Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, published at the beginning of this month, is an engrossing and ambitious novel about idealism and marriage. In its long chapters from different viewpoint characters, it throws many balls into the air – fatherless Pip, real name Purity, a young woman in California with a crippling university debt and a needy, hermit-like mother; Andreas Wolf, a fictional, supposedly-purer Julian Assange, driven by lust and a dark secret from 1989 in East Berlin; and Tom Aberant, the founder of an online newspaper championing independent journalism, who still hasn’t got over his ex-wife. (It’s a curious choice that Franzen doesn’t give Pip’s mother, Penelope, a viewpoint chapter, and probably a weakness of the novel.) The different threads increasingly intertwine until the novel finally resolves with an unexpectedly cosy ending. Franzen has so many strengths. Complex characters with behaviours and thoughts that illuminate people we know and perhaps ourselves. Compelling drama as his characters are torn between conflicting desires and pushed to the edge. A seriousness of theme and purpose combined with moments of hilarity. All of these are on display in this novel, and yet inevitably, I have to compare it to his novels The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2009), both all-time favourites of mine, and my initial impression is that it is less profound than these – at least partly because of that cosy ending.
Researching a dissertation, I’ve ended up reading some things I wouldn’t normally read. That can be a good thing, although my experience reading some popular fiction has been an unhappy one so far. At the moment, I’m pursuing the idea of ‘genealogical fiction’, and came across the Torie O’Shea series, about a genealogist, written by Rett Macpherson. Several of the blurbs on the back cover proclaim the series as a masterpiece of the ‘cosy’; another says ‘a slice of Americana as warm and comforting as apple pie a la mode’, with the Americana bit being true and the second half being true for a particular type of reader in America’s mid-west, I’m sure.
The one I’m reading is Thicker Than Water, and it’s actually better than another ‘cosy’ novel about a biographer I tried to read. I had found Torie O’Shea annoying but not objectionable. Every twenty pages she proclaims her need for ‘caffeine and sugar’ (in that order), and downs a Dr Pepper. I think this is her ‘quirk’ – it creates character, presumably. One of the blurbs claims there is a ‘characteristic blend of wit and sarcasm’, but for me it’s about as witty as listening to middle-class, middle-aged people banter in a supermarket, and laugh exaggeratedly.
I could forgive this – humour is a taste, and I bet fans of Torie O’Shea don’t find Jonathan Franzen funny – even and especially though he writes in the same milieu. What horrified me was a scene late in the book where Torie O’Shea decides to visit an acquaintance, Leigh, in hospital who has failed in a suicide attempt.
First, Torie and her husband
made a few jokes about my mother winning a year’s supply of bagels. In fact, I think Rudy and I sort of overdid it on the bagel jokes, and suddenly there was an awkward silence. That very thing I wanted to avoid. (177)
At this point, I was glad Torie wasn’t visiting me in hospital regaling me with her banter. But Leigh misjudges her audience and asks them if she will go to hell if she commits suicide. This already makes them uneasy, and the final straw comes when Leigh adds ‘I just don’t see the point [of life].’ To this, Torie narrates:
Time was up. I couldn’t do this one second longer. We said good-bye and wished her well…. Finally Rudy said, “Why did we come to visit her, again?”
“That was God-awful, Torie. Absolutely horrible.”
“With my position in town, and especially with our new inheritance – not to mention we’re her landlords – it’s sort of expected of us.”
“Are you serious?”
“It comes with the territory, Rudy. Get used to it.” (177-178)
End of section. There are no authorial hints that Torie and her husband have failed terribly in the empathy stakes, no censure from another character, nothing to make me conclude anything other than the fact that readers are meant to share Torie’s frustration with this ‘unstable’ woman and congratulate her on at least making an effort and telling a few bagel jokes.
I have a few chapters to go. Perhaps the priest character who was conveniently waiting in the confessional several chapters ago will reappear and tell Torie how nasty she is. But I’m not counting on it. ‘Cosy’ is only cosy for those on the inside of the American dream.
Jonathan Franzen / Freedom (Fourth Estate 2010)
Let me fall over myself to be the next one to breathlessly call for the premature canonisation of this book. Franzen has written what might well be a masterpiece to sit neatly next to his previous masterpiece, 2001’s The Corrections. It is similar enough to satisfy all of us who wanted more of the same, and different enough to stand on its own as a major work.
