Jonathan Franzen, Purity

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Freedom was not as good as the critics said it was. What Nicholas Dames writes of Purity is in fact far truer of Freedom: the earlier novel attempts to align itself totally with an obsolete realism, bringing only the news—and a fairly unedifying version of the news at that, distorted by the furies (I felt them too) of Bush-era politics. Freedom sinks so low as to bring onstage a caricatural Jewish neocon to descant on the Noble Lie over Thanksgiving dinner. There is a fine 250-page novel about Patty Berglund buried somewhere in the mass of Freedom, but Tolstoy it is not. Since literature is “news that stays news,” it has to give us more than current affairs and editorial opinions: it must not report on the world but recreate it, fired by the artistic imagination. Purity fulfills this mandate, as I will show under three headings. I will not recount the plot in great detail, since other reviewers have done so already—see Liesl Schillinger’s review, for instance—but spoilers will abound. Think of this as less a review of the novel—there have been more than enough of those—than a reading of it.

1. Great Expectations

Our survey of fictional modes has also shown us that the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description, is one of the two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems connected both with Aristotle’s word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. That is, it is a tendency to tell a story which is in origin a story about characters who can do anything, and only gradually becomes attracted toward a tendency to tell a plausible or credible story. Myths of gods merge into legends of heroes; legends of heroes merge into plots of tragedies and comedies; plots of tragedies and comedies merge into plots of more or less realistic fiction. But these are change of social context rather than of literary form, and the constructive principles of story-telling remain constant through them, though of course they adapt to them. Tom Jones and Oliver Twist are typical enough as low mimetic characters, but the birth-mystery plots in which they are involved are plausible adaptations of fictional formulas that go back to Menander, and from Menander to Euripides’ Ion, and from Euripides to legends like those of Perseus and Moses.
—Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism

Realism is not real. All fictional creations are modes of artifice. “Realism” is simply one mode of literary artifice: what Frye usefully calls the “low mimetic” mode. It is “low” in that its typically middle-class heroes are of a lower social station than the royal or aristocratic heroes of epic and tragedy and “mimetic” in that it takes everyday life (rather than the world of myth or romance) as its setting. But Frye goes further to observe that low mimetic fictions tend to have an armature of myth at their core, not least in the “birth-mystery” plot at which Dickens excelled and which Franzen, alluding to Dickens via the nickname of Purity‘s eponymous heroine, Pip, borrows from Dickens.

In the myths, the child of mysterious birth usually turns out to be the child of a god (as with Ion in Euripides) or a chosen one of God (as with Moses in Exodus). In Dickens’s youthful novel Oliver Twist, this divine descent is transformed, with some banality, into the revelation that Oliver’s parents are middle-class; in the more mature and accomplished later work, Great Expectations, Pip’s parentage is not at issue and his inheritance comes to him through “the least of his brothers.” Dickens’s Pip must make himself worthy of his destiny precisely by giving up his expectations, by becoming a “son of God” in nothing but the moral sense. Great Expectation is the Christian redaction of the birth-mystery plot, rarifying and spiritualizing it beyond literal gods or particular chosen individuals.

So what does Franzen want with this emplotment in Purity? In part, he wants to follow Dickens’s Christian argument to its conclusion in secular liberalism: if being like God means becoming the kindest version of yourself, then how much better to realize that God was never anything other than an externalized projection of this will-to-compassion? Purity narrates many small-scale tender acts of mercy, from Pip’s comforting of her mentally disabled housemate Ramón early in the novel to her climactic use of her inheritance to save her landlord Dreyfuss from being evicted. The main story the novel tells is that of Pip’s refusal to give up on her mother, to abandon her to her delusions and her pride; Pip is the avatar of total commitment to secular charity, a one-by-one way of caring for individuals without reference to transcendental principles. The novel’s other admirable characters, Leila and Tom above all, behave similarly: Leila’s continuing care for her disabled husband, the defeated postmodern novelist Charles Blenheim, is held out as a moral exemplar, and as the rebuke to Blenheim’s fictional mode (Frye would call it “the ironic”), which minimizes a humane and empathetic concern for the individual. Given Franzen’s environmentalism, his insistence on post-Christian liberal compassion extends to the natural world. It is an index of Pip’s latter-day Christian heroism, for instance, that only she, among Andreas Wolf’s entourage, pays attention to all the scents she encounters in the natural landscape of Bolivia, just as she keeps careful track of the birds in her mother’s yard. (For her mother, on the other hand, “smell is hell,” i.e., sympathy is contamination.) Franzen’s realism is not real: it is built on a foundation of Christian myth.

If Dickens’s Pip had to give up his social expectations to attain the Christian charity that his novel ultimately promotes, what does Frazen’s Pip have to give up? As with Great Expectations, the novel’s title names its enemy: Purity.

