From Wooden to Plastic

James Meek

  • Purity 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.

Although it is rooted in the characters’ hapless efforts to escape family and to function within it, The Corrections sets itself apart from the work of contemporary American writers like Anne Tyler for whom the family never stopped being central. As well as looking inwards to family dynamics of love, hate and mutual incomprehension, Franzen looks outwards to the worlds of corporate power, government policy, science, economics and national history. In the manner of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, Franzen hoses you with arcane specificity, luxurious digressions and lovingly detailed pastiches of real-world bureaucracies.

In The Corrections this concern with the workings of society is a garnish to the intimate portrayal of the individual and the familial. And yet in the successor novels the familial has shrivelled; the interest in individual behaviour has yielded to a preoccupation with theoretical mores. When you finish The Corrections, there is a sense that what it is matters more than what it is ‘about’. On finishing Freedom, and still more so with Purity, it’s the other way round.

It would be unfair to devote so much space to the precursors of Franzen’s new book if it weren’t for the distinctive nature of the relationship between them. The journey from The Corrections to Purity is reminiscent of the replacement of wooden car dashboards by plastic ones, or clockwork clocks by battery-powered ones. The same task is done so much more lightly and efficiently, and yet … how can something so artisanal as a novel, from an atelier that has (impressively, given the vast toil involved) produced five examples, come to seem so mass-produced? Or, rather, not mass-produced, but subject to that design process through which heavy, expensive components are replaced by flimsier ones?

To impose the humdrum grip of chronology on the carefully resequenced story of Purity, Andreas Wolf, a pampered, clever young poet and sex addict in the East Germany of the 1980s, breaks with his parents – his father a senior figure in the communist regime, his mother a professor of English literature who smothers him with unconditional love – over a tryst in the family dacha and a subversive acrostic in a state publication. While working as an unofficial social worker in an East Berlin church, helping and/or having sex with teenage girls in trouble, he falls in love with one of his charges/victims, who is being sexually abused by her stepfather. They can’t go to the authorities because the stepfather has Stasi connections and knows the girl’s mother is stealing drugs from the hospital where she works, so Andreas offers to murder the abuser. They kill him together and bury him near Andreas’s family dacha. Andreas realises they’ve left enough clues to make arrest almost certain, and when he isn’t caught, concludes that the Stasi is protecting him because of his father’s position. Then the East German regime begins to collapse. The tottering Stasi is all that stands between Andreas and the police investigation of his crime. When the Wall comes down, Andreas manages to get inside Stasi headquarters, steal his file and get out by telling a TV crew, in a speech broadcast to the nation, that he’s in the vanguard of those seeking to throw light on the regime’s archive of treacheries.

It may sound implausible that Andreas, a spoiled, cynical intellectual with no previous history of violence, would so lightly offer to kill his girlfriend’s stepdad and actually follow through. But Franzen handles it with insight and dramatic nous; the notion of a man desperate for the survival of a loathsome regime in order to prevent discovery of his crime is, in a thrillerish way, ingenious. Credulity is only seriously stretched by what happens next, when Tom, a young American journalist of part-German parentage, arrives in Berlin to cover the aftermath of the fall of the Wall. Tom, fleeing a disastrous marriage to Anabel, heir to a vast food-processing fortune, instantly forms a heterosexual crush on Andreas so strong that he agrees to help him cover his tracks by reburying his victim’s corpse.

Tom returns to the States to make a career in investigative journalism; Anabel disappears. Andreas, who is early to adopt the internet thanks to his interest in pornography and masturbation, parlays his public reputation as an exposer of secrets into the creation and leadership of the Sunlight Project, becoming the world’s most famous cyber-muckraker and distributor of leaked information, shaming the powerful and inspiring the young and idealistic. (Franzen goes to great lengths to dissociate Andreas Wolf from Julian Assange: ‘Assange,’ he writes, ‘had contented himself with pretending that Wolf did not exist.’)

A quarter of a century later, Andreas is holed up in a paradisal lair in Bolivia, surrounded by beautiful young woman interns, supposedly making the world a more transparent place, but in fact devoting his energies to spying on Tom, whose knowledge of his murderous secret will, Andreas fears, be used against him. It would give too much away to explain exactly how Purity, the given name of a 23-year-old Californian who prefers to call herself Pip, comes into the story. Pip has an unfulfilling sales job in a dodgy green energy firm that will never pay enough to redeem the $130,000 she borrowed to go to college. She fantasises that her absent father might be able to help her out, but her mother won’t tell her anything about him except that he’s a savage brute. When an opportunity comes her way to intern at the fascinating Andreas’s Bolivian leak ranch, Pip hopes it might be the means to get back in the black.

