What Happened to “Purity”?: Jonathan Franzen and the Aspirations and Disappointments of a Contract Writer

By GD DessApril 30, 2016

What Happened to “Purity”?: Jonathan Franzen and the Aspirations and Disappointments of a Contract Writer

Purity by Jonathan Franzen


GIVEN HIS STATUS as a critical darling and a best-selling author, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Purity (2015) appeared poised to fly off the bookstore shelves. After all, his previous novel, Freedom (2010), had been hailed as “a masterpiece of American fiction” by The New York Times Book Review and “a work of total genius” by New York Magazine, while Franzen himself was dubbed “a literary genius” by The Guardian. Yet, while Purity debuted on The New York Times best seller list at number two in the hardcover category, the following week it had dropped to number six. The week after that, it tumbled to number 11, then three weeks later it vanished off the list altogether. Purity didn’t fare any better in the combined print and ebook category, where it debuted at number four, and then, one week later, slipped to number 14, only to fall off the list.

Franzen presumably knows what his readers want and how to please them since, in explaining “the contract model” of literary writing, he writes “a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” Thus, “a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.” This model was presented to the public in an essay, “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books,” that appeared in The New Yorker after the publication of Franzen’s third novel, The Corrections (2001). Inspired by a letter of complaint from a reader, a “Mrs. M—,” Franzen outlined in this article his ideological position on writing and literature. Over against the “contract model,” he positioned what he called the “status model,” a form “championed by Flaubert” that assumed that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” Thus, “[f]rom a Status perspective, difficulty tends to signal excellence; it suggests that the novel’s author has disdained cheap compromise and stayed true to an artistic vision.” In his essay, Franzen took postmodern novelist William Gaddis as emblematic of the status-model writer, and although somewhat sympathetic to his craft, he claimed that, “[i]n my bones, […] I’m a contract kind of person.”

Franzen’s division of writers into opposing classes was far from original (although, to be fair, he made no claim of originality), derived as it was from other prescient critics who, in the decades before and after World War II, brought these ideas to the forefront of American literary debates, albeit using different terminology. Although the basic idea of dividing writing into that which is market-driven and that which is art was argued earlier by Ezra Pound and others, the philosophical underpinnings of Franzen’s model were first propounded by Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald. Greenberg’s seminal essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which appeared in 1939 in Partisan Review, pointed out that, prior to the advent of universal literacy, the only consumers of high culture (as distinguished from folk culture) had been people who, in addition to being able to read and write, could afford the leisure time that allowed for cultivation. Before the industrial era, high culture had for the most part been inextricably associated with literacy, which was obtainable only by the few. Greenberg maintained that “with the introduction of universal literacy, the ability to read and write became almost a minor skill like driving a car, and it no longer served to distinguish an individual’s cultural inclinations.” The working classes learned to read and write because they had to, but they didn’t have the leisure time necessary for the enjoyment of high culture. Filling the void, Greenberg claimed, was a new “ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.” Greenberg pointed out that kitsch “predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art.”

Greenberg applauded the development of the avant-garde, which served as the “intellectual conscience” of society and the true innovator of culture in the postindustrial age. It was the avant-garde that would “find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.” It would do this by raising art to an absolute. Greenberg, a firm believer in “art for art’s sake,” first articulated the notion that, for the avant-garde, “subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like the plague.” He believed that high art was aimed at creating “aesthetic moments” in and of themselves, rather than focusing on converting “experience” into art. In his view, avant-garde art and literature always retained a degree of inaccessibility. The masses did not accept esoteric art and would never constitute an audience for it. Instead, after enough time had elapsed, avant-garde efforts would be “looted for new ‘twists,’ which are then watered down and served up as kitsch.”

Macdonald, who had edited Greenberg’s essay, went on to develop his own views about the role of art and literature in “A Theory of Mass Culture” (1953) and, later, in “Masscult and Midcult” (1960). Like Greenberg, Macdonald decried the mass manufacture and mass distribution of culture, in which the value of a work of art was determined by its popularity — i.e., how well it sold. In “A Theory of Mass Culture,” he expanded on Greenberg’s thinking and introduced new terminology. High Culture involved the expression of an artist’s interiority — it was the result of turning inward, away from bourgeois society. Its producers comprised an intellectually elite group, more or less synonymous with the avant-garde, although the latter would always remain elusive and self-defining. On the other hand, Mass Culture, which included kitsch, was “at best a vulgarized reflection of High Culture,” “solely and directly an article for mass consumption, like chewing gum.”

