Biology, Destiny, Purity

By Urmila SeshagiriSeptember 1, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

THREE CHARACTERS LEAP OUT of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, a deformation of Great Expectations filled with squatters, hackers, journalists, artists, criminals, and animals. Franzen gifts the reader a lemon-chewing dog named Choco, an “absurdly proportioned brown dog, huge-headed, low-slung, extremely long,” perpetually grinning in “sly acknowledgment of his ridiculousness.” There is Leonard, “a miniature black plush-toy bull with stubby felt horns and sleepy eyes,” whose sweetness tempers a corrosive marriage. And then there is the mentally disabled orphan Ramón, whose limited, plaintive English expresses the wish that shimmers through Purity: “I want us to be a famlee.” Choco, Leonard, and Ramón — minor characters all — are Franzen’s most successfully Dickensian creations. Each one strikes a splendid balance between the reassuringly familiar and the delightfully idiosyncratic, merging archetype and antitype. In Purity, where the 21st-century internet generates the psychic violence of 20th-century totalitarianism, these marginal figures convey the moral tenor that Franzen associates with 19th-century Anglo-European fiction. The pet dog, the stuffed bull, and the orphan remind us (should we be distracted by Purity’s uninspired main characters or surfeit of subplots) that the finest realist novels unveil the knotty torments and sweet assurances of “famlee.”

Franzen’s fictional families consistently find themselves besieged by history’s missteps. Without succumbing to allegory, his Midwestern clans enact the mutuality of capitalism and human frailty. In The Corrections (2001), a tapestry of late 20th-century materialism, the innermost dysfunctions of Alfred and Enid Lambert’s marriage belong to the outer reaches of conspicuous consumption. In Freedom (2010), Walter and Patty Berglund salvage love from the world-wrecking deceptions of the Bush administration. We experience these novels suspended between concern and critique, willing the characters to find happiness even as we recoil from their expertly delineated faults. Consider Patty Berglund in her gentrifying Minnesota neighborhood at the opening of Freedom, pushing a stroller hung with bags that “might have been carrying all the hours of her day”:

Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

The passage’s cumulative detail forecloses readerly remove. If “you could see” Patty’s routine, acknowledging it with nod, wince, or sneer, then you have confessed your own complicity in the systems behind that routine. Franzen’s savage comedies elicit our assent while indicting us for it; the addictive flow of his best set pieces exerts continuous ideological pressure on the reader. In Purity, this pressure emanates from the internet, that unruliest invention of capitalism whose contaminating effects Franzen has long denounced. Propulsive ideological tensions also flow from the novel’s other, more incoherent obsession: dispelling the feminist myth of sexual equality. Technological and sexual revolution have scarred Franzen’s motley cast of parents (single, adulterous, divorced, widowed) and children (illegitimate, step-, abandoned, orphaned), all alienated by a network-ravaged world that compromises human intimacy. The conventional nuclear family, like the cerulean warbler in Freedom, has become an endangered species, and Purity — decidedly lacking in Dickensian generosity — villainizes the unchecked liberty accorded to women and the internet in the 21st century.

Purity tells the story of Purity “Pip” Tyler, a young woman from California in search of her father. Spread across three continents and three generations, Pip’s quest — modeled loosely on Phillip Pirrip’s — jumbles together an escaped convict, a mysterious benefactor, a murder, and an unhappy love affair. Struggling with student debt, Pip leaves Renewable Solutions (a Bay Area startup where she sells “waste-energy micro-collectives” to disaffected suburbanites) and takes an internship in Bolivia with The Sunlight Project. TSP, as it is known to acolytes worldwide, is a WikiLeaks-inspired organization founded by Andreas Wolf, an East German dissident-turned-hacker notorious for leaking classified information about corrupt governments and multinational corporations. Andreas Wolf is a magnetic hybrid of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden: he awes Pip at their first meeting with “a glow of charged fame particles, or a self-confidence so calm and mighty it altered the geometry of the dining room, drawing every sight line to himself.” As Pip involves herself in TSP’s truth-mission (“Sunlight is the best disinfectant!”), she wonders why her mother, a technophobic forest-dwelling recluse, so vehemently opposes her association with Andreas Wolf. What might transpire if Pip returns Andreas’s sexual attentions? How will Andreas exploit Pip in his manic pursuit of power and revenge? And just who is Pip’s mysterious father?