It’s a lot of plot. Did I mention the stolen nuclear warhead, or the bank threatening to foreclose on the house Pip shares with a schizophrenic and a disabled person, or the voluminously described but ultimately extraneous Leila, Tom’s colleague and lover, who’s married to a novelist, Charles, who’s trying to write the great American novel, and who, in one of his brief appearances, is paralysed in a car accident?

*

Franzen nods to Dickens by calling one of his central characters Pip (in his achronological scheme, she and her mother are the first characters we meet) and by a scattering of overt references to Great Expectations. Yet of all the Dickensian characteristics Purity might have had – the intense fusion of personality and situation in minor characters, the rich, sensual descriptions of place, the mawkish death scenes, the convivial feasts, the dearth of sex, the impeccable juxtaposition of comedy and pathos, the orchestral range of narrative voice, the moral outrage at social evils and the baroque plots – only the last two are on full display. The most Great Expectations aspect of Purity is the treatment of Pip’s difficulty in paying back her college debt, framed not as a neoliberal challenge (how can she stand on her feet, work hard, boost her salary and clear what she owes?) or a socially conservative one (how can she find a husband to support her?) or a socialist one (how might society be organised to pool its resources fairly?). It’s posed instead as a Dickensian plot problem: how will she land the fat inheritance her goodness deserves?

Of the book’s seven sections, three – the first, the last and the middle – are told in free indirect style from Pip’s point of view. The narration here, charmingly ordinary, like a social media voice whose aim to be likeable through self-deprecation and boasting isn’t quite obvious enough to prevent it being likeable, is peppered with phrases like ‘undue weirdnesses transpiring’, ‘her mother’s body issues’ and ‘living the math major’s dream’ as a way of summoning the articulations of a young 21st-century Californian. A fourth section, the weakest, is narrated from the point of view of the virtuous journalist Leila, whose appearance is couched in the leaden terms of the Unaccountably Disrupted Normal:

Ordinarily, Leila looked forward to travelling on assignment. She was never more of a professional, never more defensibly excused from her caretaking duties in Denver, than when she was locked in a hotel room with her green-tea bags, her anonymised Wi-Fi connection, her two colours of ballpoint, her Ambien stash. But from the moment she arrived in Amarillo, on a commuter jet from Denver, something felt different.

In the Leila section it begins to seem, less than halfway through the novel, that the frantic needs of plot and the number of social evils requiring attention have warped Franzen’s sense of pace. Overlong stretches of dialogue are interspersed with blurts of catch-up:

The following week, returning from Washington, Leila had gone straight to the corner office of Tom Aberant, the founder and executive editor of Denver Independent. It was no secret at DI that she and Tom had been a couple for more than a decade, but the two of them kept things professional at work.

In among this are nuggets of observation on current affairs, like extracts from workaday op-eds:

The Texas Panhandle was in year five of a drought that might soon be upgraded to permanent climate change.

‘The irony of the internet,’ she said to her at lunch one day, ‘is that it’s made the journalist’s job so much easier. You can research in five minutes what used to take five days. But the internet is also killing journalism.’

Climate change got more ink in a day than nuclear arsenals did in a year.

The American middle-class appetite for illegal drugs provided the capital to build some of the most sophisticated and effective companies on earth.

Soon after this, in the long section where Tom tells his first-person account of his life, Franzen shows how good he can be. Tom and his wife, Anabel – an heiress who renounces her fortune, a conceptual artist who plans to spend ten years making a thirty-hour film about the surface of her body, one 32 square centimetre patch at a time – have personalities that inevitably ruin their marriage. He has ‘a morbid fear of reproach, especially from women’; she keeps ‘alienating people with her moral absolutism and her sense of superiority, which is so often the secret heart of shyness’. He despises himself for being weak enough to accede to demands like her insistence that, because she has to sit down to pee, he must, too. ‘Guilt must be the most monstrous of human quantities,’ he says, ‘because what I did to relieve my guilt then – stay in the marriage – was precisely the thing I felt guiltiest about later, when the marriage was over.’

