The Pure, Messy Math of Us

By Andrew WinerSeptember 17, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

PURITY IS SCARY GOOD fiction. I mean this in both the colloquial sense — how did Franzen do it? — and the more literal sense, as if there were a comma after “scary.” Readers will find convenient, book-reportish summaries elsewhere and everywhere; I intend to say a few things here about this novel’s willingness to take us to the right kind of frightening place. By willingness I of course mean authorial intention, and one of the victories of Purity is its recording of Franzen’s more expansive and risky (one might even call it new) understanding of how deep are our wells of crude, unrefined emotional fuel; it’s safe to say that, in at least three of this novel’s protagonists, Franzen taps those wells until it seems he’s extracted every last drop, and then, convinced he hasn’t exhausted all available emotional resources, goes fracking for more.

Devastation, self-deception, and a noxious brand of narcissism have certainly dotted Franzen’s past fictional landscapes (one thinks of all the pain caused by Patty’s decision to marry nice-guy Walter in Freedom, and the poignant path that leads to her acceptance of that marriage in that novel’s final pages), but the toxic emotional waste in Purity feels even more potent and threatening, less at the service of satire and comedy than of a penetrating interest in just where and how far our drives can drive us. Readers of The Corrections and Freedom will easily recognize all the familiar shame and guilt that haunted and graced those novels; what may be surprising is that, in Purity’s more disturbing pages, they will also easily — and uneasily — recognize themselves. For, in upping the ante on the darker sides of characters such as the powerful, Assange-like leaker Andreas Wolf, or the crusading, Denver-based journalist Tom Aberant, or Tom’s ex-but-never-to-be-forgotten-wife Anabel, Franzen has paradoxically lifted up a more reflective and penetrating mirror to his readers.

Take one of the novel’s pivotal scenes, a murder scene, as it happens — a frightening place in any novel or actuality, but whereas another author might locate the fright in the soul of the victim, Franzen shows us that the scariest place to be, the right kind of frightening place to be, is actually inside the head of the murderer, in this case, Andreas Wolf. Having just killed the sexually abusive stepfather of Annagret, the 15-year-old girl he’s in love with, Wolf tries to convince the girl that the man’s suffering was negligible because brief and unremembered by him who is now dead, that it’s “as if he’d never existed.” But Wolf’s mind immediately starts to churn: 

He wanted her to believe this, but he wasn’t sure he believed it himself. If time was infinite, then three seconds and three years represented the same infinitely small fraction of it. And so, if inflicting three years of fear and suffering was wrong, as everyone would agree, then inflicting three seconds of it was no less wrong. He caught a fleeting glimpse of God in the math here, in the infinitesimal duration of a life. No death could be quick enough to excuse inflicting pain. If you were capable of doing the math, it meant that a morality was lurking in it. 

Andreas is very capable of doing the math, not only here, in this beautifully put bit of novelistic philosophizing, but throughout the book, and it’s our deep immersion in watching him work out these equations that constitutes one of the signal pleasures of reading Purity. Franzen is counting on the reader, in her or his pleasure, to make as much room for honest self-examination as for riveting absorption in a character’s inwardness and outwardness — and this, by the way, is a pretty serviceable definition of the unwritten contract between readers and writers of serious fiction. After all, in Andreas Wolf, Franzen has provided us with a sustained portrait of a disturbed and damaged man, any one of whose characteristics, though extreme, could be a variation on one of our characteristics.

No small trick, that. It’s one thing for a sinister character to steal the show (as Andreas in many ways does, in Purity); it’s an entirely a different thing for that same character to steal our sympathy (in many ways, Andreas does this, too). A little later in the novel, after the Berlin Wall comes down, Andreas is trying to justify (to himself) staying with Annagret, with whom he has become very bored

He believed that if he couldn’t make a life work with beautiful Annagret, wedded to her by their secret and by his old hope of redemption, he’d never again muster enough hope to make a life work with anyone. To leave her would be to admit that something had always been wrong with him. 

Involving us in this particular kind of math problem, the self-reflexive kind whose solutions are painfully limited by the limitations of the person him- or herself (no matter how much he or she may harbor a panicky desire to transcend or at least change the self), is precisely how Franzen wins our sympathy for characters who in life might cause us to turn the other way: on paper, Andreas Wolf doesn’t look very good, but, in Franzen’s pages, he can look a lot like us. 

So can Anabel and Tom, who marry each other right out of college. Heiress to a Hormel Foods-like fortune, Anabel possesses an über-self-absorption that seems part of an overreaction to a dominating father and a childhood whose privileges were inextricably tied to the slaughterhouse, and that causes her to demand that the world remold itself according to her stringent vision of how it should appear and behave. Does Franzen mean to allude here to the kind of demands that, according a number of recent articles, some of the current generation of easily offended and “triggered” millennials are now making of university and workplace environments? Anabel dictates her “preferences” (veganism, anti-capitalism, feminism…sexual attunement to the cycles of the moon, even) to anyone wishing to have a relationship with her, and Tom, for a time, signs on. As painful as it is to watch him try to merge his being with Anabel’s inflexible Weltanschauung, we should not avert our eyes. How else might we recognize the extremes and far limits of love when they enter our own hearts? 

It’s surely the promise of finding something sublimely apart that drives Purity’s characters into entanglements that, looked at objectively, ought to make them run screaming. Indeed Franzen’s willingness to dramatize how his characters consciously let themselves be drawn in and taken advantage of is a testament to his robust understanding of our need to self-transcend — by subjugating or being subjugated by another self — of how it leads the most intelligent and rational among us into some strange arrangements of the heart and mind. And of a life: Tom Aberant’s girlfriend, Leila, won’t divorce her husband Charles, Tom won’t get over Anabel, and, together, they won’t set up house and they won’t have the child Leila wants. There’s a presiding compassion in Franzen’s depiction of Leila, in the way she convinces herself that what’s willing her actions is a free self — is somehow, in some way, her:

Her life with Tom was strange and ill-defined and permanently temporary but therefore all the more of a life of true love, because it was freely chosen every day, every hour. It reminded her of a distinction she’d learned of as a child in Sunday school. Their marriages had been Old Testament, hers a matter of honoring her covenant with Charles, Tom’s a matter of fearing Anabel’s wrath and judgment. In the New Testament, the only things that mattered were love and free will.

Leila isn’t alone in how far she’ll fudge the numbers to make the problem of love work out, but her mental maneuverings are far outdone by Tom’s, in his earlier marriage to Anabel, and by Andreas Wolf in his marriage to the much-younger Annagret. Tom, in a memoir manuscript to which we are privy (it’s the only first-person narrative, strictly speaking, to emerge out of the trio of masterful novels Franzen has written from The Corrections onward), tells us that “there could be no peace in our union” — his and Anabel’s — “unless we truly agreed about everything.” In order to bring about that sort of relational equilibrium, unhealthy by most people's standards, Tom has to reorganize his entire personality “in defense of her tranquility and defense of [him]self from her reproach.” Andreas, too, for all his promise of a future in which he gets what he wants while tyrannically dominating those in his immediate proximity, reshapes himself around a woman for a while, becoming “trapped by his gratitude for [Annagret’s] high esteem and his fear of forfeiting it, trapped also by the early promises and avowals he’d made, the fuel with which he’d fired her idealism (and, for a while, his own).”

Yet some of the most moving passages in Purity seem to emerge out of the very same sort of lengths its characters will go to get — and give — love, moments in which dysfunctionality can function quite smoothly. When Leila falls in love with Tom, she agrees to leave the Washington Post and go to work for his nonprofit: “If there had been other things to agree to, she would have agreed to them.” When the novel’s eponymous protagonist, Purity Tyler, enjoys a hotel rendezvous with Andreas, Franzen tells us that “it was more a father than a lover to whom she now pressed herself in her fear; more a father whom she clutched for safety. And yet, the night before, she’d trimmed her personal hair for him with a razor.” Or, when the young sex addict Andreas discovers love in the form of Annagret, he finds himself overwhelmed by the contrast between love and lust — “Love turned out to be soul-crippling, stomach-turning, weirdly claustrophobic: a sense of endlessness bottled up inside him, endless weight, endless potential, with only the small outlet of a shivering pale girl in a bad rain jacket to escape through.” The almost-forgotten neurosis that fuels such moments of human connection makes whatever tenderness and goodness there is in these scenes seem that much more fragile and earned.