2. Anti-Communism and Anti-Feminism

     ‘He has read the master’s work,’ said Matthew Levi, ‘and asks you to take the master with you and reward him with peace. Is that hard for you to do, spirit of evil?’
     ‘Nothing is hard for me to do,’ answered Woland, ‘you know that very well.’ He paused and added, ‘But why don’t you take him with you into the light?’
     ‘He does not deserve the light, he deserves peace,’ Levi said in a sorrowful voice.
—Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)

When I began reading Purity‘s second section, a nearly self-contained novella about the youth of Andreas Wolf called “The Republic of Bad Taste,” I thought it might be just the rehash of Nabokov and Kundera that its name implies. Wolf resembles characters in novels such as Bend Sinister or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, castigators of the entire socialist project for its anti-aestheticism, its basis in poshlost or kitsch. And Wolf is such a character, and the novel in certain ways seems to support him in his aesthetic critique of socialism: the gray and denuded wastes of East Berlin as Franzen presents them, with their weed-choked underpasses and barren soccer tips, form a moral contrast to the lovingly described natural landscapes of Northern California and Bolivia through which Pip moves and of which she takes careful notice. But this is a naturalist’s objection, not an aesthete’s, and Wolf is not a naturalist but rather a natural predator, as we know from his Dickensianly emblematic moniker.

Purity‘s problem with communism is its denial of the wolf in humankind, its slavish catering to what the novel names as “the little boy who believes in socialism.” Communism is a childish fantasy of what the world should be like; it cannot be ethical because it refuses to acknowledge the parts of the psyche that will have to be confronted if one is to behave ethically. Andreas Wolf grows up with a predator and a killer inside of him because he was spoiled, told he was special, treated like a prince, all while the messy truth (of his paternity, of his mother’s mental illness) was withheld from him. “The Republic of Bad Taste” has a Hamlet motif (Wolf’s overbearing mother is a scholar of English literature) and not for nothing: Wolf is the promising prince confronted with nature’s canker, an imposthume that sickens him to the point of murder.

Franzen’s anti-communism is not that of Nabokov and Kundera, then, but rather that of Dostoevsky and Bulgakov. As Nell Zink observes, Purity shares its Goethean epigraph about the spirit that wills only evil and works only good from The Master and Margarita, a novel that uses the Devil to do the Lord’s work of challenging communism. This counterintuitive power of evil, ill-intentioned but beneficial, represents the dialectical truth at the heart of Marxism and other progressive ideologies, traduced in practice by all communist regimes, because they seek to extirpate anything bad or impure. But only through badness and impurity can goodness grow, in human society as in nature. To exterminate the bad or impure is to remove possibilities for growth; and I suspect that Franzen, who follows Dostoevsky in writing with a deliberate lack of grace or lyricism, would likewise condemn Nabokovian aestheticism for being similarly caught up in juvenile delusions about cleanliness, about purity.

Wolf’s theory, much-discussed in the reviews of Purity, that the Internet picks up where communism left off strikes me as almost self-evidently true; Jaron Lanier made a similar case years ago, even before the rise of social media, when he attacked “digital Maoism.” The Internet is a coercive form of sociality whose centripetal tendencies can crush those who think or write or speak differently, as Franzen’s own case indicates. Though the tiresome abuse directed at Franzen by the Internet’s self-appointed coolness arbiters smacks more of the suburban middle-school lunch table than of the Stasi, the principle of a collective denying the individual in all its complications and contradictions is the same.

But a novel cannot live on ideology alone. Communism or anti-communism, feminism or anti-feminism—all are dangerous to the artistic imagination because they tempt it to apply pre-established schemes to the world rather than recreating it through fresh arrangements of language, imagery, and ideas. Purity therefore needs a devil, a character who, while representing the principles to which the novel objects, also incarnates them unforgettably, producing thematic goodness out of thematic evil. Purity finds this devil in the character of Anabel.

Roxane Gay argues that the outrageous behavior of Andreas Wolf is “treated far more charitably [than that of Anabel], as if bizarre behavior is more palatable in a man.” With all due respect, this is like reading Paradise Lost and not realizing that Satan is the best character. (Interest, not morality, ultimately counts in fiction.) While Andreas acts the Hamlet role somewhat persuasively, his character is thin and petulant, without real grandeur. But Anabel, who denies natural truths (that humans are carnivorous, that men can urinate standing up), who seeks purity in everything she does, who sees the blood on corporate money, absolutely steals the show. She is the actor you can’t take your eyes off of whenever she performs. If she were simply a caricature of a social type, a washed-up second-wave art-school feminist, this would be a drearily polemical novel, and Franzen would deserve the scorn he has received. But he gives us so much of Anabel’s energy, intellect, wit, vulnerability, and ambition that readers may find her as compelling as Pip and Tom do in the novel. She is Purity’s Estella, the longed-for love object that the protagonist cannot part from; she is also its Miss Havisham, immured in the ruins of a long-lost romance. The novel’s grandest character, she is Shakespearean in her many-sided unpredictably, and she reaches back through the low mimetic mode to myth: her body’s synchronicity with the moon identifies her with Artemis, even as the novel mocks the identification and even as she ideologically resists the predatory and natural power that the goddess exhibits. It is far too soon to say whether or not Purity is a great novel, but if it is, it is so because of Anabel. She is the novel’s evil power who produces good, its necessary source of energy and force. Novelists, no matter how Christian or liberal they may wish to be, are always of the devil’s party without knowing it (which is why we do not deserve the light).

