Jonathan Franzen Strikes Again

His latest targets: web sleuths and feminists

Justin Renteria / The Atlantic

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.

Pip does want the bother, perhaps because she’s aware that she knows less about herself than people in general do. Her mother broke off contact with her family before Pip was born, and Pip hasn’t been able to persuade her to reveal the truth about her past or the identity of Pip’s father. Pip doesn’t even know the name her mother was given at birth. Pip’s own life is in disarray. She’s burdened with $130,000 in student loans, lives in a squatter house in Oakland, and works for a company that fleeces energy consumers with misleading environmental rhetoric. Like her Dickensian original, she has the idea that if she were to discover her own backstory, something wonderful might happen—maybe even the zeroing-out of those student loans.

A German woman passing through Pip’s squat has a proposal for her. The woman is affiliated with a clearinghouse for Internet leaks, run by a charismatic former East German named Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange–like figure. She suggests that an internship at the organization’s headquarters in Bolivia might teach Pip how to search the dark corners of the Web and perhaps pierce her mother’s pseudonymity. Pip is skeptical. Not until two romantic overtures of hers go terribly wrong does she become fuzzy-minded enough to consider the offer, and even then, she backs into the job by first sending the guru Andreas a challenging e-mail: “Is this like a sex opportunity for you, or what? Do you guys have a keg of Kool-Aid?”

As risk assessment goes, this is about as effective as asking the wolf in Grandmother’s bed about its sharp teeth, but Pip isn’t thinking clearly. Franzen has always been fond of putting his characters into a psychic distress so disorienting that they make decisions that topple them into even greater psychic distress. In his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), a female police chief in St. Louis called this vicious circle “the State” and conspired to induce it in the city’s leaders, in the hope of furthering a real-estate scheme of hers. In his recent novels, Franzen has done the conspiring himself, from behind the authorial curtain. Whereas the police chief had to rely on henchmen, Franzen the novelist has been able to tap predatory lending, literary theory, pharmaceutical advertising, global warming, disinhibited sexuality, and war profiteering—all the forces of modernity.

The pratfalls remain just as entertaining, and the sadism has now taken on the coloration of satire. In The Corrections (2001), for example, Chip Lambert tumbles from a professorship to an intoxicated weekend in bed with a student to psychological overinvestment in a wretched screenplay to theft of groceries, and he keeps on tumbling, like Wile E. Coyote ricocheting down the sides of a canyon, all the way to rock bottom, scraping off, in successive bumps, his professorial priggishness, his sexual dignity, and his writerly vanity, until, by the end, he has lost almost all his defenses against the world. It’s wildly enjoyable, as other people’s comeuppances usually are.

The State has become the hallmark of Franzen’s fiction, and in Purity, almost all the characters are in it almost all the time. The upside: the experience of reading Purity is as propulsive as that of reading The Corrections and Freedom (2010). The downside: there’s a certain sameness to the experience of reading all three novels. The characters in Purity may be new, but their sardonic, harried, going-for-broke attitude is familiar, and once again they’re wrestling with some of the most inflammatory topics of the day. (Franzen, it turns out, can’t resist “newsbringing.”)

Andreas wolf falls into the State in the late 1980s, when he meets a troubled young woman whose stepfather is blackmailing her with family secrets to extract sexual favors. Andreas’s thinking grows muddy, perhaps because he has been sleeping with teenage girls himself, and he persuades her to let him kill the stepfather. He degenerates further once he realizes that he isn’t going to be caught and punished: he goes from mocking the East German regime to feeling a confused, pitying identification with it, in a sort of necrosis of the conscience. Not long after the Berlin Wall falls, he visits the secret police’s headquarters with the aim of stealing evidence about himself, and he gets past the archive’s guards by holding forth to a television crew about the dawn of a new era of transparency.

By the time Pip meets Andreas, the falsity of the face he shows the world has become almost perfect. Secretly, he hates the Internet as much as he hates the state socialism he grew up with, thinking of both as totalitarian, by which he means “impossible to opt out of.” In public he inveighs cynically against government surveillance, while in private he acknowledges that the true overlords of the Internet are those at corporations like Google and Facebook who control the surveillance of their millions of users. When whistle-blowers inside Google offer him leaks, he turns them away, explaining that he needs the support of the powers that be. “It was Andreas’s gift, maybe his greatest,” Franzen writes, “to find singular niches in totalitarian regimes.”

