In Defense of Franzen Pt II: The Purity Post

Techniques tracked:
-Conflict/plot model: the character gets what s/he wants but doesn’t want it anymore
-Having a section of the novel “literally” play a role in the plot


To admit one has a complicated relationship with Jonathan Franzen is to mark oneself as a cliché, and so I am one,” begins Megan Abbott’s segment of The Oyster Review’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, itself an embodiment of conflicted Franzen responses, and my sentiments here could be expressed no better.

This year marks the publication of Franzen’s second novel since 2001’s National-Book-Award-winning The Corrections. While the jury of public opinion may remain split on whether such abstract concepts make the best titles (Franzen joked at his reading in Houston this past September that the book could have been called Guilty Secrets), the new one’s title also refers to a character, as opposed to the purely abstract, like 2010’s Freedom. But in one respect Purity leans on Freedom too much, where it should have leaned on other aspects more. 

In keeping with the character-driven plots Franzen initiated with The Corrections, as discussed in a previous post, the book is divided into seven discrete novella-length sections by point of view.

  1. “Purity in Oakland” (Pip)

The first follows the title character, Purity Tyler, or “Pip,” a recent college grad crippled by student debt who’s living in squatter’s quarters while working as an “outreach assistant” for an energy start-up: i.e., a dead-end job trying to sell people what they don’t want. Her mother, after apparently changing her identity around the time Pip was born, has been living a hermit’s life in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, where Pip grew up, cut off from the rest of the world like her mother still is. The book begins with phone conversations between them, during which Pip warns that she’s coming up to talk about the one thing her mother has long refused to: who Pip’s father is. (Here is the character’s desire from which the entire plot of the book derives, the driving question, though in the early pages it’s hardly treated as such.) Pip brings home a boy named Jason, but they’re interrupted by a German named Annagret exhorting Pip to apply for the Wikileaks-like Sunlight Project. After initiating an email exchange with its famous and charismatic leader Andreas Wolf, who implies he can help her find her father, Pip threatens her mother with leaving for South America if her mother doesn’t offer up her father’s identity.

  1. “The Republic of Bad Taste” (Andreas)

In this section, we go back in time to meet a young Andreas Wolf in 1987 East Germany, back when the Berlin Wall is still up and he is an embarrassment to the Republic pondering the totalitarianism of the State. Because of his own fall from privilege (about which more later), he has credibility with the youth he counsels out of the church basement he lives in, and uses it to sleep with many of the girls. Eventually, he falls in love with one, Annagret, whose stepfather, a powerful State informant, is extorting her for sexual favors, and he and Annagret eventually plot his murder. We get the exposition about Andreas’s childhood: his unhealthy attachment to his mother Katya, the privilege afforded by his father’s government position, his excessive masturbation, the homeless man who reveals he’s Andreas’s real father (arrested for subversion to the State), jumping from a bridge, the short-lived subversive literary career that leads to his essential banishment to the church basement. Andreas has Annagret bring the man, Horst, to his parents’ vacation home, where he kills and buries him. To avoid State scrutiny, Andreas doesn’t see Annagret for two years. When the Wall falls, Andreas penetrates a state facility and gets hold of his file, hoping to destroy any last links to his crime; he escapes with the file by attracting the attention of nearby cameramen, a fateful moment where he distracts by spouting off what will become Sunlight Project principles, in effect the moment he becomes famous.

  1. Too Much Information (Leila)

In this section we follow Leila Helou, an investigative journalist for Denver Independent who’s in Amarillo following a story about a missing nuclear warhead, a story it turns out originates with her intern Pip Tyler, who found suspicious photos of the warhead on Facebook. We get Leila’s backstory: before pursuing newspaper work, she was getting a graduate degree in fiction writing at the University of Denver, dropping out after marrying one of her famous-novelist instructors, Charles. He won’t give her a baby while he’s working on his next opus, so she takes a long-distance job in D.C., where she meets Tom Aberant, who started Denver Independent with twenty million dollars from his ex-wife Anabel’s wealthy father (if this seems irrelevant, just wait). Leila’s about to leave her novelist-husband for Tom when the critical failure of Charles’ finally released opus leads to a drunken motorcycle accident that leaves him partially paralyzed, forcing Leila to stick around to take care of him. Tom, it turns out, won’t give her a baby either, on the moral grounds that he screwed his ex-wife out of having one. Leila stays with Tom, but never leaves her husband, either, and doesn’t get her baby. We learn Pip is actually living with Tom and Leila, the only way she can afford to continue living in Denver and working at the magazine, and Leila’s getting anxious about potential chemistry between Pip and Tom. Leila eventually gets the full story on the warhead, which involves a rogue army officer trying to sell it to a Mexican cartel, then flies home to monitor Tom and Pip; when she gets back she and Tom get in a blowout fight about both their other marriages before Tom gets out that he thinks Pip might be his daughter, though Pip doesn’t seem to be aware of this possibility herself.

  1. Moonglow Dairy (Pip)

The next section returns to Pip, describing her stint at Los Volcanes, the Bolivian headquarters of The Sunlight Project, where Andreas concedes that Pip is right that he, not the truth, is the Project’s true product. Eventually, in a secret meeting off the compound, he tells her about the murder he committed (Tom Aberant and Annagret are the only others who know about it). He wants her to spy on the other interns because he’s paranoid there’s a journalist among them. Back at the compound, Andreas avoids her, stoking her desire for him. She finally talks to him alone right after he finds out his mother has cancer. They get a hotel room and he confesses he’s in love with her, but as they’re about to consummate, Pip backs down, ultimately suspicious of his motives. Andreas eventually confesses the difficulties of locating her father, and suggests she learn old-fashioned journalism. He asks her to go work for Denver Independent, where she can open an email for him that will install spyware for him to monitor Tom Aberant. We then jump to the moments right after the end of the previous section–Pip gets home after Tom and Leila have their fight. Pip has come to love Tom and Leila, and this night, when she texts Andreas to try to uninstall the spyware from DI’s systems, he texts back that he doesn’t want her anymore. Pip wants to confess to Tom that Andreas sent her, but as she’s about to, Leila interrupts with the conveniently timed information that she’s just found out one of her sources on the nuke story talked to The Sunlight Project first. Later Tom calls her into his office and asks, clearly already knowing the answer, who sent her. Pip confesses, and Tom says he’s more concerned about his home computer than work ones, and, asking Pip not to read any documents Andreas might send her, he sends her home.

  1. [le1o9n8a0rd] (Tom)

The next section is an anomaly that Franzen has admitted he personally despises: a section in the first-person. Tom Aberant describes visiting his ex-wife Anabel where she lives in a cabin in New Jersey, where they start arguing as soon as he gets there about how soon he has to leave. They have sex in a clearing and Anabel tries to tell him he doesn’t need condoms but he uses one anyway; after that, Anabel destroys the condoms. We break for Tom’s backstory, unspooling the story of how he came to be married, and then divorced, from Anabel. They met in college, when he was editor of the newspaper, which covered the story of an art student—Anabel—covering herself in butcher paper in the dean’s chair. When the story didn’t paint her in the most favorable light, she confronted him, and they wound up dating. Anabel has an interesting history, the heir to a corporate fortune who’s sworn off her massive inheritance. Tom lets Anabel lure him away from journalism grad school and into marriage, retrospectively likening their relationship to a drug addiction; she forces him to give up all creative pursuits for the sake of her own. Once Tom meets Anabel’s billionaire father David, an ongoing cat-and-mouse game begins of David trying to give him money; Anabel swears it will kill her if Tom ever accepts any. Tom works as a freelance journalist while Anabel pursues an elaborate film idea to document every inch of her body that drags out over years. Then Tom goes to Germany with his mother so she can die with her family, simultaneously covering the news story of the Wall’s fall. He meets Andreas Wolf at a bar and is eager to get the perspective of an East German for his story. After Tom opens up about his troubled marriage, Andreas eventually confesses his murder, and Tom, who says he’s sick of being clean, helps Andreas relocate the body from his parents’ backyard, the last step in ensuring no trail leads back to him. Andreas runs back into the woods after they bury it, and Tom hears him unzip his fly and knows he’s jerking off on the grave. When they part ways after driving back into the city, he never sees Andreas again. We then return to the post-divorce scene of Tom in the New Jersey woods with Anabel. He reluctantly enters her cabin but refuses her overtures of love and tells her that her father is giving him money to start a magazine—even though the truth is that he will once again refuse David’s money, he lies to get Anabel to stop calling him, knowing this is the one thing that will end their relationship for good. Tom soon learns that Anabel wrote David a note telling him not to look for her, and disappeared. When David dies, he leaves Tom money that, with Anabel gone, Tom finally does take to start his magazine. Tom believes Anabel is still alive, and that she’s morally beaten him by vanishing.