3. The Awful Truth; or, American Romance

But the primal books for me remained the ones I’d encountered in the fall of 1980: Malte, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Magic Mountain, and, above all, The Trial. In each of these books the fundamental story is the same. There are these superficial arrangements; there is the life we think we have, this very much socially constructed life that is comfortable or uncomfortable but nonetheless what we think of as “our life.” And there’s something else ­underneath it, which was represented by all of those German-language writers as Death. There’s this awful truth, this maskless self, underlying ­everything.
—Jonathan Franzen, The Art of Fiction no. 207

Perhaps the most perceptive review of Purity is by Tom LeClair. I agree with almost all of his observations, while disagreeing with how he values them. He despises Purity, and I admire it.

LeClair notes that “in Purity there’s an ugly current of cruelty.” There is: Franzen dispenses justice gleefully, reveling in his power to plot and plan, rewarding the meek and humbling the proud all while indecently exhibiting his own pride and mastery—like Euripides and Milton, like Dickens and Dostoevsky. I am not saying that Franzen is on that level, only that that the masters of narrative and drama have always conducted themselves with this unseemly and hypocritical relish (the devil’s party, remember?). Cruelty is a moral category, in any case, not an aesthetic one.

LeClair further complains that Purity “is more like a 19th-century American romance than, for example, Jamesian realism.” Leaving aside the fact that James himself is at his best when writing American romance rather than strict realism, I want to say that, yes, Purity is more romance than novel. Its characters are exaggerated and emblematic, its settings are psychic projections, its conflicts are more metaphysical than social. And so what? Romance has always been the native strain in American literature. This country is too large and various, its social structures too porous, its natural surround too ever-present, its religion too domineering to be rendered via Flaubertian precision or Tolstoyan clarity. (As for Franzen’s overt English model for Purity, Dickens hardly counts as a realist. He dwells, as he says in the preface to Bleak House, on “the romantic side of familiar things,” as does Purity. And Franzen’s Germanophilia is also in keeping with the American romance, which has looked for Gothic inspiration since Brockden Brown to Germany.) Franzen should be congratulated for outgrowing his commitment to realism and embracing our homegrown craziness.

Finally, LeClair objects that Franzen “dramatize[s] psychological issues I expect a 55-year-old man to have settled by now.” I expect no such thing: I expect that at least one source of art is in primal trauma and consequent resentment. Not being a reader of memoir, I neither know nor care about Franzen’s personal life, I care only that his novels live and breathe. And Purity, in its confrontation with the maskless self beneath the social world of masks, in its exposure of the stains and other signs of death that mar the social facade and ruin the dreams of the purifiers, lives and breathes.



  1. Thanks for publishing the review. This makes me consider to read Franzen’s works.

    I especially liked the mention of romance as the native American strain. Most of our great American novels possess their own realism, but they are essentially of the Romantic nature. Plus, many European masterpieces, such as LES MISERABLES, reject pure realism in favor of some Romanticism (Les Miserables is the definitive European Romantic masterpiece).

    I would want to ask: would Henry James’s “major novels” (The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, etc.) be considered “romances,” or are they Jamesian realist novels?

    • Thanks for commenting! On Henry James: I suppose I meant that his major novels (I actually haven’t read the ones you mention; I was thinking of The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Wings of the Dove) are less realist and more invested in almost archetypal characters and metaphysical conflicts than they may seem. Isabel Archer as Emersonian radical, daughter of Hester Prynne, fallen into the clutches of European decadence in the form of Osmond, etc. It is all more melodramatic, almost Gothic, than the novel’s stately pace makes it seem. You might say that there is a way of reading his novels as romances and a way of reading them as realistic; to me, the former is more interesting.

      • Thanks. It makes much more sense now.

        Have you read any major European Romantic work? Les Miserables and Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo’s two great novels, are epics in the romance vein. (more so in the case of Notre-Dame de Paris)

        They are both intersecting works, and Les Miserables is one of my favorites. In fact, as of now, I’d consider it the Great 19th Century Masterpiece, or at least the Great French Novel of the 19th century.

      • I have not read Hugo, unfortunately. As far as nineteenth century European romantic fiction, I have read Chateaubriand (Atala and Rene), Goethe (The Sorrows of Young Werther and Elective Affinities), Kleist (The Marquise of O and Michael Kohlhaas), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), the Bronte sisters (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Villette). I would also include Dickens (I’ve read seven or so of his novels) and even Dostoevsky under the heading of romanticism, even if they fit imperfectly for various reasons.

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