About two-thirds of the way through Purity, a character tries to dissuade his mother from coming to see his student girlfriend’s graduation project, an eyeball-sizzlingly repellent 24-minute art film called “A River of Meat”. “It’s just not going to make sense to you,” he tells her, adding that it’s “about the visual properties of film as a purely expressive medium.” “I love a good movie,” the mother imperturbably says.
It’s one of the better jokes in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, a joke about different kinds of audience, and, by extension, the strange cultural position that Franzen has come to occupy. Formerly a properties-of-the-medium kind of writer, a disciple of Don DeLillo and other, older American postmodernists, Franzen reinvented himself with his third novel, The Corrections (2001), as someone whose highbrow credentials didn’t rule out a desire to connect with readers who just like a good movie. The idea was to bring more emotional insight and, with luck, democratic appeal to fiction that could still take aim at the impersonal systems at work in American life.
Franzen wasn’t alone in wanting to do something like that: David Foster Wallace, his friend and near-contemporary, for one, was even more desperate to add a pinch of soulfulness to the intellectual concerns they’d inherited. The Corrections was a major commercial success, though, as was its eventual follow-up, Freedom (2010), an unabashed page-turner that landed Franzen on the cover of Time. He’s now at or near the top of the heap, a Great American Novelist. Yet his balancing act has been difficult to sustain. On bad days, he’s derided as a sellout by purists and as a self-regarding white male bore by people who don’t like his fiction, his fame, his anti-Twitter stance, or all three.
Purity tackles some of these matters in a fairly spirited way. We get a brief glimpse of an embittered campus-based novelist denouncing the preponderance of Jonathans in the New York literary world, and, more central to the novel’s plot, there are frequent discussions of male entitlement, the diminished status of print media and, above all, the internet, which Franzen famously sees as an invasive and sinister medium. It’s a sign of his basic writerly competence that one of the book’s key notions — namely, that the internet is becoming a totalitarian system in the sense that you can’t opt out of a relationship with it — is put in the mouth of a character who’s more than a little mad. Franzen also has no trouble persuading the reader that he knows his way around online culture.
He’s similarly persuasive about the story’s settings, which include California, Bolivia, and East Germany before and after the fall of communism. And he sensibly uses his sarcastic heroine, Pip, as a proxy for the reader’s scepticism when it comes to his main fantastication — a WikiLeaks-like outlaw media outfit run out of a paradisal tropical valley by a charismatic figure called Andreas Wolf, a former East German dissident who combines a rueful knowingness about the online personality cult that’s grown up around him with the property of very definitely not being Julian Assange, about whom he’s rather dismissive.
Holding all this together, however, is a none-too-subtle riff on Great Expectations. Pip, who’s first met living in an Oakland squat and dabbling halfheartedly in the Occupy movement, wants to know who her father is, if only in the hope that he’ll have enough money to relieve her of her $130,000 student debt. Her mother, a needy, reclusive semi-hippie, is no help on the money front and won’t talk about Pip’s father, giving out only a story that Pip realises has been lifted from a misery memoir. As a result, and thanks also to her problematic love life, she suppresses her natural doubts when a beautiful German woman offers her an internship with Wolf’s organisation, promising not only cash but also help with solving the riddle of her identity.
Once this master plot is in motion, the book spreads out into a sequence of interlocking novellas, each one developing and deepening the story from a different point of view. We get an account of a crime of passion in East Germany, a first-person recounting of a disastrous marriage, a look at the life of an investigative reporter, some satire on creative types, and many other things. On top of advancing the main plot, each section rings the changes on questions of parenting, relationships and guilt, with images of predation as the master-trope for the characters’ gloomy reflections on sexuality in the internet age.
Franzen shows considerable technical chops in the construction and management of his narrative structure, and Purity is often very absorbing. But his giant canvas comes at a price if you don’t like writing in which a character can walk around “with a lump of near-clinical depression in her throat” or refer to sex as “our liquid interfacing”. As in The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the overarching story gets quite silly in a cleverly calculated way, and it’s sometimes hard to avoid the impression that Franzen has expended great intellectual effort on giving himself permission to write a pumped-up, topical middlebrow bestseller.
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, RRP£20 / Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$28, 576 pages
Illustration by Shonagh Rae