the book – sean watson talks purity

22 February 2015

At this point in time, you’d be hard pressed to find a more unfashionable novelist than Jonathan Franzen. Not only is he a wealthy straight white man, he also writes the kinds of novels many now consider relics: long, sprawling suburban epics that aim to diagnose the various social ills and sadnesses that plague our late capitalist culture. Media outlets like Gawker regularly tear him to shreds for his clumsy, tone deaf interview persona (like the time he said he wanted to adopt an Iraqi war orphan to better understand the youth of today), and for his stridently contrarian positions regarding the internet. Despite this, he still manages to sell a lot of books, and on the odd occasion when he does release a new one, it’s often dressed up as an event.

When Franzen released The Corrections in 2001, he became the golden child of the literary world, receiving the National Book Award for fiction, and near-universal critical acclaim. Despite arriving just under ten years later, his next novel Freedom received similar accolades, and even earned him a spot on the front cover of TIME under the heading ‘Great American Novelist’. He has appeared on The Simpsons alongside Michael Chabon and Tom Wolfe, and famously got into a decade-long spat with Oprah Winfrey after publicly disparaging her literary tastes.

His latest novel Purity has received fanfare and vitriol in equal measure: praise for its portrayal of the modern human condition as one fraught with anxieties, distractions, and economic instability, and criticism for pretty much the same thing. Purity follows Pip Tyler, a university graduate saddled with $130k in student debt, a crappy telemarketing job and an absent father. Looking for an opportunity to break out of the rut she’s in, she accepts an internship with Andreas Wolf, the head of a Wikileaks-esque hacking agency who promises to help her find her dad. Sounds kind of shitty? Well yeah, it is.

But contrary to whatGawker’s ‘review’ (titled ‘Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Is An Irrelevant Piece Of Shit’) might suggest, Purity isn’t bad because Franzen is a jerk. Franzen was still a jerk when he wrote The Corrections and, frankly, that book rules. Purity is a bad book because it attempts to place an entire generational experience onto one character’s shoulders, and still manages to make that character cartoonish and paper thin. On the first page, we learn that she has “a job that nobody could be suited for… that she was a person unsuited for any kind of job”, and the rest of the book reads as if Franzen just thought: yep, nailed it, I can cruise through the rest of these 600-odd pages.

It often seems like Franzen would have been way more at home in the American literary culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s, where Philip Roth and John Updike were endlessly fellated by the literary press, and where the myth of the Great American Novel still prevailed. His impulse towards capturing the cultural zeitgeist in Dickensian, multi-character meganovels  worked for him when he was attempting to capture a pre-9/11, end-of-the-century type malaise, but his attempt to apply it to a generation he is unbridgably distant from comes off as unbearably inauthentic. A book no doubt destined for theLiterary Review’s Worst Sex In Fiction Award, Purity is long-winded and insufferably condescending, and still destined to be the literary talking point of 2015.

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