CULTURE & ARTS

So, Should You Read Jonathan Franzen's New Book, 'Purity'?

It's about the encroachment of techno-fascism, a false utopia that leads inevitably to corruption and violence. Also, moms.

Arguably the most anticipated novel coming out this fall is Jonathan Franzen's Purity, the story of a young girl who tries to work for the Internet but has a horrible time. It's also about many other things, which we discuss below.

Franzen's books are hailed as among the best crafted by living writers. But themes within his novels, as well as comments made in essays and interviews by the author, have raised valid questions about whether he has a bias against women -- feminists in particular. 

So, as two young women who enjoy beautiful sentences but prefer not to be discriminated against by great modern thinkers, we set out with (mostly) open minds to read Purity. Here's what happened.

What’s the deal with Jonathan Franzen?

Maddie: Jonathan Franzen is the Great American Novelist! Or, at least, an American novelist who is sometimes great. Usually, though, he's writing funny, very cynical scenes about characters who mean well, but act badly. In the past, he's targeted things like activism, academia and moms. With his latest book, Purity, he's turned his curmudgeonly eye to feminism, and, his favorite creed to begrudge, social media. Oh, and moms. He really hates moms.

Claire: Jonathan Franzen is someone the Internet hates, and who hates the Internet. The Internet hates him so much that sometimes I’m tempted to love him, just to be contrarian, but he makes it really tough, mostly because he’s always saying things like, “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation,” or, "Lacking good looks and the feminine charms that might have accompanied them, [Edith Wharton] eventually became, in every sense but one, the man of her house." In 2010 he published an enormous novel called Freedom that was hailed as the Great American Novel and that was mildly entertaining to read on the beach.

Describe this book in a sentence or two:

Maddie: Purity is about a girl named Purity whose mom is crazy, and who impulsively follows a beautiful German woman to South America to be a part of an organization designed to bring private information to light. This radical journalistic endeavor is headed up by a charming, Julian Assange-like character, but Purity later learns that the old-fashioned way of telling stories is the best way to tell stories.

Claire: To put it in terms Jonathan Franzen would understand, Purity is about the encroachment of techno-fascism, a false utopia that leads inevitably to corruption and violence. Also, it’s about how bad mothers are the root of all evil, and good journalism, which is journalism subsidized by enormous inheritances because it’s commercially unsustainable, is the root of all solutions.

Who is this book about?

Maddie: Well, there's Purity, who I described above, and there's Julian Assange, and there's Purity's parents, a constantly quibbling couple who met as naive students. Tom is a hard-working journalist making a name for himself at the school paper, often asking himself why most of the women in his life seem to hate him. After all, he couldn't help being a man and also writing aggressive, name-calling takedowns about them for the student body to read and laugh at. Anabel is an irrational, wealthy, irrational heiress who irrationally refused to accept her inheritance while making bad art and telling Tom to pee sitting down.

Claire: Purity is about a diverse cast of characters, including Purity, a mysteriously beautiful and intelligent young woman. Franzen added some other main characters to avoid the inevitable creepiness of being a man writing about a young woman, such as: Purity’s horrible mother who ruins her life; Andreas Wolf, who is like Julian Assange but hotter and more powerful; Tom Aberant, a wonderful and principled journalist and husband; and Anabel, his horrible feminist wife.

What happens to them?

Claire: A “feminist marriage.” Murder most foul. Maternal alienation. Investigative journalism.

Maddie: An East German dissident gets into trouble after writing, um, unpatriotic acrostic poems, and, for the first time, gets a taste of his own ability to control others through the media. He grows up to be the aforementioned narcissistic digital mogul, but not after killing the abusive stepdad of a girl he likes, and dumping her a few years later. He butts heads with old media devotees, and sets up a hacker-fueled office in South America, where Purity (aka Pip) goes to meet him, hoping to figure out who her father is, and potentially free herself of student debt. Also, what Claire said -- lots of murder and intrigue.

Claire: BTW, Purity is totally not nicknamed “Pip” as a reference to her “great expectations.” That was a coincidence.

Ok, but what is this book really about?

Claire: Again, it’s about a lot of things, like journalism and the Internet. But really, at its core, it’s about how angry Jonathan Franzen is that feminists don’t appreciate everything he’s done for them.

Maddie: Yeah. Also, it's about how some young people, in spite of their best efforts to be shallow, manage to be rational humans who see the Internet for the silly, irrelevant creation it is.

Claire: Everyone in this book either has an awful mother or is a woman (which is bad), except for Tom, who has an okay mother and therefore grows up to be a specimen of manly integrity. When a man sexually exploits young women, murders someone, and becomes deeply corrupt, it’s because his mother was too pretty and charming and maybe slept around on her husband. When Tom gets divorced, it’s because his wife is such an unhinged feminist she doesn’t want to wipe his urine splatters off the bathroom floor. All of these men are basically at the mercy of the evil women around them. Fortunately Tom finds a strong woman who agrees with everything he says to be his worthy partner, a spot of hope in a dark feminist dystopia.

Best part of the book:

Maddie: Franzen brings the value of investigative journalism to life in Leila, the woman Tom ends up with after he wriggles out of his feminist marriage. Leila is invigorated by a deadline, but won't value efficiency above honest, prodding conversations with sources. Her story is actually inspiring, amusing, and in parts a little tragic -- poor Leila is stuck in a marriage to an indignant, aging novelist trying to stay relevant.

Claire: What Maddie said.

Worst part of the book:

Claire: I was going crazy looking for the most unconvincing passage about a 20-something girl’s life, but the actual worst part is the entirety of Tom Aberant’s narration of his “feminist marriage,” also known as Franzen’s attack on feminism.

Maddie: When Franzen repeatedly uses the extended metaphor of a flawed “logic tree” as a way of explaining the motivations of a major character -- Tom’s wife and Pip’s mother, Anabel. While Tom tries to speak rationally, Anabel just. Won’t. Have it. It’s a narrow take on marriage, romantic turmoil, and feminist arguments. Even if these characters were believable, would we really need more super-negative, one-sided portrayals of women in popular fiction?

Best worst part of the book:

Claire: "She brought my hands up to her breasts, which were lolling free under the pajamas, and declared, ‘I’m the little squirrel that loves to fuck!'" This is an actual line from an actual scene in which a character is dressed as Rocky the Flying Squirrel.

Maddie: "Jason bent down to unknot Choco's leash. There was something humble and patient about the dog's very low-slungness, the drooping of his heavy head. His grin was silly, possibly in a sly way, suggesting awareness of his more general silliness as a dog." On the next page it's suggested that dogs "embody the Masculine." Oh, Franzen! So silly! So slyly aware of your general silliness. Your myopic portrayals of women aren't malicious, they're funny!

Would you recommend this book to a friend?

Claire: I would recommend this book to a friend whose favorite book was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Maddie: Depends. Does this friend want to read a book that will make them laugh, but probably won't make them cry? Does this friend have an interest in Germany, or in the new directions investigative journalism has gone since the advent of the Internet? Does this friend find comfort in logical, unfeeling arguments against feminism? Does this friend like action and adventure? Does this friend dislike his or her mom?


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