It’s about a lot of things, but more than anything it is the novel of the marriage between Patty and Walter Berglund, and their attempt to live in the world of the noughties, more particularly the America of the noughties. At one crucial point Patty is reading War and Peace, and it’s a breaktakingly arrogant comparison for Franzen to invite, and yet one that is possibly justified. It doesn’t have the sweep of Tolstoy’s novel, but it spans the years and branches out to involve us deeply in the lives of secondary characters and make us care so much about them. And it has taken the pulse of a milieu so precisely, evoking what it’s meant to live in this crazy past decade, the Bush years, the Iraq War, the shadow of 9/11.
Patty has always lusted after Walter’s bad boy best-friend, Richard the alt-rocker. She has also set up her life in opposition to the ‘arty-farty’ New York bohemian lives of her family, and this is what drives her to excel at basketball and then marry Walter the Minnesotan environmental lawyer, disciplined, earnest and good. Walter’s problem is that he has always tried so hard to be good and despite succeeding splendidly at it, his life is not working out quite right. Patty is depressed and resentful, partly because he is so good, partly because their son Joey has abandoned her suffocating love and shacked up with the ‘white-trash’ girl next door. Adding to the pressure on Walter is the fact that he has taken up the cause of protecting an endangered species of bird and in doing so has ended up on the payroll of the very forces of greedy conservatives he set out to spend his life opposing.
The novel has a disorientating time structure and several shifts in narrative point of view. It starts out with a somewhat distant omniscient narrator relating the story of Walter and Patty through the 1990s, partly through the eyes of their neighbours, giving hints of much of the plot to be developed later on. Then we shift to Patty’s confession, written at the behest of her therapist in the early 2000s. She writes in the third person to distance herself a little, telling the story of her life as a kind of apology to Walter, calling it ‘Mistakes Were Made’. After this we have the actual core of the novel (just when we thought Patty’s confession might be that), a third person narration stretching from p.191-p.503 and telling the events of 2004, when everything comes to a head, through sections seen through both Walter’s eyes and those of his rebelling son Joey. There are two short epilogues, Patty’s conclusion to her confession written six years later, and then, giving the novel a symmetry, a third person narration rounding off Walter and Patty again told through the eyes of the neighbourhood.
It is a deeply perceptive novel. Franzen is smart and cynical, but he knows how to break my heart and then patch it up again with hope. He knows our inner worlds, and he also knows the outer political worlds. He seems to know everything.
The best Christmas novel I’ve ever read is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Christmas is the impetus for the plot, the telling of each family member’s life put in motion by Enid, the matriarch, attempting to have ‘one last Christmas’ at St Louis before Alfred (the father) slips further into Parkinson’s.
One of the funniest parts is where Chip, the cultural studies academic, realises it is the last day to send presents and picks the newest looking books off his shelf to send. He wraps them in aluminium foil; when the corners poke through he patches them up with abortion rights stickers he had in his desk drawer.
What’s the best Christmas novel you’ve read?
A long scrapbook of a novel, with brilliant passages and fascinating characters let down by long passages of exposition and a plot that tries to do too much.
A seismologist, Renee, works out that the earthquakes around Boston are being caused by a huge hole drilled by Sweeting-Aldren, who are secretly pumping all their waste down it. Louis Holland pursues her, even though she’s older than him, and joins her quest to bring Sweeting-Aldren down. His detested mother has just inherited $22 million shares in the company, and he wants to teach her a lesson.
But just as important, and much more interesting, is the love sub-plot. A troubled girl from Louis’ past, Lauren, turns up and due to a moment of fatal hesitation, he loses Renee. Louis is a brilliant character. He’s like Holden Caulfield at twenty-two. He makes his mother and sister uncomfortable because he is so judgemental. If they’re phony, in his eyes, he won’t even talk to them. When a fundamentalist Christian takes over the radio-station where he works, he tells the new owner that he (Louis) is the antichrist and walks out.
Franzen has such good insights into the way family works, something he developed even further in The Corrections. If you loved The Corrections (like I did) you’ll like this novel.