  1. The Killer (Andreas)

At his Bolivian headquarters, an extremely listless Andreas gets a radio call that Tom Aberant is here to see him. We then get everything that’s led up to this point, including some of what we saw from Pip’s perspective in section 4: He’s quit doing interviews recently, believing the Internet to be totalitarian, its own version of socialism. He’s become obsessed with the Internet version of himself, believing it to be more real than he is. Shortly after he buries the body with Tom, he goes to find Annagret, who makes it clear that he only reminds her of the horrible thing they did, but believing that horrible thing will be for nothing if they can’t be together, he convinces her, and even though Andreas realizes it’s a mistake and feels trapped by her idealized version of him, they stay together for a decade while he starts The Sunlight Project on his media momentum. When Annagret becomes unexpectedly close with his mother Katya and even wants to confess what they’ve done to her, Andreas encounters a rage in himself that he recognizes as the Killer’s, which becomes more and more integrated with his fantasy life as he escapes extravagantly into online porn. He tries writing to Tom but gets a lukewarm response. Eventually Annagret gets involved with someone else, allowing him to dump her guilt-free. The Killer in him resurfaces when a photographer gets a shot of him with a benefactor of questionable reputation; he persuades the photographer to destroy the images based on the fact that they would destroy the good work the Project is doing, but is still consumed with paranoia that increases until it reaches Tom Aberant, who never gave the time of day to Andreas’s overtures of friendship. Andreas believes Tom told his girlfriend Leila about the murder based on a quote of hers he reads in an interview:

Andreas Wolf is a man so full of his own dirty secrets that he sees the entire world as dirty secrets.

Andreas vaguely remembers jacking off over the grave and realizes that Tom has never returned his overtures over the years because he glimpsed “the Killer.” Andreas digs up the dirt on Tom’s vanished ex-wife and is eventually able to locate her, discovering Pip’s existence and inferring Tom’s ignorance of it. He sends Annagret to California with the goal of luring Pip to work for the Project. Revisiting what happened in Pip’s section, with an emphasis on how close the consummation came to occurring, we learn that Andreas did really love her, and that her rejection of him was a painful reenactment of all of Tom’s. And so, Andreas sends her to Denver with the (long-shot) goal of having Tom unknowingly sleep with his own daughter.

We return to the present of Andreas walking to meet Tom, considering that the worst Tom can do is kill him. This prospect is actually a relief. Andreas tells Tom that he, Tom, started all of this by never showing up to their dinner date in Berlin after burying the body. Tom threatens to tell the world what Andreas did and show the cops the gravesite if Andreas doesn’t leave Pip alone and shred everything he found on Tom’s computer. That Tom came all this way to ensure his computer was protected piques Andreas’ interest enough to finally look at what’s on it, and he discovers a document that’s actually section 4 of the book itself—Tom’s memoir with the story of Pip’s origin. He emails the document to Pip, then leaves on a hike with Tom, at the summit of which he tells Tom what he emailed to Pip and tries to convince Tom to push him off the cliff, hoping for the last relief of knowing that Tom’s capable of killing, too. But Tom refuses, and once again the job of killing falls to Andreas himself, who leaps to his death.

  1. The Rain Comes (Pip)

Pip, who’s moved back into her old digs in the Bay Area even though the house is about to be foreclosed on, is working at a coffeeshop. At home, she whacks dead tennis balls against the garage to help her deal with Andreas’s death, among other things. We get the backstory: she got Andreas’s email in Denver, then shortly thereafter texts from Tom telling her Andreas had killed himself and that he was mentally ill. Pip feels guilty, thinks that Andreas was asking her to save him and that maybe it would have been the right thing to consummate the relationship. She decides that since it was Andreas’s last act on earth she should read his email, but to honor her promise to Tom never to read anything from his computer by never telling him she’s read it. Once she reads it, however, she regrets it:

…in his last hour of life, he’d given her the thing she’d most wanted, the answer to her question. But now that she had it, she didn’t want it. She saw that she’d done a very bad thing to both her mother and Tom by getting it. Both of them had known, and neither of them had wanted her to know.

She debates whether to keep maintaining her mother’s illusions about what she knows. Jason comes back to the coffeeshop and after he breaks up with his girlfriend they start playing tennis together. She flies to Wichita to meet with the lawyer who’s in charge of the trust fund to get him to invest the money to buy Dreyfuss’s house. He says he’ll do it if in six months she hands over her mother’s identity; Pip agrees. She finally trusts Jason enough to officially date him. When she calls her mother to tell her she’s coming, she’s shocked to realize her mother is mad at her. When she gets there she gets her mother’s version of what really happened by letting her mother believe she heard Tom’s (which in a way she did), and her mother basically capitulates to do what Pip tells her with the money, though she still doesn’t want to take more than Tom did. Pip then calls Tom and tells him she knows everything, but lies about how she knows it, and says he can make it up by coming out to see her mother because she wants them to forgive each other. Pip gets Jason to drive Tom in from the airport, then leaves her parents in the cabin alone together. When she and Jason return, they can hear Tom and Anabel inside fighting viciously. What this portends for her own personal prospects depresses Pip, but as it starts raining again she believes it’s possible that she can do better. The End.  

“…now that she had it, she didn’t want it.” This is a perfect summation of a plot formula I’ve often taught my students via Ben Fountain’s “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera.” In it, an ornithology student kidnapped in South America desperately wants his freedom, but it can only be secured at the cost of the one thing it turns out he values more. It’s a common modus operandi of conflict: the only way to get what you want is to no longer want it. Pip’s desire to learn her father’s identity is introduced in the opening pages and remains the predominant force motivating her actions, going to Bolivia and then to Denver. Knowing what she wants, possessing, in essence, the key to her character, Andreas is able to almost, but not quite, manipulate her to his ends. Andreas wants initially only to keep his secret that he is a killer, motivating his actions to cover his trail and to present himself as the most honest man in the world. But while he succeeds in keeping his secret, doing so tortures him. 

There’s a satisfying symmetry in the plot arc; at the end, Pip gets to keep the same secret from both of her parents, to balance things out: she doesn’t tell either of them the way that she found out Tom was her father was reading Tom’s memoir. The novel concludes with a complex question of legacy, and whether Pip’s accepting one from her parents necessarily means she has to accept others. There might be less satisfaction in Pip ultimately getting access to a wad of money (or perhaps that’s just personal jealousy, my own student-loan saga unconcluded as I read the book’s…), seeming to solve most of her problems rather than causing any more. She grapples briefly with the issue of trusting people now that she’s heir to a trust fund, but Jason rather quickly and too easily brings that issue to a close. 

Franzen is a writer familiar with accusations of misogyny, but the majority  of these seem based on his personal actions and pronouncements rather than the way women are represented in his fiction; Rebecca Solnit’s jab in her blog post “80 Books No Woman Should Read” might be emblematic:

Also, I understand that there is a writer named Jonathan Franzen, but I have not read him, except for his recurrent attacks on Jennifer Weiner in interviews.

Franzen’s 2012 New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton isn’t doing him any favors, called sexist for claiming Wharton wasn’t “pretty,” allowing critics to entirely dismiss the argument and ignore the nuance of his account of how her anxieties about physical appearance manifested to produce sympathetic characters in her work, and the reactions seemed outsized and based on a preexisting hatred of Franzen rather than on what he actually wrote. (Franzen’s nonfiction admittedly seems to strike a much more pretentious note than his fiction.) But Franzen has repeatedly championed female writers as having a strong influence on him, particularly Paula Fox and Alice Munro, and has created many female protagonists. The act of a man attempting to render a woman could be considered inherently sexist, a situation of a man imposing his own voice and perspective, for all practical purposes replacing a woman’s voice with his own–but neglecting to represent women altogether is obviously also sexist. Franzen is trying. Is he succeeding?

Franzen’s Freedom depiction of Patti’s own parents wanting to downplay her rape was bold and on-point, and, as good literature should, raises serious questions about the way our society functions. In Purity he’s reworked a male protagonist from Dickens’ Great Expectations into a female lead; most of his adaptation of that book seems to consist of reversals: instead of the main character being an orphan, she seeks the knowledge of her living parents’ unknown pasts and present; instead of a climax being the loss of an unexpected fortune, it is the gaining of one. If Purity has a problem with sexism, it’s not as much with its title character as with her mother. At his September Houston reading, Franzen remarked that it would be sexist to create female characters that were entirely perfect, that he was treating them as human in depicting their flaws, just as he would men; this was a seeming justification for Anabel’s general craziness. But it’s not just her general craziness that has led some to cite her as this novel’s sexist problem. Franzen made an interesting choice in allocating a point-of-view section to Leila instead of to Anabel, one that I haven’t been able to find justification for, except that possibly it didn’t fit neatly into the tight plot he had constructed.

One of the big twists in this novel occurs formally, when we find out section 5, “[le1o9n8a0rd],” is actually a document that exists in the novel itself. The section figures in the plot literally, in that it physically exists so that another character can read it, and that character’s reading it is itself one of the plot’s major climaxes. In Freedom, the section from Patti’s point of view that describes what happens leading up to and including her sleeping with Richard exists as a physical document she’s written at the behest of her therapist that then figures climactically in the plot when Richard leaves it for Patti’s husband Walter to find, and Walter thus learns of Patti’s infidelity. A pretty cool narrative trick, to have the telling of a story then affect the outcome of the larger story it’s a part of–but encountering it again in Purity, I was hoping for it to do more work than it did in Freedom. While, as previously noted, it feels like an appropriate victory/revenge for Pip to get to keep the secret of knowing her parents’ secrets, in certain ways it seems a little anticlimactic, an avoidance of confrontation. Pip’s discovery of the document grants her emotional maturity and instills a semblance of family balance, but it doesn’t do as much for generating direct drama as Walter’s discovery of Patti’s document in Freedom. As Franzen’s Guilty Secrets joke makes clear, secrets figure much more heavily in this novel than in its predecessor, making the device more thematically appropriate here; it’s almost as if Franzen deployed the perfect plot device for it a novel too soon.  

At any rate, Pip’s reading Tom’s version of events is the catalyst for her to get to hear the version of her mother’s life her mother has so long avoided giving her. Is it a necessary product of this plot that Tom’s version of events, and of Anabel’s life, be so much more fully represented than Anabel’s, as they are in the novel? Is the fact that Anabel doesn’t get to tell her own story merely sexism on Franzen’s part, or a reflection of the fact that this is, in fact, Anabel’s whole problem in the plot of the book itself? The narrative itself might not seem to be intentionally depriving Anabel of a voice if you consider that it’s an integral part of the plot that she intentionally deprives herself of one. But is Franzen sexist to to have a plot that so underrepresents a female voice, or is he merely accurately representing society and thus calling attention to its problems? Is form appropriately reflecting function here? Or is the function itself sexist? Could all this Franzen-bashing just be a way to distract ourselves from the fact that there are other institutions we should be attacking? 

What potentially seems generous about the novel’s conclusion is Pip’s conclusion that what her mother’s done with her life–rejecting a billion-dollar trust fund, conceiving a child by a man without ever telling him, and dropping off the face of the planet (all things patently perceived as crazy by outsiders)–were in fact “resourceful” means on her mother’s part to the end of generating the love in her life that no one else was willing and/or able to give her. But for this ending to work, does Anabel’s own version of her story have to be so underrepresented? If the whole plot is supposed to be Pip’s delayed comprehension of her mother’s story, and the reader is accompanying Pip on that journey, then they can’t just be handed Anabel’s story part and parcel. But toward the end, Pip does get her mother’s version of the story, and it’s skimmed over in a couple of paragraphs. Since plot-wise it bears too many similarities to a section we’ve already gotten (Tom’s), perhaps it can’t be rehashed in full without feeling repetitive, and we apparently had to get Tom’s version first.  

Leila’s section doesn’t figure in the plot in a concrete way that would justify why she needs to get that section instead of Anabel (aside from the aforementioned potential reason of Anabel’s narrative feeling repetitive). For Franzen’s plot of intrigue, where the documented version of events that figures so significantly figures so by means of installed spyware, the one the memoir is stolen from has to be the one in power, the one with a computer and an office. There’s no conceivable means by which Andreas might have stolen Anabel’s memoir from her if she’s hiding out in the forest. So is the plot itself sexist, or is sexism merely an unfortunate and unavoidable byproduct of this plot? To me, Anabel seems a bit too straight-up crazy without enough of a justification of her craziness. Even if it makes sense narratively for her story to be glossed over, the whole plot largely figures on one woman’s unreasonableness without the reader finally coming to sympathize with or at least comprehend that unreasonableness. In the end, Pip does, but I don’t think the reader fully follows her there. We infer Pip is able to generate this sympathy because she grew up with her mother and knows her the best, and has experienced the redeemable qualities of her character, but these are not adequately represented in the novel itself (this despite the fact that he’s been criticized for overexplaining much of the other characters’ motivations to the point of draining the narrative of its realism). I thoroughly enjoyed Anabel; she was the prototype of a Franzen character in that she was so fully, utterly herself in all her dialog and gestures, but based on my experiences with other Franzen characters, I was expecting more developed insight into what made her that way. An explanation exists that can be pointed to, but it’s largely told and not shown, leaving her bland in comparison to her predecessors, Denise Lambert and Patti Berglund.



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