Alternately entitled: “You want examples? I got examples.”
I’ll explain: This post is related to a recent series of posts, a conversation between myself and Jonathan McDonald, about the moral voice in literature and literary criticism. It is a sort of beginning of a response to the unanimously voiced call for specific discussion of how these questions play out in particular works.
What it is not, unfortunately, is a proper close reading or any kind of serious review of the novel in question. I’d like to do a close reading, but I don’t have my hands on a copy of the novel right now. This short essay has been brewing for the past seven months or so, as I read a library copy just weeks before giving birth and have been thinking about it ever since. Now the time seems right.
So if you’re still with me, I most likely don’t have to tell you who Jonathan Franzen is or why he is relevant to a discussion of contemporary literary culture. But if I do, hang in there! Many of us have been steered awry by a phenomenon Franzen himself often discusses, the compartmentalization of literary writing from almost all of the rest of American culture. In case you’re the latter, go get caught up. I’ll wait. Ready? Good.
Franzen’s most recent novel, Purity, is relevant for our discussion of the “four ‘e’s” — explicit, exploitative, enticing, endorsing — or some venn-diagram of the above, because it takes for one of its themes the psychosexual development of its protagonists, particularly Anabel, Tom, Andreas, and the eponymous Purity (known throughout as “Pip,” in a nod at Dickens). In service of this end the novel is — how would you like me to put it? — thorough.
The character of Andreas stands in for ideological “purity,” the novel’s central concept, which Franzen’s narration reveals as often the product of youthful idealism which needs to mature into a deeper commitment to honesty and faithfulness to reality as we find it. This is a characteristically novelistic perception, and there’s a lot more I would like to say about how it plays out in the text. For now, though, I’ll limit myself to a couple of things: 1. the confluence of the unlikeable with the explicit in the character of Andreas and how it helps shape the reader’s attitudes to receive the story as Franzen tells it, and 2. the relationship of “purity” to truth on Franzen’s exploration of the concepts and how the novel’s view of purity essentially differs from, but is fascinating for, that of Catholic thought about what purity is and is good for. I’ll focus on point 1 in this post, point 2 in the next.
So: Andreas, one of the novel’s four major protagonists, is a creeper. Even Franzen describes Andreas, in an FSG interview about the novel, as an “icky guy.” Franzen is not writing about Andreas’s tendency to, for example, skulk around church youth groups seducing teenage girls, in order to make us like or sympathize with Andreas. I’ve written before about being careful not to impute intention to an author, but here it almost seems Franzen wants us to see for ourselves that this is, objectively, an “icky” behavior; he seems to want us not only not to give Andreas a free moral pass, but to stop just this side of losing all patience with Andreas.
The fact that creeperdom is one of the first things we learn about Andreas is one of the mechanisms by which Franzen taps into the reader’s own moral insight and gets us to question Andreas’s character right away, hardly even giving us a chance to see Andreas as Andreas sees himself or would like to be seen before we start dissecting his every move and doubting his motives. In short, Franzen does not narratively endorse Andreas’ behavior. What he does do is give us an intimately detailed description of this behavior, which is important for understanding what happens next, and yet which is not flattering to the character.
At the same time, Franzen as narrator obviously has deep compassion for Andreas and wants to try to understand what formed him, what drives him, what makes him who he is. As the truth about Andreas’s past and motives is slowly eked out through Andreas’s introspection, his interpersonal relations, and the impact of plot events, it’s impossible for an attentive reader not to have pity for Andreas and to feel deep sorrow over his eventual fate (no spoilers, but it isn’t pretty). This is despite, or in some ways maybe this is because of, some quite explicit passages–some violent and gruesome (there’s a murder involved), others what might be considered “enticing,” still others that I at least found really queasy-making. The pages turn at an astonishing rate and in a way that at times made me feel the characters’ agony was being exploited for effect, so driving was the pace, and yet only in a handful of instances providing truly excess detail, and at the same time avoiding the kind of disgust or revulsion that would make you put the book down altogether. Franzen is brilliant at holding the reader’s attention and trust through the most difficult of passages.
Still, since it seems that the content warning is the wave of the future anyway, I won’t be shy about red-flagging the novel for anyone who might be (a) a survivor of abuse or trauma, (b) a very young person or someone otherwise in a state of formation, and/or most especially ( c) anyone who feels their own effort to live the Church’s teachings about honoring the dignity of the human person and refraining from abuse, revenge, anger, deception, and utilitarian sexuality is likely to be derailed or sabotaged by encountering literary portrayals of abuse, revenge, anger, deception, and utilitarian sexuality. If you find yourself in any or all of these categories, be aware that Purity may not be the book for you.
This is unfortunate, though, exactly because some of the novel’s greatest strengths are so tied up with the reasons some readers will be missing out. It is so hard to want to discuss a novel like this and at the same time have to feel that you must hold back from wholeheartedly recommending it and getting right down to work on many of the larger truths the novel recalls. Theoretically, the ground Purity covers should be open to the Catholic writer and reader, but the way in which it covers it may possibly turn some devout readers away, despite (or again because of?) the novel’s deep insightfulness about the way that two specific passions — desire for revenge, and sexuality twisted away from self-gift — can warp the human heart.
If any writer ever “makes it,” Franzen has made it. He doesn’t need praise from a two-bit unpublished novelist like yours truly. Yet why not, let’s be generous and say it anyway: what Franzen has achieved as a novelist, journalist, essayist, and general influence on literary culture is admirable and worthy of study and emulation. Intentionally or otherwise, he has opened a path for novelists who want to “instantiate single-entendre principles.” These are the words of David Foster Wallace (with whom Franzen was friends) in his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram” — a miniature manifesto I often think of in connection with our mission here at Dappled Things:
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.”
Next time: off to the library, then to dive deeper into concepts of “purity” differently understood and explored. Until then, there’s this — not really relevant to the novel itself, but look, there’s Stephen Colbert too!: