Sunday, September 20, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen in Purgatory?
”After all, as Aquinas wrote, the least degree of pain in Purgatory ‘surpasses the greatest pain that one can endure in this world.’”
----Stephen Greenblatt in Hamlet in Purgatory

Writing a novel is an intimate act. And a novel about intimate acts is even more revealing. After listening, twice, to Purity read on audio by Jenna Lamia, Dylan Baker, and Robert Petkoff, I immediately listened to several of the author interviews Franzen gave in the push phase of his novel promotion. I came away thinking Franzen is in a world of hurt.

The voices in this book all seem to be coming from inside the mind of one man. I never assume the writer has himself under the microscope, but in this case I have drawn the conclusion that Franzen doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know: how his self-styled isolation and arrogance about his experience of “the battle between the sexes” or “what other people do” has left him bereft of folks who could tell him what he needs to hear. His anger and confusion is slowly draining his battery. Something is rotten indeed in Franzen’s world.

Franzen is completely intentional and self-aware about his “stale, obese, exhausting…bloated and immensely disagreeable” work. “More matter, with less art.” (Hamlet, Act II.ii) The question remains why he wrote this book and not another.

Let’s agree on two things at least. Franzen has talent. Franzen has been exceedingly popular. He was popular because in the past he used a sharpish humor to define recognizable family dilemmas. His books were long but that was a particularity, not a peculiarity.

In Purity there are moments of giggle-bit humor: "His stomach looked like that of an adult sea-turtle" and the journalistic coup describing whole nuclear warhead fiasco. But what is missing from this novel is kindness. Did anyone else see a moment of inexplicable, un-self-interested, or unexpected generosity? Perhaps Tom re-burying the dead body? Even that gruesome helpfulness was predicated on gaining Wulf’s intimacy.

Descriptions of marital disharmony can only be funny when one knows that the two love one another. Franzen tells us Tom and Anabel do, but we don’t actually see any of that until arguably much later, when it surfaces that neither of them tries to expose the other. Not quite love then, since it is a negative, rather than positive, expression. We all know how intimacy can turn toxic, but what I didn’t feel is any relief from it, which I guess is Franzen’s point. None of us is pure. No one acknowledges the full complement of one’s own deceptions.

The good news is that this book does not define or reflect the world. I am hardly a poster child for unreserved glee, but I recognize that there are only two ways out of a "terminally fucked-up world:" do everything you can to improve its outlook or get out of the way. "To be, or not to be." (…III.i) Difficult choice: "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time…the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to...To die, to sleep no more...'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished...but that the dread of something after death…makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." (…III.i)

In an interview with NPR Radio Host Terry Gross and in several other interviews, Franzen admits to feeling he may have missed out on a key human adventure: having children. When he was advised against it by an editor, he threw away the idea of adopting some Iraqi orphans. He should have gotten different opinions if he cared what others thought. People will talk you out of the best things you will do in life. I’m one who thinks it may have made him a better person, a more loving, loved, and forgiving man. And a better author, not a worse one.

For one, Franzen may have learned something about a key societal malfunction facing America today: race relations, including social profiling, and discrimination. In an interview included at the end of the unabridged Macmillan Audio file, Franzen explains he couldn’t write about race because he has no intimate knowledge of race relations, but "I have plenty of experience with the battle between the sexes." Yes, it appears to be so. Unsurprising, given (among other things) his constant insistence on beauty in lieu of more lasting, purposeful, and buildable human attributes including generosity and kindness. At a time when people around the world are celebrating the loosening bonds of constraint around “differentness,” here is a throwback novel from a rich old white male, anguished for having missed the point. Purgatory, indeed.

One only has one go at life, unless one believes in reincarnation. And there may well be "more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (… I.v) So, lose the leafy splendor of your golden crown, your self-pity, anxiety, "great expectations," and get on with life, Franzen. Grab it with both hands. Time is short.

Franzen returns again and again to his bitterness about the failure he sees in the promise of an Obama presidency. "The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll capture the conscience of the king." (…III.i.) How quickly Franzen became disillusioned. "[wo]Man, thy name is frailty." (…I.ii) Hath thou no understanding of the opposition our king hath faced? Do not thou think our king would have moved with sure swift sword on those who abuse their privilege, could he have done so? And what of his diplomacy of these last years, after your accusation? Do you not think he hath fulfilled some small part of his promise? Forgive not, and neither shall thee be forgiven.

This book is a tragedy. Franzen commits harikari.

After listening to this insightful discussion on the Slate podcast, I realize I missed many of the main points in this novel by going after Franzen's annoying style and subjects. Listen to this and see if it doesn't illuminate some points for you.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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