This is awfully dark if meant as a representative portrait of the Internet’s transparency advocates, many of whom are skeptical about the good faith of corporations, and almost all of whom support the right to digital privacy. But no doubt the issue generates enough confusion to warrant parody. A noble purpose was hard to discern in the recent dissemination by WikiLeaks of the private e-mails of Sony employees. And the notion of a distinction between the half-willing surrender of personal data to corporations and the secret seizure of that data by governments is worth making fun of, especially in the wake of Congress’s recent law outsourcing bulk phone-metadata storage from the NSA to phone companies. It’s possible, too, that Franzen isn’t altogether serious about Andreas’s equivalence between socialist informers and transparency advocates. He did title his novel Purity, though.

The title seems also to refer to the extreme and somewhat confused feminism of a character named Anabel Laird. Anabel is a font of contradictions. She is an heiress who hates her family money. She aspires to film every square inch of her own skin but can’t bear to be seen. In graduate school, she wraps herself in butcher paper and lies down in the dean’s office in what appears to be an act of feminist protest, and when she’s mocked in a school newspaper, she confronts the editor, Tom Aberant. “I’m here to tell you you’re a jerk,” Anabel says. Tom falls in love.

Tom, though born in Colorado, is temperamentally a Midwesterner, a denomination that in Franzen’s world, as a character in The Corrections explains, means “hopeful or enthusiastic or community-spirited”—in short, undisillusioned. Anabel’s woundedness and oppositionality, which she seems to prize for their own sake, send Tom careening into the State. “This was the first of the ten thousand times I had the experience of not quite following Anabel’s logic,” he recalls of his initial encounter with her. The novel’s overall plot is so elaborate that it’s difficult to say how Anabel and Tom’s story relates to Pip and Andreas’s without spoiling a number of surprises. In any case, I suspect that most readers will enjoy the two story lines independently—as interwoven novellas rather than as a coherent whole—because the larger framework of the book is a little rickety.

The solid pleasure here is in the close observation of voices. Franzen once joked in print about giving up on the late novels of Henry James, but there’s an uncanny convergence between him and the Master. Franzen has not only taken to dividing his novels into long sections, each tethered to a particular character’s point of view, as James did. He has also become more willing to sacrifice writerly vanity in his pursuit of that tethering. Where James’s sentences grew meandering and abstract, Franzen’s have become silly and slack, but in both cases what might look like carelessness is motivated, I think, by discipline. The goal is to eavesdrop more subtly on characters as they talk to themselves.

Tom, after all, can hardly strike a dignified tone while explaining how he came to give up his right to pee from a standing position.

She proceeded to cry torrentially. The only way I could get her to stop was to become, right then and there, a person who experienced as keenly as she did the unfairness of my being able to pee standing up. I made this adjustment to my personality—and a hundred others like it in our early months together—and henceforth I peed sitting down whenever she could hear me. (When she couldn’t, though, I peed in her sink. The part of me that did this was the part that ultimately ruined us and saved me.)

Exasperated, self-mocking, and unrepentantly still a little smug: that, Franzen realizes, is how Tom should sound under the circumstances.

If decent, pliable, put-upon Tom and labile, imperious, counterdependent Anabel were real people, Franzen’s portrait of them would no doubt be as unfair as his portrait of the Internet—as unfair as satire has to be. But anyone who’s ever been even a little overinvolved with a partner will wince in horrified recognition as Tom and Anabel ruthlessly project their wishes onto each other and then play hot potato with the moral responsibility. (“Is this something you want?” “Not unless you want it and you say so like a human being.”)

And even readers who find Anabel hard to take may be able to appreciate her as an agent of the State. If the disingenuously apologetic, self-consciously nice way that Tom first looks at her were a pair of spectacles, then what she does—and what Franzen does through her—is snatch, twist, stretch, drop, and trample on those spectacles. Though Tom wishes only to continue to look through them, he is obliged in the end to look at his instruments of perception, now wrecked. For Franzen’s readers, the experience of having their spectacles similarly distorted and demolished can be a little flummoxing. But thanks to the safe remove that fiction affords—and thanks to the sense of “pleasure and connection” offered by characters whose minds seem alive in the same way as the reader’s own—the ride is exhilarating. All the way down.