And Franzen seems to know that the reader needs this — needs these victories large and small, in order to feel compassion for, feel with, and stay with these characters when they slip back into bad habits. Again and again he presents these slippages in the form of contradiction or paradox, suggesting that the characters’ old selves are now in conflict with some newer, better selves. When Andreas first sees Annagret sitting in the pew of the church where he counsels lost youth, “he immediately experienced her beauty as an unwelcome complication.” Speaking to her of his sexual exploitation of previous girls, Andreas tells Annagret, “But I had strict limits. I need you to believe that you personally are way outside all of them,” and then the reader is given access to Andreas’s conscience: “This was the truth but also, deep down, a total lie.” A similar sort of contradiction attends Leila when she reacts to her husband Charles’s request to forever put an end to their conversation about having children: “She nodded, and then cried, and then had sex with him, and then cried some more.” Later, when she is with Tom, with whom she also agrees not to have a baby, we encounter her conflicted feelings about this decision: “They should have had a baby. In a way, it was immense relief not to have had one, not to have brought another life to a planet that would be incinerated quickly or baked to death slowly; not to have to worry about that. And yet they should have done it.”

The capturing of these kinds of internal paradoxes can make us love a character like Leila, who by any measure is what we would call a fundamentally good person; but with a character such as Andreas Wolf, such paradoxes can keep us from putting the book down. And then earn our concern — enough so that we can actually start to pin our hopes on Andreas healing himself when, grieving for a departed Annagret, he welcomes the grief “because it was a real emotion, untainted by doubt about his secret motives,” and enough so that, after Andreas hears himself referred to as “sociopathic,” we can share in his “horror of diagnostic labels that suggested there was something wrong with him.” 

In a novel rich with beautiful passages (Franzen’s description of dollar bills “levitating out of the guitar case” belonging to musicians in Harlem’s 125th Street station comes immediately to mind), the one tracing Andreas’s thoughts about his estranged parents while using their house to bed young women in pre-liberated Berlin stands out as a testament of the potential of properly deployed contradiction to instill empathy in the reader: “He didn’t regret having made their later years barren — they had no one but themselves to blame for that,” Andreas thinks, “but he’d loved them so much, as a child, that the sight of their old furniture saddened him. They were still human beings, still getting old.” What reader isn’t capable of understanding anyone, even an Andreas Wolf, when that character is confronted by the pain of hating and loving someone — parents, a lover, a self — at the same time?

Purity assumes many tasks in its 564 pages — among them the dramatization of our recent and radical loss of privacy, the equating of certain aspects of the Internet with certain aspects of totalitarianism, and the contemplation of a world diminished of everything from filtered public discourse and investigative journalism to safe oversight of nuclear warheads and healthy ecosystems — but its finest achievement may very well be its distillation of our own darknesses. When savored in scenes abounding in a little love or lightness (see Purity’s deeply affecting closing pages), that distillation is also expansion — of the picture of us, of our ability to abide ourselves. Leila almost aphoristically captures that picture, that ability, when, as a fight between Tom and her winds down, she says: “It’s just, every once in a while, I come up against how much I hate this life, even though it’s a good life.”


Andrew Winer is the author of the novels The Marriage Artist (Henry Holt & Picador) and The Color Midnight Made, which was a national bestseller.

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Photograph by Nancy LeVine /


Andrew Winer is the author of the novels The Marriage Artist (Henry Holt & Picador) and The Color Midnight Made, which was a national bestseller. He was educated in computer science and visual art, and practiced both disciplines in New York City before turning to writing. Other work of his has been published in philosophical journals.  He is Chair of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. Married to author Charmaine Craig, he is completing a new novel about American religion and politics.


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