While retaining, in his 1960 essay, the concept of Mass Culture (now dubbed Masscult), Macdonald coined the allied term Midcult, which possessed “the essential qualities of Masscult — the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity.” There was an important difference, however: Midcult “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” Midcult is pernicious because it passes itself off as the real thing. Macdonald claimed that “Midcult is the Book-of-the-Month club, which since 1926 has been supplying its members with reading matter of which the best that can be said is that it could be worse.” Midcult art and works of fiction — in the bourgeois high-mindedness they exhibit, in the entertainment they provide — do nothing more than pander to the tastes of the masses that seek diversion and easy pleasure; they are for audiences who don’t want to work to experience an “aesthetic moment.” This Midcult is for people who are educated but largely uncultured, people who have attained a certain level of material status and sophistication, people who may be willing to work for their pleasure — but not too hard.

Franzen’s division between “status” and “contract” writing is an example of exactly the type of “looting” of high culture that Greenberg and Macdonald despised; and that his essay appeared in an upscale magazine such as The New Yorker would not surprise Greenberg, who had written:

Kitsch is deceptive. It has many different levels, and some of them are high enough to be dangerous to the naive seeker of true light. A magazine like The New Yorker, which is fundamentally high-class kitsch for the luxury trade, converts and waters down a great deal of avant-garde material for its own uses.

“Mr. Difficult,” then, is a piece of writing that, as Franzen himself might have put it, his down-to-earth mother would have enjoyed. And, while he claims to raise important issues about the role of writing (expressing his high-minded concern about a mythical past when “serious” literature mattered in the United States), and while he subjects us to his endless confessional moralizing, his essay is nothing more than an example of Macdonald’s axiom: “There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch.”


Franzen himself sees the limits of contract thinking:

Taken to its free-market extreme, Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation. If the local symphony plays too much twentieth-century music, you cancel your subscription. You’re the consumer; you rule.

Nonetheless, Franzen is determined to be a contract writer, and does not want to be considered “Mr. Difficult.” If a contract writer’s aim is to please readers, then please them you should; and the way readers should show they are pleased is by purchasing your book in large numbers. In the case of Purity, they didn’t.

So what happened? Given the marketing power behind the book and the success of Franzen’s previous novels, Purity by all accounts should have been a best seller. Yet its sales indicate that, somehow, something went wrong; judging by the numbers, one would have to conclude that the contract between writer and reader had been broken.

Purity relies upon secrets to intertwine its multifarious subplots. There are so many secrets that you sometimes imagine you are in a giant Rube Goldberg gadget gone haywire, but I’ll only focus on the two most important ones. The first revolves around Pip’s parentage. Purity “Pip” Tyler does not know the identity of her father. Moreover, while she has been brought up by her mother, she doesn’t know her true identity either. Her mother goes by the name of Penelope Tyler, but she keeps her real name — and Pip’s father’s name — a secret from Pip. The second big secret is that Andreas Wolf, who runs the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-like organization, is a cold-blooded murderer and abuser of underage girls.

Secrets and murder often serve as plot drivers in fiction: they are probably two of the most common devices used in thrillers and crime stories to titillate readers. Either one of these tropes can create a sense of heightened apprehension that arises from the growing suspense surrounding speculation as to whether the secret will be revealed, whether the malefactor will be caught and punished (and how this will occur), or whether he or she will escape and, for example, “get away with murder.” The exhilaration of following the narrative to uncover “the truth” is what creates page-turners. Purity combines both of these devices.

There are four principal protagonists in Purity. While the novel opens and closes with Pip, she is the least interesting of the main characters, and Franzen spends little time and effort developing her. We meet her working a “shit” sales job at Renewable Solutions, a bogus environmental company that sells “waste energy.” She is saddled with $130,000 in student loan debt. She can toss around phrases like “moral hazard” and give her opinion on Israel’s nuclear arms program, but these appear to be the last vestiges of her college education she has retained. She is not demonstrably intelligent, has limited self-awareness, is passably attractive, but not pretty. She alienates practically everyone she comes into contact with and has no friends. Andreas says, “She was a sanctimonious little cunt of a nobody.” Pip herself admits that sex was “the only thing in her life that she was reasonably effective at.” Her behavior throughout the novel, however, gives us reason to doubt even this.

Pip’s mother, Penelope Tyler (her real name is Anabel Laird), springs from the pages like a myrmidon, fully armed and ready to do battle. While she is in line to inherit billions of dollars, she lives off the grid in a cottage in the woods with Pip. The family money was made in agribusiness (meat, mainly), and Anabel will have nothing to do with it because “the money has blood on it,” she claims. “I can smell it in my checking account, the blood from a river of meat.” She thinks of herself as an artist (but has never completed anything) and haughtily proclaims: “Part of my artistic performance is not to touch money that has blood on it.” She is so repulsed by her father that she spits in his face when he shows up at her wedding. She is a controlling, high-maintenance, first-order shrew, with a “wicked tongue,” given to overdramatization and self-aggrandizement; she suffers from deep psychopathological problems, some of which revolve around her perverted ideas of love and loyalty. Like her daughter, she is not very bright; she is selfish, humorless, imperious, and vindictive.

Tom Aberant, Pip’s father, is a nerdy wuss who suffers from a receding personality. Despite being warned about Anabel’s “aberrant” temperament, Tom marries her anyway. He has many faults, but his biggest weakness is “a morbid fear of reproach, especially from women.” Like his daughter, he doesn’t seem to possess any notable strengths or positive attributes. From the outset, his relationship with Anabel resembles a sadomasochistic danse macabre in which Anabel is the “dom” and Tom the “sub.” Anabel forces him to pee while sitting down; he can only have sex with her three days a month — “when the moon is fullest” — because those are the only days she can achieve satisfaction; he is coerced into becoming a vegetarian; he has to refuse funding from Anabel’s father to start a magazine; he cannot become an artist because she is the artist in this bizarre folie à deux. Tom is relentlessly psychologically battered and abused by Anabel, but his obsession with her remains absolute and unwavering. He sticks with her (until he meets Andreas) because, as he explains, they are married and “a vow is a vow.” His behavior begs the question (which goes unanswered in this story): when does patience turn from a virtue into a pathology?

Andreas Wolf is the murderer — or, as Franzen refers to him, “the killer.” He is arguably the most interesting character in the book, endowed with many of the traits of Orson Welles’s megalomaniacal Charles Foster Kane and Patricia Highsmith’s sociopathic Tom Ripley. He also shares some literary DNA with Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov. His psychological background is presented in two chapters devoted to him, “The Republic of Bad Taste” and “The Killer.” Andreas and Tom are the only characters in the book to have chapters devoted exclusively to them (Tom’s account is narrated in first person), but almost twice as many words are lavished upon Andreas.

Andreas is the “radiantly privileged” only child of East German Communist Party members who live in Berlin. His father, Undersecretary Wolf, is distant and often away on business. His mother, by contrast, dotes on him. He develops a “telepathic connection” with her, which constantly feeds his ego, leading him to believe “he was the world’s most precocious boy.” “You’re perfect,” she tells him. “The world isn’t.” Her intense maternal tie, however, does not prevent her from indulging her own sexual appetites, which involve fucking students, construction workers, and perhaps even the gardeners when her husband isn’t around. Nor does it inhibit her from showing Tom her vagina from time to time, once to “answer some precocious question of his.” Added to his difficulties is the sudden appearance of Peter Kronburg, who claims to be his biological father, and who informs Andreas that he is the result of one of his mother’s affairs. By the time he is 14, Andreas has a serious Oedipal problem, as well as an addiction to masturbation, which he finds is “the secret passageway out of self-alienation.” Not attracted to any of the girls at his school, he begins making pencil drawings of naked women and masturbating onto them. When his mother catches him, she sends him to a psychologist, who diagnoses Andreas as a narcissist. After a poem he writes gets innocent people into trouble, he learns that he is also a sociopath. He tells his mother, “I have my own unique mental illness.” Shortly thereafter, he is thrown out of his house and ends up running a shelter for abused teenagers.

In the shelter he meets Annagret, who is “underage, abused, and pretty.” Her stepfather, Horst Kleinholz, has been sexually abusing her, and Andreas comes up with a plan to kill the man, not to right a wrong but just so he can have the girl to himself. In a nice touch of irony, Andreas, who has sexually abused at least 53 of the girls in the shelter, murders a fellow abuser. Keeping this murder a secret serves as one of the main drivers of the narrative. “The secret” is frequently used to call attention to Andreas’s chief personality trait: his unworthiness in love. Throughout the book, his behavior vacillates between murderous rage and self-pitying remorse.

Oddly enough, the late novelist David Foster Wallace, a friend of Franzen’s, appears to cast a shadow over the portrayal of Andreas, whom Franzen endows with personality traits he saw in Wallace — especially the idea that he was “unworthy” of love. Over his lifetime, Wallace suffered from various addictions and struggled with depression for years; like Andreas, he ultimately committed suicide. In his essay “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude,” Franzen says that he “loved a person who was mentally ill.” Franzen attributes Wallace’s suicide, in large part, to the fact that Wallace felt there was something wrong with him and he was unworthy of love; “[a]nd this feeling was intertwined, ultimately to the point of indistinguishability, with the thought of suicide.” Inaccessible on his private island of self-laceration, believing there was something wrong with him, Wallace could never reach a farther shore, and nobody could reach him. Ultimately, Franzen speculates, his suicide was designed “[t]o prove once and for all that he truly didn’t deserve to be loved.” In Purity, Andreas believes that “[t]here was no such thing as love.” He understands that Pip won’t fuck him because “you just don’t like who I am.” And, just prior to committing suicide, Andreas reads Tom’s memoir and discovers that at one point Tom had had feelings for him but ultimately suppressed them. He concludes: “it was exactly as he’d always known it was; nobody who knew him could love him. And they were right, as he’d been right. There was something very wrong with him.” Something that nobody could love.

Despite the Dostoyevskian overtones that Franzen layers onto the character, Andreas remains a callow and rather comical figure. He seems misplaced. His hatred and fury (at one point or another he expresses the urge to kill everyone he meets), as well as the guilt with which he is burdened, are so overwhelming that he would seemingly be more at home as a villain in graphic novel rather than in a so-called realistic social drama. It’s easy to imagine him zipping up his pants after masturbating over Kleinholz’s grave with a cartouche over his head with the narrator’s words: “He had to kill the man he’d always been, by killing someone else.” Or one can envision him sitting in a pose like Rodin’s The Thinker with a block of copy engraved on the pedestal that reads, again in the narrator’s words: “Andreas found that his sorrow hadn’t cured him of his megalomaniacal solipsism.” Pat apothegms such as these accompany Andreas throughout the story, but they don’t add any level of complexity or depth, nor do they serve to build his character.

Some years after the murder, Andreas and Tom meet by chance in Berlin. Tom has come to Germany with his sick mother, Celia, so she can die and be buried in her homeland. After her funeral, Tom wanders into a bar and comes across Andreas. Tom realizes Andreas is the spokesperson for the freedom of information movement sweeping East Germany, so he strikes up a conversation. No sooner do they start talking than Tom suffers a coup de foudre and develops a crush on Andreas. The feeling is mutual, and the men begin sharing secrets. So bowled over is Tom that Andreas’s story about murdering a man many years ago seduces him, and he agrees to help rebury the corpse, which is on the verge of being discovered. During the comical interchange between the two men, Tom comments that “I just cremated my mother. I’m up for it.” At one point, Tom holds Andreas close and strokes his head, while at another point, Andreas masturbates over the newly dug grave to relieve himself of the “stiffy” that Tom gave him. Unable to deal with where the relationship is headed, Tom returns to the United States. He finally finds the strength to divorce Anabel, but he just can’t quit her, and so begins a sort-of/kind-of affair with her. On what will be his last visit, he sodomizes her, “not once but three times,” thus living out the homoerotic fantasy he couldn’t fulfill with Andreas.

While the two men remain separated by continents, Franzen pits them against each other. Tom takes 20 million dollars (yes, 20 million dollars) from Anabel’s late father’s trust for the establishment of “a quality national newsmagazine.” And Andreas, who is by this time wanted by several governments for “leaking” secrets and needs a place in which he can operate the “Sunlight Project,” takes 10 million dollars (yes, 10 million dollars) from the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tad Milliken.

The denouement is set in motion when Tom’s girlfriend Leila gives an interview decrying the differences between journalists and leakers, mentioning Andreas Wolf as “a man so full of his own dirty secrets that he sees the entire world as dirty secrets.” Andreas reads the interview, which makes him paranoid about whether her reference to “dirty secrets” is about the murder he committed, which Tom may be planning to reveal. After some research, he finds Anabel and realizes that she has a daughter. Andreas realizes that Tom is unaware of his daughter’s existence, and to exact his revenge for the implied threat that Leila made, he arranges for his ex-girlfriend Annagret to go to San Francisco to recruit Pip to come to Bolivia so that he can seduce her to get back at Tom (yes, really). Naturally, Andreas falls in love with Pip, just as he fell for Tom, and like her father, Pip becomes enchanted by Andreas’s charismatic personality. Unlike her father, however, Pip has sex with Andreas — kind of. While she “didn’t feel like fucking what she didn’t like,” she does let him perform oral sex on her, and she orgasms with “violent alacrity.” Pip’s description of this event is in line with her level of intelligence: it was, she says, like, “wowee-zowee.”

Pip is sent to Denver to implant spyware in Tom’s computer network so that Andreas can see what Tom is up to. She doesn’t yet know that Tom is her father. And so, in a Freudian touch, she “fucks” her father (as vicariously does Andreas) by inseminating his computer system with Andreas’s spyware. Tom soon discovers the espionage, as well as the fact that Pip is his daughter, but he doesn’t reveal his identity to her; rather, he fires her and sends her back to her mother. Then he goes to Bolivia to threaten Andreas that he will reveal his secret if he ever goes near his daughter again. Wondering why, after all these years, Tom feels the need for a personal visit, Andreas scours the drives on Tom’s computer and finds Tom’s memoir “A River of Meat.” In it, he discovers that Tom spoke of loving him in the beginning, but ultimately turned against him. Once again, he realizes “nobody who knew him could love him.” Andreas sends the memoir to Pip. On top of a mountain, Andreas confesses that he had sex with Tom’s daughter and wants to be punished. He asks Tom to kill him, and when Tom will not be his partner in death, Andreas hurls himself over the cliff, committing suicide.

From the memoir Andreas sent her, Pip learns who her parents are and how much money she is slated to inherit. She informs her mother and Tom that she has learned their identities. Then she forces her father to come to the cottage and reunites her parents. They pick up where they left off years ago, fighting.


In an interview with The Paris Review, Franzen mentions that, during an English literature course he took in college, he “was most smitten with Iris Murdoch. I was eighteen, and A Severed Head seemed to me a profound and important book.” In Purity, Franzen refers to Murdoch twice: once when Andreas’s mother, Katya, comes to visit him in the church basement where he is running his “shelter” for kids in crisis. Katya sees he has a book by Murdoch on his shelf, and asks: “Do you admire Iris Murdoch as much as I do?” Later on, Franzen tells us that Katya has published a study on Murdoch “to admiring reviews.”

A Severed Head (1961), Murdoch’s fifth novel, was popular on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s because of its rampant sex, including incest, and its philosophical undertones. Yet Murdoch’s Booker Prize–winning The Sea, The Sea (1978) is more apropos in this context since, like Purity, it is largely a story of obsessive love. Written as a memoir like Tom’s chapter, The Sea, The Sea recounts the life of Charles Arrowby, an English playwright and director who has retired from a highly successful theater career and bought a house by the sea. No sooner is he ensconced there than he discovers his first love, Hartley, lives nearby. She had refused to marry him 40 years earlier, and then ran off and married another man, leaving Arrowby heartbroken. Upon rediscovering Hartley, Arrowby’s feelings for her come back to life. His friend James tries to dissuade him from chasing after her since she is married. But Arrowby can’t help himself. Hartley refuses him again, escapes his machinations, and moves to Australia with her husband and dog.

In the prologue to The Sea, The Sea, Arrowby informs us that Hartley was “[m]y first love, and also my only love,” “She is my end and my beginning, she is alpha and omega.” He tells us that he abides by the old French aphorism “On n’aime qu’une fois, la première” (one’s first love is one’s only love). He then goes on to tell us that his youthful passion for Hartley has endured for 40 years and continues to this day because “[w]e loved each other, we lived in each other, through each other, by each other. We were each other. […] And that was passion and that was love of a purity which can never come again and which I am sure rarely exists in the world at all.” This abiding passion reflects the morbid obsession chronicled in Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” which tells of “a love that is more than love” — one that began in childhood and was so strong that it made the angels jealous (and influenced Nabokov’s Lolita into the bargain). Franzen’s Anabel persistently alerts people that her name is spelled with one “n,” not in order to differentiate herself from, but rather to call attention to, her famous literary cognate.

After Hartley flees from him for the second time, Arrowby reflects on the nature of his love for her. Soon he finds himself “actually beginning to wonder how much I really loved her even at the start? The sad fact was that Hartley was not really very intelligent. What a dull humourless pair we seem, looking back, without spirit or style or a sense of fun.” Arrowby continues to analyze his feelings for Hartley and comes to see that, all things considered, she was not at all a good choice for him. His analysis then brings him to critique the French adage that had guided his emotional life for so many years, and at the end of the novel he comes to this conclusion: “What a lot of folly I have run through in aid of that stupid Gallicism!” Murdoch allows Arrowby to free himself from the language that had enslaved him, to transcend his situation, and to achieve a degree of enlightenment.

In Purity, Tom also adheres (in spirit if not in words) to the adage “one’s first love is one’s only love” since he remains enthralled by Anabel throughout the entire length of the novel. He admits: “She’s eternal in me. Only once, and only because I was very young, could I have merged my identity with another person’s, and singularities like this are where you find eternity.” There is a striking similarity in tone and substance between Arrowby’s lament about Hartley and Tom’s admission about Anabel, but the similarities end there. In one sentence — “What a lot of folly I have run through in aid of that stupid Gallicism!” — Murdoch rescues Arrowby from self-parody, elevating him to the level of a self-conscious, self-critical adult. Tom’s infantilized emotional life shackles him to Anabel, and Franzen will not free him. Despite everything he suffers at Anabel’s hands, he continues to believe that the two of them are ineluctably intertwined for eternity. Tom remains a caricature — a rather clownish one at that — and not just because he cannot rise above his obsession. When he learns that Pip is his daughter and, a little later, when Pip learns Tom is her father, one would expect emotional fireworks, but what happens? Well, nothing really. Tom tells Leila (his girlfriend) that he has discovered he has a daughter (“I’m sorry, […] I know it’s a lot to hear”), but gives her no indication of his emotional state, nor any sense of how this might change their life together. And Tom has virtually no reaction when Pip announces she has learned he is her father. When she telephones Tom to let him know she is in on “the secret,” Tom’s comment is: “Yikey.” Who but a cartoon character says such a thing at such a moment? Franzen is asking us to believe that an ostensibly sophisticated journalist, a man who founded and runs the “Denver Independent,” a man who was educated at an Ivy League university, who has had articles published in leading journals and newspapers, can only say to his long-lost daughter’s revelation that she knows he is her father: “Yikey.”

Perhaps by this time (we are well over 500 pages into this behemoth of a book), the plot, and the numerous subplots, have become so exhausted that “yikey” is the only reasonable response. The tale at this juncture finally transmogrifies from a so-called realistic social novel into a novel of what James Wood has called “hysterical realism,” in which the conventions of realism are not abolished but, “on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked.” In giving us “Yikey,” however, Franzen has abdicated his writerly duty, and this dereliction demonstrates a certain authorial contempt for his readers. In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen proclaimed: “When the reader finally says, Hey, wait a minute, this is a mess, not a masterpiece, the book instantly morphs into a performance-art prop: its fraudulence is the whole point!” For many readers of Purity, I think “Yikey” will be the point when one has to say, “Hey, if that’s all you’re giving me, this is a breach of contract, fella.” Franzen’s failure to provide a reaction commensurate with the level of emotional gravity of the state of affairs he has set up throughout the preceding 500 pages (a child has been held hostage by one parent for her entire life) is nothing more or less than fraudulent. And when you defraud your customers (I mean readers), there goes your business; you drop right off the best seller lists.

The reason for this authorial failure is — at least partly, I think — due to the fact that all the main characters in Purity have a vacancy about them; they are nothing more than the simulacra of characters Franzen has served up in his earlier novels. Indeed, as a novel Purity is marred by these repurposed, resuscitated bit players who had their premieres in other narratives. Martin Probst, Alfred Lambert, Walter Berglund, and now, Tom Aberrant are pretty much indistinguishable; they are all the same doomed, weak husbands who bear the cross of matrimony and are subservient to women who torture them for loving them. Barbara Probst, Enid Lambert, Patty Berglund, and Anabel Laird are tweaked variations of one another — all frustrated, emotionally abusive, manipulative psychological thugs. Any of Franzen’s rebellious, lost children — Luisa, Gary, Chip, Denise, Joey, Jessica, or Pip — could be the progeny of any of the parents, or any combination of any of the parents, in any of the novels, with no one being the wiser. The “bad boys,” Richard Katz and Andreas Wolf, are inbred cousins; the “love interests,” Leila and Lalitha, are hot-blooded soul sisters, and both are left out in the cold. Neither one is treated very well by the feckless men they love. (We never learn what happens to Leila, but at least Franzen doesn’t kill her off as Purity drags to a close, which he does to Lalitha, who dies in a car crash in Freedom for no good reason at all.) None of these characters can become more than what they are because Franzen doesn’t get inside them. He keeps an ironic distance, and consequently we never feel them come to life. And this failure is fatal for a realistic novel.

Not only are the protagonists in Purity pulled off the shelf of Franzen’s fiction factory, but many of the ideas from his earlier novels are repackaged and reused. For example, the “memoir” that acts as a deus ex machina — in Purity, Tom’s “A River of Meat,” given to Pip by Andreas, is responsible for reuniting the family just as, in Freedom, Patty’s memoir “Mistakes Were Made,” given to Walter by Richard, is responsible for separating the couple. As far back as The Corrections, Chip faced the same sick co-dependency as Tom in Purity: Chip’s girlfriend in college, Tori Timmelman,

refused (or was unable) to finish her dissertation. Chip […] stuck with Tori for nearly a decade. He did all of the laundry and most of the cleaning and cooking and cat care in the little apartment that he and Tori shared. He read secondary literature for Tori and helped her outline and reoutline the chapters of her thesis that she was too throttled by rage to write.

In Purity, this is the same situation Tom finds himself in with Anabel; Tom sticks with her despite the fact that she “never finished anything” and needed Tom to help her “block out a rough schedule for completing her project, and then, for another hour […] [begin] the transfer of important thoughts from the first of her forty-odd notebooks into a new notebook, written by me. […] We had many days like this.” In Strong Motion (1992), Louis Holland’s mother won’t let Louis touch any of the money from her multimillion dollar inheritance, just as Anabel refuses to touch her inheritance and blocks Pip from it as well. In Freedom, Walter thinks that “[f]ighting had become their portal to sex, almost the only way it ever happened anymore,” while in Purity, Tom finds the same thing to be true: “It was almost as if we’d deliberately manufactured unspeakable pain to achieve this level of wedding-night bliss.” In The Corrections, Chip travels to Lithuania for work and to find a woman, just as Tom’s father in Purity goes to Germany for work and brings back a bride. And let’s not forget the happy endings in The Corrections, Freedom, and Purity, in which — after much suffering and many hardships — the family, or what’s left of it, is brought together to smile and take their bows.


In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen points out that “literary difficulty can operate as a smoke screen for an author who has nothing interesting, wise, or entertaining to say.” I don’t think anyone would argue that point. He should also have noted, however, that it is possible for a contract-model writer to have nothing interesting, wise, or entertaining to say either. Indeed, it is hard to say what is interesting in Purity (aside from the technical accomplishment of nicely tying up multiple, intertwined plots) — certainly not the pseudopithy observations that equate the internet with a fascist state or point out the potential of mass media to usurp reality. While some of this is topical, none of it is interesting, and it’s definitely not news.

In both his fiction and his nonfiction — especially when he’s trying to deliver wisdom — Franzen has a talent for gussying up self-evident truths or trivial empirical observations. He frequently restates common knowledge, parading it as wisdom, when what he in fact propounds is usually tautological at best. Here is an example of Andreas’s thought: “Matter was information, information matter, and only in the brain did matter organize itself sufficiently to be aware of itself.” This is nothing but pompous gibberish, and Andreas is supposed to be our primary guide to the meaning of “information” throughout the book. Here’s another example: at one point Andreas attempts to explain to Pip that his theory of secrets (ostensibly the cornerstone metaphor of the novel — no, it’s not “purity”) dovetails with his theory of identity. This misguided idea may have made an early appearance in Franzen’s article on David Foster Wallace, where he put forth the proposition that Wallace needed “to have something apart from other people, the need for a secret, the need for some last-ditch narcissistic validation of the self’s primacy.” In Purity, Andreas asks Pip:

How do you know that you’re a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don’t, there’s no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside.

At the end of this pseudoserious exposition, Andreas asks: “Am I making any sense?” Pip tells him she thinks so, but (as usual) she is wrong. While the foregoing snippet of metaphysics/ontology sounds intriguing, what Andreas posits is nothing more than a dumbed down version of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s private language argument — which has been shown to be false.

In “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” an essay on the allegedly sorry state of contemporary novel writing that appeared in Harper’s, Franzen says:

At the heart of my despair about the novel had been a conflict between my feeling that I should Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream, and my desire to write about the things closest to me, to lose myself in the characters and locales I loved.

The capital letters are intended to show how serious he is and how much ironic distance he places on that seriousness. In such despair about the state of the novel was he that he wrote a letter to Don DeLillo about it, and DeLillo was kind enough to answer. It is not clear that Franzen understood DeLillo’s response, however. DeLillo tells Franzen that his thinking is wrong: novel writing is not about “bringing news” and not about trying to do anything for the “mainstream.” It’s not about being ambitious, nor is it about ringing up sales or amassing readers. “Writing is a form of personal freedom,” DeLillo writes. “It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.” Writers write because it is a calling, not a calculation, not a strategy to win fame and fortune — in short, neither because of some spurious “contract” with readers nor in an attempt to be difficult as a mode of resistance.

William Gaddis felt the same way. In an interview with The Paris Review, Gaddis said that “[w]hen I write I don’t think of the audience. After the fact I think, well there. I hope they like it.” He acknowledged that some readers would be stymied and frustrated by his work, but “that’s the chance, the risk that I took.” While discussing JR, the interviewer asks Gaddis: “Do you write the way you do because this is the easiest way for you to write, or, are such ‘difficult’ works difficult to write too? What is it that causes particular difficulty in creating this type of a novel?” Gaddis responds: “Well, as I’ve tried to make clear, if the work weren’t difficult I’d die of boredom.” In other words, he is doing the only thing he can do to assert his freedom, and all he can hope for is that a reader will appreciate it; if not, he will carry on regardless. His art is the result of an inner calling to create rather than, as Franzen says, a desire to “connect with a wider audience.”

In the interview DeLillo gave The Paris Review four years earlier, he clearly elucidated his thinking about writing and the contemporary novel:

The novel’s not dead, it’s not even seriously injured, but I do think we’re working in the margins, working in the shadows of the novel’s greatness and influence. […] But when we talk about the novel we have to consider the culture in which it operates. Everything in the culture argues against the novel, particularly the novel that tries to be equal to the complexities and excesses of the culture. This is why books such as JR and Harlot’s Ghost and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Public Burning are important — to name just four. They offer many pleasures without making concessions to the middle-range reader, and they absorb and incorporate the culture instead of catering to it. […] We have a rich literature. But sometimes it’s a literature too ready to be neutralized, to be incorporated into the ambient noise. This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We’re all one beat away from becoming elevator music.

It’s hard to see how Franzen could have taken any solace at all in DeLillo’s response since it is obviously aligned with Greenberg’s stance in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Like Greenberg, DeLillo acknowledges that there are “difficult” writers (including Gaddis) who don’t cater to middle-range readers, and he applauds the work they do rather than begrudgingly accepting them, as Franzen does in “Mr. Difficult.” According to DeLillo, so-called “status-model” writers try to produce works that are “equal to the complexities and excesses of the culture.” They resist co-optation by the dominant culture. They fight against mediocrity. And they do so because something else — the creation of aesthetic moments, the personal expression of freedom — serves as their motive.

In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen halfheartedly acknowledges this, but suggests that the time for such resistance to co-optation is over. He sums up what he finds tiresome in Gaddis’s JR by saying that “[t]he first ten pages and the last ten pages and every ten pages in between bring the ‘news’ that American life is shallow, fraudulent, venal, and hostile to artists.” This is true: JR is about these things — and, by the way, not much has changed socially and economically in the more than four decades since the book was published. But Gaddis’s great novel is about much more than this. For while the author does mock the venality of the capitalist system, he simultaneously provides an example of “the American dream turned inside out.” JR Vansant, the eponymous hero, grows up in a typical modern home: his mother is a nurse working odd shifts to make ends meet and his father is absent. JR, says Gaddis, “has no past […] so he’s obliged to invent himself, not in the terms of a father, a mother, and a family, but in terms of what he sees around him.” JR is emblematic of an American self-made man — even if he is only 11. Unlike Tom Aberant and Andreas Wolf, who make nothing of themselves even though they receive millions of dollars to start their enterprises, JR bootstraps his way up to become a multimillionaire through persistence and patience, as well as by exploiting loopholes and discontinuities in the market system. He becomes an actor on the stage of corporate America; his financial shenanigans are as sophisticated as any wolf on Wall Street. Moreover, Gaddis makes JR not just a “master of the universe” but a media personality, just as Franzen tries to make Andreas one. As the JR Family of Companies grows and his empire expands, JR becomes a celebrity, praised as a mastermind, earning the respect of both the general public and the financial media. As Gaddis explained, “he believes the myth that has been created around him. And, finally, by the end of the book, he is a prisoner of his own myth: he thinks that he is a brilliant financial operator.” JR, in its magisterial narrative sweep, is an example of “how the American dream claims you before you are socially mature enough to dream it.” Now, the reader may have had to work a little harder to come to this understanding, but that’s because Gaddis fulfills DeLillo’s challenge of incorporating the “complexities and excesses of the culture” seamlessly into his work. Any “contract” JR may offer its readers (like the contracts of its eponymous character) is sure to be one fraught with provocations and complexities.

Purity never manages to incorporate any of the “complexities and excesses of the culture” into its story; in the end, the tale is simply another drawn-out family saga about paternity and an inheritance. Despite the novel’s length and purported scope, it feels very small. All the subplots are neatly woven together, but there is nothing to show for it, no Jamesian “figure in the carpet” that we can identify. That Andreas is the founder of a WikiLeaks-like organization does not make him more complex, and is vitiated by the fact that he is a child molester and murderer. His musings about how his life has become subsumed by the media he is monitoring are trivial and boring. The fact that Tom runs an old-school news organization and is trying to lead a morally purposeful life is rendered irrelevant by the narrative time dedicated to his obsession with Anabel and by the fact that his paper does no real reporting, except to chase down a silly story about a misplaced nuke. And, after Andreas’s suicide, Tom chooses not to report on the event and inform the world what an “asshole” Andreas was. After his one weekend in Germany with “the killer,” Tom simply can’t let go of Andreas, just as he can’t let go of Anabel; he remains permanently besotted by him and so demurs telling the world the truth about him. Another dereliction of duty.


Greenberg wrote that “the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment,’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence,” and DeLillo made the same point, in less frothy language, when he said: “This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation.” Franzen is not a writer in opposition.

He is, however, an ambitious one. In a 2001 interview published in The New York Times Magazine, Franzen said of himself: “Among novelists I know, no one is more ambitious than I am.” To anyone paying attention, this signaled the direction Franzen’s writing would take. He is hopelessly enmeshed in a system that rewarded his early efforts; and after reaping the critical accolades, and pocketing the accompanying lucre, how can we be surprised when he writes another book in the same genre that won him his place? Hence, sadly, we have Purity. It may be worth recalling the warning Greenberg issued to ambitious writers: “Kitsch’s enormous profits are a source of temptation […] Ambitious writers and artists will modify their work under the pressure of kitsch, if they do not succumb to it entirely.” He was generous enough to allow that there would be “borderline” cases, and perhaps Franzen is one of those; nevertheless, Greenberg maintained: “The net result is always to the detriment of true culture in any case.”


GD Dess is the author of the novel His Vision of Her (Harper & Row) and has recently completed a new novel, The Rise and Fall of Harold Hardscrabble.

LARB Contributor

GD Dess is an author (His Vision of Her and Harold Hardscrabble), essayist, and critic whose work appears in LARB and elsewhere. He has just finished a new novel, Here for Love. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @gdess.


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