From Wooden to Plastic

James Meek

  • BuyPurity by Jonathan Franzen
    Fourth Estate, 563 pp, £20.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 00 753276 6

Jonathan Franzen has been compared to 19th-century greats: to Tolstoy, to Dickens. In respect of his best and most successful book, The Corrections, the praise carries a false hint of the retrograde, of revival of old forms or subject matter. Published at the turn of the millennium, The Corrections is a work of its time, not for its topical themes of dementia, the medicated society or stock market chicanery but for its approach to family.

Poverty, scandal and snobbery, as threats to family life (if you include under ‘family life’ the legitimisation of passion by marriage), were the narrative driver of 19th-century fiction, until somewhere along the way the mechanism flipped, along with the mood of the novel-reading world. Fictional family became the enemy, threatening heroes’ personal freedom and the lightness of burden that was the precious marker of their lonely path to self-discovery. The Corrections synthesised the two: a woman and her brothers strike out for validation, seemingly unbound, only to find the containing context of family, embodied in their Midwestern parents, always there to meet them, fencing them in with guilt and duty.

The 21st-century particularity of The Corrections is not so much in its compassionate, comic portrayal of the parents and their grown-up children as in the way it embodies the strange historical stage of evolution the family has reached – where family members can be at once thousands of miles apart and pressing in on one another on the phone and the internet every minute of every day, never more than a few hours away by plane. The nuclear family has become the quantum family, its particles entangled over vast stretches of space. And vast stretches of time. A generation born in the 1930s can easily have living grandchildren who might survive to see the 22nd century. That’s 170 years; and the grown-up children in The Corrections find themselves, as so many do, smack in the centre of this temporal expanse, approaching middle age themselves, looking in one direction at old parents whose infirmity might last decades, and looking in the other (if they ever get round to having them) at children of their own whose minorities will last just as long, while they themselves feel bitterly that they haven’t yet lived that obscure best bit of adulthood, the part where love and money and achievement are supposed to bring them a carefree happiness.

It’s not that Franzen renounces the strictures of marriage and inheritance in Freedom and Purity. The heroine of Freedom, Patty Berglund, is driven and constrained by her status as a daughter, a lover, a sister, a mother and a wife more than by anything she does, and the book’s other main characters are her husband, her lover, her children, her parents and her siblings. Purity turns, in part, on the mysterious family origins of Pip, a young woman living in California. But in moving on from The Corrections, Franzen abandoned the shape that in retrospect made it so appealing, the helpless binding together of the five very different main protagonists, literally as two parents and three children and figuratively as people who can’t quite accept the mutual dependence that comes from being a family. Gary, Chip and Denise have all the liberties of the children of the 1960s, the same hormones and umbilical cords and financial needs as the children of the 1860s, and the extended lifespans of the 2000s that keep them and their parents, Alfred and Enid, on earth together for so long.

The lack of this one element – of the main characters all being part of the same family – wouldn’t be so noticeable, and wouldn’t matter, had Franzen not transferred so many other elements of the structure of The Corrections to his subsequent novels. What seemed in The Corrections like distinctive and funny characterisation of the three siblings, flourishing (from the point of view of the reader’s interest) in the shadow of their difficult father and anxious mother, evolves in Freedom and Purity into a system: three central characters, two men and a woman, their parents diminished in importance, their children autonomous. The woman is smart, gauche, wary, with a mix of knowingness and naivety, concerned to do the right thing but prone to impulsive behaviour: Patty in Freedom, Pip in Purity. Man One is principled, idealistic, resentful, socially clumsy, struggling to be content with less: Walter in Freedom, Tom in Purity. Man Two is successful, manipulative, priapic, with an aridity to his heart: the rock star Richard Katz in Freedom, the ‘famous internet outlaw’ Andreas Wolf in Purity.

What seemed in The Corrections like a generous sharing of perspective between characters who, being related, can’t avoid acknowledging that they see things differently – the book is told from the point of view of the different family members in succession – evolves in Freedom and Purity into a system of compartmentalised narratives. In Purity the effect is disjointed; not only could the achronological sections have been easily reshuffled into a different order, they are – unlike the corresponding parts in the previous novels – different in style and quality. Curiously, the best section in Purity is a long, bleakly hilarious narrative by Tom Aberant, a journalist who makes a disastrous marriage. Franzen-as-Tom-Aberant presents himself as a better writer than Franzen-as-Franzen in the rest of the book.

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