There’s an emotional rawness to Tom and Anabel’s story, a sense of the writer’s visceral engagement that’s lacking elsewhere. This part is also, by a long way, the funniest. Towards the end of the book one of the characters muses that ‘somewhere she’d lost her capacity for resentment, and for hostility as well, and thus, to some extent, for being amusing.’ There is an anger in the Tom and Anabel section, a sense that Franzen is grappling with something that matters more to him than what readers think of it, which makes it all the more interesting. The swift sketch of the pompous novelist Charles, with the joke (Franzen must be the last to tell it) about how you have to be called Jonathan these days to be a successful American novelist, seems stale compared to the view of a writer we get through the prism of the artist Anabel, as she defends her work to Tom:

‘I know it doesn’t look like it,’ she said, ‘but there are good ideas in here. This looks like it’s crossed out, but it’s not really crossed out, I’m still thinking about it. I have to leave it crossed out because otherwise it puts too much pressure on me. What I really need to do is go through all the notebooks’ – there were at least forty of them – ‘and then try to keep everything in my head and make a clear plan. It’s just that there’s so much. I’m not crazy. I just need some way to organise it that doesn’t put too much pressure on me.’

Tom tries to help Anabel with the notes for her film, to organise them, to come up with small, practical steps to get the project off the ground; Anabel accuses him of trying to get her to make his ‘journalistically organised film, not her film’. Here it is Tom, the socially concerned journalist figure, who is thinking modestly, as a husband trying to be helpful, and Anabel, the artist, who insists on the uncompromising rightness of her grand vision. Yet in Franzen’s work it is Franzen the artist who successfully negotiates the intimate territory of family and Franzen the journalistic voice of social justice who less successfully approaches the great world of issues. In his worst moments he’s like a well-meaning friend who, when you start to tell a story or give an opinion in your slow, hesitant, inarticulate, consciously underinformed way, interrupts with a faster, fuller, more carelessly opinionated version that is at once more entertaining and less sincere. There’s a struggle in him between the writer who wants to know everything, and wants to talk about it in front of you, and the writer who believes in the consolation of smallness, of acceptance of the immutable complexity of the great world, the writer who thinks we should just cultivate our gardens, or play a little tennis, or be more like dogs.

The second and penultimate sections of the book are narrated from the point of view of Andreas, who carries the weight of the novel’s ideas about the world, chiefly that the internet is a kind of police state, like East Germany. ‘It was Andreas’s gift, maybe his greatest, to find singular niches in totalitarian regimes,’ we learn. ‘The Stasi was the best friend he’d ever had – until he met the internet’:

The old Republic had certainly excelled at surveillance and parades, but the essence of its totalitarianism had been more everyday and subtle. You could co-operate with the system or you could oppose it, but the one thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not to be in relation to it. The answer to every question large or small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the internet. Its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence.

How seriously are we supposed to take this? In favour of ‘seriously’ are the eloquence of the rhetoric, the lack of a pro-internet voice and Franzen’s known aversion to the internet. In favour of ‘non-seriously’ are the facts that the character in whose head these thoughts are occurring is losing his mind, and that the thoughts don’t really make sense. Bill Gates is not the Trotsky of the internet; a TED talk or an Apple product launch is not like a speech to a party congress in the DDR; and having x followers on Twitter is not like the privileges given favoured East German citizens.

Of the two main story strands in Purity – Pip’s origins and Andreas’s secret – you get the impression the Andreas Wolf line, the Julian Assange line (for there’s little question that Assange’s progress, although he never murdered anyone, inspired it), is the one that most interested Franzen. It’s a pity. Not just because Franzen has shown himself so adept at writing the intimate flailings of the quantum family, but because the family remains so potent and so artistically neglected an influence on the way society works. It’s not clear that the internet is any more of a Pandora’s box than, say, literacy, whereas the modern dynamics of the family, in a planet of seven billion people with an average life expectancy of 71, demands literary attention more complex than sagas of immigration and assimilation. In expensive cities like London individuals are pressured into thinking dynastically simply to afford living space. Around the world, it is super-rich families, rather than super-rich individuals, who have gained the most from neoliberalism worldwide, the same neoliberalism that is replacing the welfare state with intrafamilial dependency. Far from threatening the family, acceptance of gay marriage and same-sex parenting seems likely to strengthen it: now gay men and women, too, can be badgered by their parents to find somebody nice, get married and have kids. In choosing as his great theme the inescapability of family, Franzen seemed to have arrived in a rich landscape that could be explored further. But in Purity, he chose a different way.