Franzen routes these questions through labyrinthine backstories, mapping Pip’s genealogy onto historical turning points: the rise of the East German Republic, the American culture wars of the 1980s, the end of communism, the collapse of the World Trade Center. Literary references pile up, tethering Pip’s story to four centuries of canonical works by (among numerous others) Cervantes, Shakespeare, Donne, Goethe, Stendhal, Conrad, Lawrence, Murdoch, Bellow, and Roth. Dickens nearly vanishes amidst the resulting generic confusion, where bildungsroman collides with picaresque and the arc of revenge tragedy competes with the tropes of imperial adventure tales. Franzen’s chaotic borrowings jeopardize rather than enrich the integrity of Purity’s main characters; Andreas Wolf, for example, turns into a messy amalgam of Hamlet, Mephistopheles, Mr. Kurtz, and Alexander Portnoy. Driven by the discontents of his several literary antecedents, Andreas draws Pip into a disastrous mésalliance at TSP’s Bolivian headquarters. When he sends her to Colorado to practice investigative journalism, Pip takes up residence with Tom Aberant, the founder of The Denver Independent, and Tom’s partner Leila Helou, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. By day, Leila works diligently to break a story about stolen nuclear warheads; by night, she rants to Pip about “the false promise of the Internet and social media as a substitute for journalism.” (She devotes weekends to her paraplegic husband Charles Blenheim, Franzen’s laudable parody of himself as a cantankerous writer enduring Michiko Kakutani’s blistering scorn for the “big book” he writes to distinguish himself from the current “plague of literary Jonathans.”) Pip’s presence disturbs Leila and Tom’s already-tenuous domestic equilibrium, and Tom, consequently, debates whether to reveal the deadly secret he knows about Andreas Wolf. Memories unspool, complications ensue.

For two decades, Franzen has been a self-appointed guardian of what he calls “tragic realism,” the expansive forms of 19th-century fiction dedicated to social instruction but devalued by modernism and postmodernism. Franzen’s vision of the novel as an ethnographic document is well served by his ironic, encyclopedic brand of realism, and although Purity frequently disappoints with trite prose (numerous sentences unself-consciously marred by “stuff,” “pretty much,” and “basically”; climactic dialogues ending lamely with “wowee-zowee” and “Yikey”), the author’s flair for Americana emerges in astute regional commentaries. Texans, for example “looked down on the other forty-nine states with a gracious kind of pity.” A family photograph captures “Midwestern faces in exotically unstylish clothes and settings, somebody else’s idea of America.” Tom Aberant tells the German Andreas Wolf, “You haven’t really lived until you’ve said a like an American. They’re one of the glories of our nation. Say can’t for me … The British have no concept of what they’re missing.” The satirical tones and panoramic scale that are Franzen’s métier would seem admirably suited to deliver an internet novel in the social realist tradition. And while Purity reprises a structure familiar to Franzen’s readers (intersecting, nonchronological novellas delivered from multiple perspectives), its formal intricacy masks a surprisingly simple portrait of the encrypted contemporary world. The Corrections was prescient and Freedom timely, but Purity arrives into a literary world already dated. The manufactured consent of internet users has been a lightning rod for more than a decade, and Franzen reacts to the omniconnected conditions of our existence with familiar polemic instead of fresh nuance.

Purity’s governing analogy styles the internet as a “New Regime” whose reigning minds are falsely benign avatars of East German despots:

The old Republic had certainly excelled at surveillance and parades, but the essence of its totalitarianism had been more everyday and subtle. You could cooperate with the system or you could oppose it, but the thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not be in relation to it. The answer to every question large and 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.

