For a number of years now, Jonathan Franzen has forsworn the most obvious ways of showing off intellect in fiction. In “Perchance to Dream,” an essay published in Harper’s in 1996, he wrote of giving up what he called “the burden of newsbringing”—the duty that he had formerly felt to instruct readers about what was wrong with their world. And in “Mr. Difficult,” an essay published in The New Yorker in 2002, he disavowed formal experimentation, asserting that novels ought to be “conservative and conventional” and should aspire to induce feelings of “pleasure and connection” in a democratic audience.
Despite these renunciations, however, Franzen’s prose is alive with intelligence, and on the first page of his new novel, Purity, a reader can see his mind at work on a task at which he excels: showing the way people think. He’s introducing one of his protagonists, Purity Tyler, a 23-year-old who goes by the nickname Pip. Here’s how he represents her consciousness as she reflects on her ambivalence toward her rather needy mother:
It wasn’t as if Pip felt good about making fun of her mother. But their dealings were all tainted by moral hazard, a useful phrase she’d learned in college economics. She was like a bank too big in her mother’s economy to fail, an employee too indispensable to be fired for bad attitude.
The flow of the sentences is loose and comfortable; the tone is self-deprecating but also a bit puzzled. Pip realizes that she doesn’t altogether understand why she’s cruel to her mother. She seems a little embarrassed that in her attempt to explain herself to herself, she has reached for moral hazard, a term of art in economics, which might sound pretentious. In fact, the term isn’t particularly recherché these days, as Franzen unobtrusively reminds the reader with an allusion to the origins of the Great Recession. One likes Pip for seeming a little modest about using the phrase—for clarifying, somewhat abashedly, that she learned it in economics class—and one likes Franzen for letting her use it anyway. He hasn’t condescended to her. He has allowed her to be as smart as most of his readers probably are, and as well read and as curious about the world. What’s being shown off here is the ability, native in almost everyone, to notice a clever idea, latch on to it, and then try it out later in a new context that may at first seem a little inappropriate. This is how thinking happens.
Pip describes the process to herself with a simile that adds another layer of complexity: “Her mind was like a balloon with static cling, attracting random ideas as they floated by.” Pip isn’t always conscious, in other words, of having made an effort or a choice to gather the ideas lodged in her head, even though she acknowledges that some kind of energy inside her must have been responsible for drawing them to her. There’s a disconcerting implication here, which Franzen works to bring to the surface in the pages that follow: If our tools for thinking are ideas and phrases devised by other people—as, in an age of social media and ambient television, they increasingly are—then we may face a struggle to know whether our minds are really our own. Some of us might not want the bother.