When last we met, Jonathan Franzen had mucked up the early pages of his novel Purity with repeated appraisals of the sex appeal of his main character, Pip. I was creeped out, but leaving room for the possibility that Franzen might be up to something that would redeem—or at least make some sense of—all the leering. Maybe it was some kind of writerly device!
A smart reader named Evan Dent made what I think is an interesting point in the comments: That Franzen, over his career, had gradually moved away from the kind of trickery and metafictional techniques I was allowing room for, toward what he described as “Dickensian (as is obvious with the name of this book’s protagonist, as well as his plot structuring) realism that shows the world ‘as it is.’” So, the thinking goes, Franzen probably isn’t using his own narration to make a commentary; he’s just hammering away at what he considers the important things to know, such as that Pip has primo hooters.
I don’t know whether I fully buy this analysis; I was gung-ho for it at first, but now that I have read some more of Purity, I find that I am resisting it more. I think I am resisting it because accepting it now seems to require accepting that Franzen is both a clueless dolt who does not know the world “as it is” and also kind of a clumsy and shitty writer. Those are tough things to accept when you still have hundreds of pages left to read!
A particular passage leaps out of the book on page 66, to jarring effect. It’s not a plot point or a character revelation, but it changes your perception of everything that came before it anyway. Over the preceding, what, 20 pages or so, our protagonist, Pip, has lapsed all the way from Recognizably Human Young Person With Bad Self-Esteem And Self-Destructive Impulses all the way to Flailing, Psychotic Train Wreck with a suddenness and completeness that boot you all the way out of the narrative and make you want to stay there. She has tried to seduce her married housemate within a half-hour of the dissolution of his marriage; she has attempted to force herself on him a couple hours later when he rebuffs her advances; she has swung wildly into bouts of irrational, ranting paranoia that would be more recognizable in the (ludicrous, clichéd, not remotely believable) character of Dreyfuss, the genius, schizophrenic conspiracy theorist with the eidetic memory who sort-of owns the house in which she has been squatting. She has freaked out her leering boss and maybe quit her job and moved out of her house and pulled an instantaneous (but awfully convenient-to-the-narrative!) about-face in her feelings toward the weirdo German anarchist who tried to proselytize her into an international hacker cult months before; she has begun a flirtatious email exchange with the world-famous Julian Assange-like head of that cult, whose evident first priority in life is to convince this far-off stranger with no hacking-related skills to join him in Bolivia on his dime.
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What I am saying here is that things have not proceeded believably. This is not the world “as it is.” That does not mean that Evan Dent is wrong, necessarily; Franzen may well be doing what he, Franzen, believes is “Dickensian realism that shows the world ‘as it is,’” but if that is what he is doing, then he needs to get out more.
The unreality of this stuff tempts you to read it as satire, or some other comic mode, but that does Franzen no favors. These developments, in the book, are not funny—even when they plainly are intended to be, as in Pip’s frank emails to Andreas Wolf, the Assange-y guy. In fact, it’s all fairly miserable to read, because it does not resonate with reality at all, even emotionally, and so cannot connect as satire.
This is an example of Franzen’s earlier leering coming back to bite him: Because he has made you unavoidably aware that you are reading the work of someone who has never been a young woman with self-esteem and impulse-control issues, and because the recent developments do not seem to result from believable characters acting believably, you cannot help but interrogate what happens by turning to the one plausibly real human personality the book presents you: Franzen himself. Pip’s housemate rejects her sexual overtures, and she finds herself “pulling off her sweater, and then taking off her bra, and then dropping to her knees on the bed and pushing herself at Stephen, abusing him with her nakedness,” and all you can think is, Jeez, Jon, what the fuck man?
In any case, hey, let’s talk about that jarring passage I mentioned before. Pip is riding a bus south from Oakland to visit her mother. As she passes into Santa Cruz, we get the following:
Because of heavy traffic, the bus didn’t stop long enough in San Jose for her to get off. Bladder ache radiated throughout her abdomen as the bus proceeded up Route 17 and over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Around Scotts Valley, the dear fog appeared, and suddenly the season was different, the hour less determinate. Most evenings in June, a great paw of Pacific fog reached into Santa Cruz, over the wooden roller coaster, along the stagnant San Lorenzo, up through the wide streets where surfers lived, and into the redwoods on the hills. By morning the ocean’s outward breath condensed in dew so heavy that it ran in gutters. And this was one Santa Cruz, this ghostly gray late-rising place. When the ocean inhaled again, midmorning, it left behind the other Santa Cruz, the optimistic one, the sunny one; but the great paw lurked offshore all day. Toward sunset, like a depression following euphoria, it rolled back in and muted human sound, closed down vistas, made everything very local, and seemed to amplify the barking of the sea lions on the underpinnings of the pier. You could hear them from miles away, their arp, arp, arp a homing call to family members still out diving in the fog.