This passage and its several cousins owe more to the Frankfurt School than to Orwell. Franzen’s internet, in the manner of Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry, is a totalizing juggernaut that negates authenticity and subversion alike. But Purity diminishes this juggernaut to a handful of passé modalities: texting and sexting, Facebook snooping and email hacking, spyware, TEDTalks, PowerPoint, TMI, LOL. This is your parents’ internet, aged portals for communication barely representative of the miraculous reach of networked computing. To insist that “the Internet meant death” because it is “a system that was impossible to opt out of” demands a technical fluency beyond the grasp of Purity’s plot and characters. Franzen laments but does not dramatize the internet’s kinetic ubiquity and the hyperlinked consciousness of digital natives. The author would do well to glance at Richard Powers’s 2000 cautionary-visionary tech fable Plowing the Dark (coincidentally, also a love letter to Great Expectations), or Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian romp written in the networked idiom Purity cannot quite summon.

Indeed, one of Purity’s deficiencies is its indifference to crucial distinctions between the internet, the minuscule fraction of the internet comprised by social media, and the broad field of computer science. Hollow aphorisms such as “the only task that meant anything was search-engine optimization” leave us craving the cultural oxygen of The Corrections, where Franzen wrested artistic transcendence from history’s banalities. Purity’s belated relationship to its central subject causes its New Regime analogy to misfire, yielding insights inadequate to the stakes it has raised:

Like the old politburos, the new politburo styled itself as the enemy of the elite and the friend of the masses, dedicated to giving consumers what they wanted, but … it seemed as if the Internet was governed more by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.

Can FOMO generate catharsis? (And, perhaps more importantly, are internet architects as dastardly as the 21st century’s actual warlords, who remain bafflingly absent from this quasi-global novel?) What might have furnished the novel’s opening gambit becomes Andreas Wolf’s anticlimactic self-awakening, a statement of what any Google user with a social media account knows: “He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self … The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person.” From FOMO to YOLO: this is teen angst, not a lyrical antistrophe that rebukes historical change. Despite Andreas Wolf’s desperation for an “antenimbusian” (Franzen’s invented term) time, the novel’s darkest shadows are not cast by the cloud to which we entrust our ever-growing fund of data.

What darkens Purity and weakens its realist musculature is Franzen’s atavistic treatment of male and female character. In Purity’s calculus, men are predators, women prey, and rape an inevitable aspect of being. We are asked to regard the male characters’ sexual urges — including rape, incest, pedophilia, the consumption of brutal pornography, and acts of murder — as biological prerogatives unjustly targeted by 20th-century feminism. Franzen has run afoul of feminism in his capacity as a public intellectual, and there is a separate, important argument to be made about the brashly trumpeted impieties of a privileged author. There is also much to be said about Franzen’s novel as an artifact of our historical moment, when sexual violence is a global and national epidemic. But let us acknowledge first that Purity’s sexual attitudes cripple its narrative artistry. The novel’s pervasive antifeminism interferes with both the wide-angle lens and the pointillist detail necessary to Franzen’s formal-historical ambitions. Were male sexual violence and female self-abnegation confined to specific characters in this polyvocal work, they could invite alternate frames of reference for judging key events and conflicts. But the unvarying primacy of male desire deadens the very pulse of story, unkind to our curiosity about the circumstances of Pip’s birth, the impact of Andreas Wolf’s power-toppling leaks, the future of Tom and Leila’s partnership.

Purity’s focalizing characters include two women (Pip and Leila) and two men (Andreas and Tom). Any tensions engendered by these multiple narrative perspectives, however, dissolve into an unwitting monochrome as biological sex trumps the distinctions of age, nationality, and profession. Biology, in other words, is destiny; it produces the “maskless self” whose truths Franzen believes literary fiction should illuminate. Feminism is the maskless self’s enemy, as a dismayed Tom Aberant discovers when he matriculates at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s:

My intimations of male guilt were given a firm theoretical foundation. From lectures both in and out of classrooms, beginning with orientation-week sex talks delivered by a female senior in bib overalls, I learned that I was even more inescapably implicated in the patriarchy than I’d realized. The upshot was that, in any intimate relationship with a woman, my motives were a priori suspect.[i]

Like Tom, Purity’s other male characters resent feminism’s artificial, misguided interventions into their private “motives.” Forced to reconstitute their natural desires as cultural crimes, Franzen’s multigenerational, polyglot men find solidarity in a fantasy voiced by Andreas Wolf: “What if he could reveal to a woman, piece by piece, the complete picture of his depravity? And what if she liked him anyway?” Depravity with impunity: in reducing men to this dull fantasy and women to its antagonists, Franzen cheapens the character-rich achievements of the authors — not only Dickens, but also Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, O’Connor — he claims to emulate.

