Jonathan Franzen spotlights spotlessness in his epic of the zeitgeist.Purity by Jonathan Franzen
New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $28.00 hardcover (September 1, 2015, 576 pages); also available as ebook, CD, large type, and digital audio. US trade paperback edition due out September 6, 2016, from Picador.
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
The question is not whether to read Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity if you haven’t by now. Rather, the question is when. This latest novel from one of America’s finest writers appeared September 1, 2015. Now we’re at the midpoint between last fall’s published hardback and this fall’s anticipated paper, which won’t come out until September 6. And, if you like to hold an actual book, that creates a small dilemma—which version to select? Grab what’s available now and delve right in? Or hold back another six months and snag the US trade paperback edition with a yet-to-be-revealed mystery cover?
Purity is the power to contemplate defilement.
Extreme purity can contemplate both the pure and the impure; impurity can do neither: the pure frightens it, the impure absorbs it. It has to have a mixture.
—Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Franzen’s an artist who mixes an era’s most salient ideas on his palette to paint the spirit of the times in the novels on his easel. I’ve reviewed an earlier book, Freedom (Part 1 and Part 2). In this novel, he’s opened himself up in far more personal and vulnerable ways, which is rare for a writer. The chapter titles alone are intriguing:
Purity in Oakland
The Republic of Bad Taste
Too Much Information
The Rain Comes
With certain characters, Franzen creates a fictional pastiche of actual people. The tension buildup in several sections made my heart race. His timing is impeccable. I noticed I was holding my breath as I read lines such as “Everyone thinks they have strict limits…until they cross them.” Franzen subtly primes his canvas with a layer of deep questions as if he were applying gesso, building it up in a leisurely manner with wit and wisdom combined. Readers hardly realize the plotline they’re following is tossing out reflections: Is madness inherited? Can we be sure there’s not a god? They anchor the surrounding action.
So much spot-on social observation takes place. One finds inside jokes from the literary world about other writers. There are thoughts about fame and its loneliness shared by someone who is famous. We encounter male-dominated Silicon Valley and the paucity of girls writing code. Then, along come Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos—side by side with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Proust, and Dickens. The settings roam the world.
The overlooked humor in Franzen’s writingFranzen delves, in occasionally hilarious ways, into practically every academic discipline across any university campus. He explores such ideas as “moral hazard” from economics, renewable energy, interventions used in attempts to change norms (“Quite a few of your neighbors have expressed strong interest in…”), branding, transparency, privacy, eye contact, TMI, the British versus American pronunciation of “a,” thermodynamics contrasted with integral calculus, individualism and collectivism . . . the list goes on.
Here’s what Franzen himself had to say about his book a couple weeks after it was released. I caught him in a full house at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, on September 19, 2015. He walked out attired in dark tones: black jeans, brown shoes, black frame glasses, and gray shirt—with shirtsleeves rolled halfway up to his elbows.
“Hottest it’s ever been since I’ve been coming here,” he noted, toting a water bottle. “I see a lot of people standing, but I’m comforting myself by realizing I’m standing, too.”
And standing before me was a far more jovial, relaxed, and bantering Jonathan Franzen than the one I had heard in the very same spot five years earlier on his book tour for Freedom. He began by reading from Purity, playing to the Texas locale with one selection. In a paragraph about a thermonuclear warhead in Amarillo, he totally cracked himself up over the author’s humor when he spoke a certain line (“Why would you do that?”). He took a minute to regain his composure, perhaps underscoring a self-observation he made in a 2010 interview in The Paris Review. The question had been: “What are people missing or overlooking in your work?” Franzen replied: “…what seems to me most often overlooked is that I consider myself essentially a comic writer.”
Still, one student in the Austin audience wanted to know: “My professor said it’s good when writing stories to get at universal truths. Do you agree? What are your goals?” Franzen pondered before saying, “I do know about Universal Truths, but trying to arrive at one is perhaps not the best way to get there.”
How Franzen distills his ideas into an overriding concern
The epigraph Franzen used in Purity is:
It’s a line in Goethe’s German play Faust from a conversation between Heinrich Faust (a scholar) and Mephistopheles (the devil, also called Mephisto). Faust asks, “Well, who are you?” Mephistopheles answers with Franzen’s epigraph, which can be cryptically translated as: “A part of that power, The Evil ever do, and ever does the good.” The riddle addresses human nature’s duality, or the fight between good and evil. Does darkness give birth to light or does light give birth to darkness? Is it a cyclical process? In Purity, Franzen delves into principles that Hegel believed ran the world’s history.
…Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft
I asked Franzen if he had rewritten the Faust legend in Purity to capture the zeitgeist of this century.
“Hmmm, not consciously,” he said. “I like Goethe’s Faust so much, but it was all done after the fact. I was having fun with it.” Franzen later noted that Purity was “strict realism, about an embittered novelist who had once been somebody and now was nothing.”
“I don’t really do homage,” he responded. “Pynchon was not the first person to notice what rockets look like.”
Franzen’s research process?
“It does not merit the dignity of a word like ‘process.’ I love reading but I hate research,” he stated. “You don’t want to let facts stand in the way of what you’re making up.”
Would he ever write a historical novel? “No,” but acknowledged several authors he felt had done an excellent job with them: Jane Smiley and Penelope Fitzgerald.
“In The Blue Flower,” he said, “Fitzgerald drew such a totally believable historical period she totally forgot about it and was immersed in the era she’d created.”
Franzen confided he’d sprinkled throughout Purity what he called “love poems” to various entities like journalism and birds, and mentioned he’d indulged his fondness for birds while on his current book tour: “I try to multitask, so I went to Hornsby Bend [a bird observatory near Austin] this morning, past the sewage ponds. Why did I do that? I fell in love with birds.”
Franzen confessed he’d approached the publication of Purity with a sense of dread. “I’m shocked it’s been well reviewed….I felt so beat up when I finished. Writing books has become a personal matter.”
How do you feel when you notice people reading your books?
“There’s no author in the world who doesn’t look at the bookshelves when they go to someone’s home, to see if their books are there.”
Is Purity on your bookshelf? It’s not a quick beach read. It’s long and thought provoking, but also funny—possibly one of the best investments of a reader’s attention to come along in decades. So many books; so little time. Decisions, decisions. Hardback or paperback? Electronic or audio? Now or later? Your choice, but don’t miss Purity.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. She is a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, and has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.