own professed beliefs about online culture — amounts, in the end, to nothing more than a confused, sometimes disturbed act of self-immolation on the part of his author. He serves no other purpose than to allow Franzen to move forward intellectually. When Wolf is no longer needed, he is removed from the plot in an amateurish way.

But the reason Purity fails is purity. As a theme, as a persistent refrain in the novel, it comes to replace the feelings and characters and details that matter. Does Franzen truly believe his readers need to hear that the world is impure?

What begins, as I said, as an important novel about austerity, about the widening gap between what we’re promised and what we’re left with — a gap that many can only afford to fill with their imaginations — shrinks into an act of politically uncourageous, moralizing bullshit. The reason for this is simple: the belief in Purity is borne out of insecurity. And Jonathan Franzen is nothing more than a novelist of insecurities in a radically damaged world.