Mr. Difficult Rejects His Title: Ira Wells on “Purity”

By Ira WellsSeptember 29, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

SINCE THE PUBLICATION of The Corrections in 2001, Jonathan Franzen has become — with the possible exception of Kanye West — the most bitched about artist in America. His “readers” (if that’s the word I want) have in recent years carped about Franzen’s decision to snub Oprah, about his contempt toward Twitter (“the ultimate irresponsible medium”), about his fusty nostalgia for a time when serious literary artists were taken seriously, about the abundance of attention he receives, about his being “Old,” about his passion for bird watching and his distaste for pussy cats, and — more recently — about his contemplating the possibility of adopting an Iraqi orphan. (One suspects the orphan might have had a slightly less flippant attitude about the prospect.) Just when you think we’ve reached peak Franzen disgust, his new book appears, and a whole new constituency rises up to vent.

We might forget that one of the earliest gripes about the author was that he was “difficult.” In his 2002 New Yorker article, “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen describes how, shortly after The Corrections was published, he was inundated with angry letters written by people he’d never met. One of these strangers — known only as “Mrs. M.” in the essay — scolded Franzen for the difficulty of his language, which she attributed to an overweening pompousness on the part of the author. Just whom, asked the aggrieved Mrs. M., did Franzen think he was writing for? Certainly, words like “diurnality” and “antipodes,” and formulations like “electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces” were not for the benefit of “the average person who just enjoys a good read,” she noted. No, such verbiage could only be meant to titillate “the elite of New York, the elite who are beautiful, thin, anorexic, neurotic, sophisticated, don’t smoke, have abortions tri-yearly, are antiseptic, live in lofts or penthouses, this superior species of humanity who read Harper’s and The New Yorker.”

Nearly 15 years after the novel’s publication, it’s easy to forget that certain passages in The Corrections were, if not exactly “difficult,” then at least formally frolicsome. I’m thinking specifically of the scenes on the cruise ship in which Alfred, the Parkinson’s-addled patriarch of the Lambert clan, struggles to maintain his grasp on reality, and the way in which Franzen attempts to convey the feeling of his radical epistemological uncertainty through the syntactical unspooling of his language. These moments point back to an earlier phase in Franzen’s thinking, a time when he held “difficult writing” in high esteem. As a young author, he “took for granted that the greatest novels were tricky in their methods, resisted casual reading, and merited sustained study.” Franzen uses the term “Status model” to refer to assumptions underlying the prose of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and, above all, William Gaddis — writers who to some degree fetishize difficulty and make significant intellectual demands on their readers. If Status readers tend to talk of “works” instead of “novels” or “books,” that is because they take for granted that reading should entail work. Meaning is the ontological peanut you create in the effort of cracking the interpretive shell.

But Franzen could never entirely overcome his youthful conviction that reading was supposed to be more fun than work. He thus allies himself with what he calls the “Contract” model, which emphasizes the pleasures of reading and the novel itself as a site of readerly commune. Language, for writers who respect their “contract” with readers, is a means of sustaining intimacy and staving off “existential loneliness.” The point is to help people grasp a shared meaning, rather than undermining that meaning or keeping it perennially out of reach.

Purity is the story of 21-year-old Pip Tyler’s journey of self-discovery; it is also a document of Jonathan Franzen’s repudiation of the Status model of authorship. You can call Purity a “novel” or a “book,” but it would be misleading to call this nearly 600-page caper a “work:” Purity isn’t just an easy read, it’s a vigorous rejection of “difficulty” as a literary, philosophical, and spiritual ideal. While Franzen once “assumed that the highest compliment … Art could be paid was to be taught in a university,” Purity was not written for the syllabus. Instead, it was written for readers of engrossing yet highly consumable fiction: readers, in short, like the good old “Mrs. M.”

One can recognize Purity as a rejection of difficulty without gainsaying the effort and craftsmanship of the book’s construction. Certainly, according to the terms of Franzen’s “Contract” model, Purity is masterfully wrought. The book’s structure is reminiscent of The Corrections and Freedom, but the narrative engineering that undergirds Purity’s seven interlocking novellas is even more highly tuned. The propulsive force of the story simultaneously harks back to some of Franzen’s literary forbears (Dickens and Bellow are explicitly name-checked in the novel) while also offering the same narrative superabundance that has come to be associated with binge-watchable serialized television. Purity offers readers a chance to mainline the kind of manic narrative energy that fueled Breaking Bad, Pip’s favorite TV show. Franzen’s novel is highly conscious of its own place in the historical telos of narrative entertainment, but is more dedicated to offering the pleasures of storytelling than analyzing or reflecting on them.

The narrative in question begins with Pip, a feisty millennial who leaves college and runs headlong into a quarter-life crisis. Pip’s plight is in some sense the predicament of her generation. She did everything right: worked hard, made responsible choices, earned the university degree that was supposed to unlock a future shimmering with possibilities. Now, at 21, she is $130,000 in student debt, living alongside would-be radicals and mentally ill people in an Oakland flophouse, and working a dead-end sales job for “Renewable Solutions,” a company that “didn’t make or even install things. Instead, depending on the regulatory weather (not climate but weather, for it changes seasonally and sometimes hourly), it ‘bundled,’ it ‘brokered,’ it ‘captured,’ it ‘surveyed,’ it ‘client-provided.’” It paid her $21,000 a year.

Pip’s money problems are just the catalyst to propel her into the prickly emotional territory characteristic of the bildungsroman. Pip decides that her father might be able to help pay down her student debt and allow her to make some kind of a start in life. The inevitable catch: Pip has never met her male parental unit and has no idea where he is. Her mother — a free-thinking, New Agey earth mama who will inevitably be played by Patricia Clarkson in the film adaptation — raised her in a cramped cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains and refused to divulge her paternity, claiming that she was protecting Pip from her physically and emotionally abusive father. She went so far as to change her own name in order to prevent any further contact with this hideous man.

Enter Andreas Wolf, charismatic leader of the Sunlight Project — a Wikileaks-style outfit devoted to exposing the malfeasances of governments and corporations around the globe. Wolf — who is in his mid-50s when he makes his first overtures to Pip — is every bit Julian Assange’s equal in terms of fame, cultish following, and general sexual ickiness. But Pip, who recognizes that there may be something slightly insalubrious about Wolf and his sudden promise of a paid internship, nonetheless sees the Sunlight Project as a means of tracking down her father.

Franzen likes to strike a curmudgeonly attitude about the Internet and its social effects, and that attitude is very much in evidence in the scenes set at the Sunlight Project’s Bolivian headquarters. Wolf’s army of (mostly female) interns is uniformly intelligent, highly educated, privileged, and feminist-minded; yet their toadying devotion to Wolf and the Project has completely vitiated their capacity for independent moral judgment. The essential frivolousness and capriciousness of these whippersnappers — so confident in the righteousness of their cause, so gung ho in their knowledge that they are on the right side of history — stands in for the creeping totalitarianism that Franzen perceives as endemic to internet culture.

For Franzen, the Internet is “totalitarian” in precisely the way that Communism came to dominate the lives of East Germans during the Cold War. Whether you were a high-ranking member of the regime (like Wolf’s father) or a political dissident (like Andreas), each aspect of your life was lived in relation to the totalizing system. “If you substituted networks for socialism,” Wolf reflects, “you got the internet”:

The apparatchiks, too, were an eternal type. The tone of the new ones, in their TED Talks, in PowerPointed product launches, in testimony to parliaments and congresses, in utopianly titled books, was a smarmy syrup of convenient conviction and personal surrender that he remembered well from the republic … The privileges available in the Republic had been paltry, a telephone, a flat with some air and light, the all-important permission to travel, but perhaps no paltrier than having x number of followers on Twitter, a much-liked Facebook profile, and the occasional four-minute spot on CNBC … The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.

Doubtless, many readers dismiss this and similar passages as the ignorant fulminations of a crusty old technophobe. But the target of Franzen’s satire is less the internet as a technology than the dangerous human impulse toward cleansing and purification — an impulse that Franzen believes is disastrously enabled and amplified by the web. A couple of weeks after hackers posted their pilfered Ashley Madison data — railing, in the illiterate screed that accompanied the dump, against the “fraud, deceit, and stupidity” of the site’s members and encouraging them to “make amends” — it seems frankly inarguable that, notwithstanding the innumerable advantages that have come with the internet and its accompanying revolutions, the essential anonymity of the web also serves to sanction and intensify the atavistic desire to purge, to sanitize, to expurgate. There is something almost classically puritanical about Anonymous and its fundamentalist desire to make our sins visible, to purify the networked chambers of our collective e-soul.

If, as Franzen suspects, each new form of totalitarian violence emerges from the same old desire for purity, it is also true that every incarnation of totalitarianism has made a fetish of work. For the Puritans, America’s first totalitarians, the price of salvation was the lifelong task of self-inspection: purity required constant vigilance and the perpetual exertion of spiritual sweat. Franzen suspects that the Puritanical rejection of pleasure, one manifestation of which was the Protestant suspicion of secular art, is in some ways reincarnated in the avant-garde fetishization of theoretical difficulty. Yes, a writer like William Gaddis might at times employ a hideously recondite and jargon-choked idiom in order to draw attention to the inherent ontological slipperiness of his signifiers. But Franzen evidently believes that many of the metafictionalists, theory-heads, and postmodern pastiche artists tend to make the reader work for no better reason than making the reader work. “I expect to work; I want to work,” Franzen writes in “Mr. Difficult.” “It’s also in my Protestant nature, however, to expect some reward for this work.”

Some early reviewers of Purity detected a whiff of misogyny in Franzen’s characterization of Purity’s mother, Anabel. The portrayal of Anabel is indeed deeply jaundiced — as one might expect, given that it comes in the first-person from the character (I’ll leave him unnamed) who is Anabel’s embittered ex-husband. As a young woman, Anabel was a militant art-school feminist with vague pretensions to artistic greatness: Lady Gaga without the music and fabulous outfits. At one point she wraps herself in butcher paper, labels herself “Your Meat,” and delivers herself to the college Dean.

Anabel’s pièce de résistance, however, is her film about the body. “The surface area of her own body was about sixteen thousand square centimeters, and her plan was to inscribe a grid of 32-square-centimeter ‘cuts’ on it with a fine-tipped black marker.” She began the painstaking task of filming each one of these squares. The projected film would take ten years to make, and would clock in at 29.5 hours in length.

All of Pip’s problems eventually lead back to her parents’ estrangement from one another. Their divorce, however, was not a product of her mother’s feminism. It was a product of her devotion to Status art. A woman aspiring to make a 29.5-hour-long film about her own body could never be accused of pandering to the marketplace, and it is precisely Anabel’s aesthetic purity, her fundamentalist rejection of capitalism and its tainting logics, that make her the object of Franzen’s ridicule. Anabel is frequently insufferable, but the source of her obnoxiousness is less related to her feminism, per se, than it is to her insistence on difficulty. And this difficulty, in turn, relates to Anabel’s refusal to grow up: her failure to become, in a word, “realistic.” At one point, in an attempt to prevent the ill-fated union, Purity’s grandmother begs her son “to think hard and realistically about your future … I want nothing more than for you to find a loving, sensible, mature, REALISTIC person to make a happy life with.”

Anabel, and the avant-garde art she represents, is difficult precisely insofar as she is not REALISTIC. Purity’s father’s tempestuous relationship with (and ultimate divorce of) Anabel allegorizes Franzen’s own repudiation of difficulty as an aesthetic ideal. In the novel’s final scene, as Pip tries in vain to engineer a happy reunion with her parents, it occurs to her “that bringing her mother back into firm contact with reality was going to be a long and possibly hopeless project.” Pip’s complaint is that her mother — who continues to live in a 500-square-foot shack in the woods—refuses to acknowledge that she is in fact a billionaire. Anabel renounced her inherited fortune on grounds she considered principled: her family legacy rests on farming practices she deems unethical, and she refuses to touch money she considers “dirty.” But Franzen does not allow Pip to recognize any real value in her mother’s renunciation. Anabel’s refusal of the money is just another sign of her difficulty — of her failure to be realistic.

Purity is a narratively complicated novel with a simple message: be realistic and get paid. This is the lesson inscribed into each one of Franzen’s painless, earth-bound, easy-to-read sentences. Don’t be difficult. Accept the money. The embrace of artistic difficulty for its own sake, the desire to purify oneself of capitalist vulgarity, the renunciation of money — these are not mere slippages of aesthetic judgment, moments of masturbatory indulgence, failures to grow up and see the real world for what it is. They also constitute a kind of spiritual surrender.

Purity is, first and last, a rip-snorting good yarn: a perfectly paced, sharply observed, consummately crafted narrative of secrets, sex, international espionage, and missing nuclear weapons. This novel is having far too much fun to be mistaken for any sort of artistic manifesto. And yet, taken in the context of Franzen’s own artistic trajectory, the easy consumability of Purity is its own kind of statement. (Few things are more patently ridiculous and juvenile in the world of Purity than to be caught reading Antonio Gramsci.) Purity thus rejects one strand of American puritanism in order to embrace another. The author toiled for five years on this novel, and it is in Franzen’s Protestant nature to expect some reward for his work. For this and other more aesthetically minded reasons, Purity should be a blockbuster.


Ira Wells is a Toronto-based culture writer and the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism.

LARB Contributor

Ira Wells is a Toronto-based culture writer and the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism. He has written essays and opinion pieces for The New RepublicAmerican Quarterly, Popular Music and Society, Canada’s National Post, and elsewhere. Follow on Twitter at @Ira_Wells


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