Okay, first, this is a little on-the-nose with the metaphors. “A homing call to family members still out diving in the fog,” as Pip is leaving behind the wreckage she has recently made of her life and retreating to her cloistering mother? C’mon.
The more important thing about this passage, though, the reason it hits you like a bucket of cold water to the face when you get to it, is its specificity, its vividness and certainty. Nothing else that has happened in the book so far has been described like this. This is not slapdash pastiche, or guesswork, or writerly invention; it is a writer writing about something he actually knows, something real outside of himself that he can describe. It is Jonathan Franzen writing about the world as it is. It is the first honest paragraph in this giant novel, and it is on page 66, and it is about the weather in Santa Cruz, Calif.
This paragraph is so conspicuous that when I first read it, I slapped the book shut, opened my laptop, and looked up Jonathan Franzen. Sure enough, according to Wikipedia, he lives part of each year in Boulder Creek, a town in Santa Cruz County. Ah. Here we are again, with Purity registering most strongly as a book about Jonathan Franzen.
This is a pretty damning indictment of what has come in the previous 65 pages of Purity, I think. That a one-paragraph description of weather patterns would highlight the falseness of thousands of words of narration and dialog and story; that the effect would be strong enough to clue a reader into its origins in the author’s actual life; that this is how you experience this Major Literary Event Novel? It’s fucking depressing.
It’s also, on a mincing technical level, kind of clumsy. Apart from the haphazard slopping together of weird fog metaphors—it’s a paw, but the ocean extends and retracts it by exhaling and inhaling?—he follows the pattern of the fog from evening through morning and back to evening again, and I completely lost track of what time of day it was in the narrative by the time I got to the end of the weather report. The next paragraph begins, “By the time the bus pulled off Front Street and into the station, the streetlights had come on, tricked by atmospherics,” and I thought, Wait, which atmospherics? Isn’t it evening? Is it a “trick” for the sun to go down in the evening? And I flipped back a couple of pages, to Pip’s arrival at the bus station back in Oakland, to try to piece the timeline back together again, only to discover that Franzen never let us know what time of day it was when she got on the bus in the first place, only letting us know that she’d “spent the morning” baking a cake to bring to her mother, and then implying later on that it’s evening now, because the fog is here, and evening is when the fog arrives.
So, evening is here, and so ... shouldn’t the streetlights be coming on? I guess not! Okay cool. That’s fine! It’s June, the days are long, and we are calling a part of the day in which the sun is still high enough for the streetlights not to be in shadow “evening,” and that is fine, even if it seems like maybe that’s not how people usually use the word “evening.” What’s less fine is that I just flipped back and re-read two pages of a goddamn bus trip trying to find out the time of day, because Jonathan Franzen specifically is trying to evoke a feeling of dislocation from time that, paradoxically, requires his readers to have a pretty firm visual sense of what time of day it is, and he has been too fucking sloppy to give us one.
Generally speaking, not paying close attention to the precise time of day isn’t a thing you criticize a novelist for, except that Franzen was honing in on the passage of time by reminding us of Pip’s desperate need to pee, and then we got this detailed description of how Santa Cruz is like one place at certain times of day and like a completely different place at other times. He has gone well out of his way to let us know that in order to visualize which version of Santa Cruz Pip is in, we need to know what time of day it is. Being casual about the passage of time is a pretty weird thing to do, when calling attention to the passage of time.
What happened here? I have a hunch. After pages and pages of guesswork bordering on fakery, Franzen came to something he actually knows well enough to write about it confidently, and in his excitement, he wrote too far into it and overran the story. He couldn’t content himself with less than full exultation at how well I really do know this part, motherfuckers!, and wound up not only dislocating the timeline of his novel (at the precise moment he’s dwelling most intently on the timeline) but the story itself. That’s a pretty steep price to pay for a description of the weather, I think!
It’s also perhaps an indication that the rest of what Jonathan Franzen is writing about may be too far outside his experience of the world for him to cross the gap via imagination alone. This one paragraph about Santa Cruz makes everything before and after it (so far; I’m not done yet) seem like the yarn an awkward big-talker spins along an uncomfortable bus ride (to Santa Cruz?) about his unpredictable, hot, sexually uninhibited girlfriend in Niagara Falls—the kind where you nod along charitably and go, “Wow,” and “Oh, for real? ‘Abused you with her nakedness,’ huh?” and try not to blush too brightly from vicarious embarrassment at the obvious untruth of it, how obviously it does not describe the world as it is. I don’t know whether Purity is meant to read that way; I kind of hope not. I have a hunch that it will be more tolerable as a failure than as a loathsome success.
This has been another dispatch from Purity. Dreyfuss is kind of a fun character; I keep waiting for him to tell Pip that she is in a novel.
Contact the author at email@example.com or on Twitter @albertburneko.