The gestalt of feminism is Anabel Laird, a “Medusa-maned, mostly unsmiling” artist-auteur whose efforts to elude patriarchy destroy her marriage to Tom Aberant. Refusing a multimillion-dollar inheritance from her father, Anabel creates art to subvert an American master-narrative about women as mute flesh. To protest her campus’s underrepresentation of women, she poses as a corpse with mouth taped shut and naked body wrapped in butcher paper; her senior film, “A River of Meat,” juxtaposes beauty pageant footage with the slaughter of cattle; her magnum opus, a film of her entire body in tiny square sections, aspires to “reclaim possession of her body, cut by cut, from the world of meat and men.” Tom plays Anabel’s innocent victim, inherently blameless but pushed into penance for his “ineluctable sense of male wrongness,” the “full male vileness” of his thoughts, and his “splendid male career.” The finishing touch? Anabel can only achieve sexual pleasure during a full moon, and she rations her husband’s pleasure until, as Tom tells us, “an orgasm of hers had equalized our tallies for the month.”

When the terms of sexual parity become untenable, Tom attacks Anabel in a crudely composed but telling scene:

I looked at their breasts and hated their beauty so intensely that I squeezed a nipple and twisted it hard.

She screamed and hit me in the face. I was murderously aroused and hardly felt it. She hit me again, on the ear, and glared at me. “Are you going to hit me back?”

“No,” I said. “I’m going to fuck you in the ass.”

“No, I don’t want that.”

I’d never spoken so violently to her. We’d reached the end of our feminist marriage. “You wrecked the condoms,” I said. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Give me a baby. Leave me with something.”

“No way.”

“I think it could happen tonight. I have a sense about these things.”


I had all the power, and so she did the only thing still available to her to stab me in the heart, which was to roll over submissively and raise the skirt of her robe and say, “All right. Do it.”

Anabel’s moon-maddened, baby-seeking submissiveness — as medieval as it is misogynistic — eviscerates the proud, controlled self imagined in her art. Franzen has praised fiction that searches for “moral purpose in emotional extremity,” but the extremity of this “assault” (Tom’s word) yields nothing but an image of Anabel lying “corpse-still” on the bed after three rounds of anal sex.

Similar incidents of sexual violence fill Purity, clustered throughout background and foreground with a density lacking in the novel’s depictions of the internet. (I haven’t used the word “phallocentric” since the late 1990s, but I’m reviving it to describe the starring roles given to the penises of Andreas Wolf, Tom Aberant, Charles Blenheim, and a German criminal named Horst.) Horst rapes his 15-year-old stepdaughter, Annagret, who “looked forward to being tampered with.” Andreas keeps a “mental coitus ledger” of 53 Berlin girls “who could plausibly claim to be sixteen,” and when he falls in love with Annagret, he makes futile efforts to turn away from “teen pussy.” Years later, Andreas sends an email to Pip musing “Maybe being male is like being born a predator,” and when he menaces her in a Bolivian hotel room, Pip asks him to stop even though “I know I was asking for it.” Second-guessing herself, she muses, “The feelings of prey in the grip of a wolf’s teeth were hard to distinguish from being in love.” Sex between Leila Helou and her husband Charles leads to “the screaming of the prey”; Charles warns Pip that she is “safe, but not too safe” from his sexual advances; and after Tom marries Anabel, he imagines himself as a fox and Anabel as a hedgehog. Women use their beauty, fertility, and youth as weapons in the competition for male attention. Pip, although convinced she is “the least beautiful girl” at TSP, threatens the 52-year-old Leila with her “full-chested, creamy-skinned, regularly menstruating” body. Husbands satisfy their “orgone desires” by cheating on their wives with younger women. Male employers molest female subordinates. Even a mating bird seems to be “sweating pure testosterone.”

As Purity’s men confront the ineluctable face of women’s independence, their sexual urges hurtle toward death. Tom, repulsed by Anabel’s breasts during post-divorce sex (“It was as if her skin were a cream-colored silk into which the blood from matching punctures had seeped extensively”), demands, “Do you want me to kill you?” When Andreas’s lover Annagret matures into a “stalwart feminist, surrounded by man-distrusters,” Andreas, tormented by the “Talking, talking, talking. Cunts, cunts, cunts,” fantasizes that he “COULD STRANGLE HER WITH HIS BARE HANDS RIGHT NOW.” These climactic moments only serve to erode the bonds between Franzen’s characters and their canonical predecessors. Tom and Andreas, mired in one-dimensional rage, bear little resemblance to the inexhaustibly complex Magwitch, Augie March, and Mr. Kurtz. It would appear that feminism, after all, is Purity’s totalitarian “New Regime.”

In a 2010 New York Times review of Freedom, Sam Tenenhaus asked rhetorically, “Assaultive sex reverberates through Freedom, and why not?” Why not, indeed? Not because misogyny and good writing are, or should be, mutually exclusive. But because in Franzen’s hands, complicated sex lacks Nabokov’s poetry, Coetzee’s philosophy, Naipaul’s somberness, and Roth’s exuberance. Because episode after episode of rape limits Purity’s literary scope, reducing characters to pseudo-primitive desires rather than illustrating their full humanity. Because a novelist who criticizes experimental literature’s inadequate attention to character has brought a disheartening sameness to Purity’s ostensibly diverse men and women. And finally, because Purity’s antifeminism is fatal to the arc of growth that defines the bildungsroman. At her journey’s outset, Pip “fantasized about submitting and obeying,” telling Andreas Wolf, “I think I may have a slave personality” and imploring him, “Give me an order. Say I have to do journalism.” At the novel’s end, Pip still “wished that Andreas would appear and tell her what to do. The most deranged command of his would have been better than no command at all.” So dangerous is the prospect of female autonomy that Purity denies its protagonist the independence that Dickens bequeathed to his Pip.

Which is why Choco the dog, Leonard the stuffed bull, and Ramón the orphan remain the best characters in this unsatisfying work. Sketched in welcome rushes of literary buoyancy, Choco (“weird, very unneedy as dogs went, a kind of Zen dog, all about his lemons”) and Leonard (the source of “nuttily, childishly hopeful” possibility) inhabit their originality at a safe distance from the sullying touch of the internet and human intimacy. Ramón attains the trophies of adulthood that mark the traditional bildungsroman’s successful completion: friends, love, and an occupation. Pip loves Choco, Leonard, and Ramón with a purity absent from every other aspect of her life. Wounded by modernity and “bequeathed a broken world,” Pip accepts that neither work nor a fortune nor full knowledge of her parentage can guide her into a secure future. As Pip dances with a new boyfriend and her parents stage a dissonant, volatile reunion, Franzen surprises us with one last, deeply moving narrative flight. In the novel’s final moments, Pip’s great expectations culminate in her understanding that acrimony, whether fueled by love or its countless antinomies, is the universal language of famlee.


[i] Tom Aberant’s skeptical, condescending reaction to feminist politics echoes Franzen’s description of his own introduction to feminism in his 2006 memoir, The Discomfort Zone: “I gathered that women had truly been oppressed and that we men therefore ought to defer to them, and be nurturing and supportive, and cater to their wishes. It was especially important, if you were a man, to look deep into your heart and make sure you weren’t objectifying a woman you loved. If even a tiny part of you was exploiting her for sex, or putting her on a pedestal and worshipping her, this was very bad.”


Urmila Seshagiri is Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

LARB Contributor

Urmila Seshagiri is associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee. The author of Race and the Modernist Imagination (Cornell, 2010), she is completing a book about the complex legacy of modernist aesthetics titled Still Shocking: Modernism and Fiction in the 21st Century. Her scholarly edition of Virginia Woolf’s memoir Sketch of the Past is forthcoming from Cornell University Press. She is the Out of the Archives Editor for Feminist Modernist Studies.


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