Franzen Makes Nice

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s fifth novel, Purity, in a state at once sympathetic and skeptical, I kept thinking of George Kaplan. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest, a ring of foreign ...

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s fifth novel, Purity, in a state at once sympathetic and skeptical, I kept thinking of George Kaplan. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest, a ring of foreign spies mistakes the protagonist, Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, for Kaplan, a fictional decoy created by the CIA. No matter how strenuously Thornhill protests that he is not Kaplan, his antagonists cannot believe him, precisely because Kaplan is not real, he is a structural position. As a result, Kaplan’s identity as “someone else” can never be demonstrated, and his nonexistence can never be proven. The only solution for Thornhill is, in fact, to become Kaplan, to do exactly the things Kaplan might do, in the hopes of forcing a confrontation in which Kaplan might emerge victorious and therefore be discarded as a credible identity.

Purity is the not very successful outcome of Franzen’s own George Kaplan trajectory, in which the novelist has come to embrace a structural position in the literary field one might call the Obsolete Realist. The Corrections (2001) created this alternate identity and Freedom (2010) cemented it. The Obsolete Realist is hostile to formal experimentalism, and would prefer to ignore all that stands between Eliot, Tolstoy, Mann, and the present day. The Obsolete Realist is likely male, certainly white, and a hit with the last bastions of elite New York publishing. He writes for a mass, middlebrow audience that he is felt, nonetheless, to disdain.

The Obsolete Realist addresses the problems of the day through psychologically nuanced portrayals of nuclear families, although the families he depicts are allegories for a broader cultural condition. The Obsolete Realist is a man of the progressive Left—suspicious of corporations, eloquent on the subject of the environment, alert to the deformities of class—whose political progressivism is belied by an aesthetic and cultural conservatism that sees nothing positive in technology, and thinks of the Internet as positively malevolent. As the century unfolds, this last stance in particular exposes him as the obsolete, yet frustratingly well-compensated, figure that his writing had always indicated him to be.

As this capsule description makes clear, Franzen is not only an Obsolete Realist, but—as a thousand tweets and blog posts have insisted—its preeminent example. Franzen himself can’t help but confirm it at every opportunity; his public pronouncements, from l’affaire Oprah in 2001 to his recent pratfalls with the Audubon Society, have been so singularly maladroit as to inspire a kind of pitying sympathy. They also confirm the stereotype that his antagonists have assigned him: the clumsy, outmoded cultural type outflanked by nimbler, newer minds.

But let’s be clear: the structural position Franzen’s public stances seem to personify is just that, a position, a necessary fantasy. In a moment when literary culture presents only a menu of minority niches, it seems to be necessary to invent the Obsolete Realist to make all those other options seem urgent. Other writers attack the Obsolete Realist for being insufficiently populist (see Weiner, Jennifer)1 or insufficiently avant-garde (see Marcus, Ben).2 He is too preachy and too apolitical, too wedded to sheer boring fact, not aware of enough facts. The Obsolete Realist seems to bring out the Dorothy Parker in just about everybody.

A lesser talent might have been scared away, might have tried a new mode entirely. Franzen, by contrast, has gradually declared his allegiance to exactly the caricatured defects of realist fiction his many detractors keep identifying. To do so, like Thornhill becoming Kaplan, is not necessarily a trap; it might be a way to escape, or even transcend, the dilemma of becoming identified with a symbolic role. One could imagine a response that would angrily insist on the messy ordinariness, the political ambivalence, the psychological intensity of domestic realism, and by doing so—vehemently, almost despairingly—produce something that both confirms and breaks through the confines of being an Obsolete Realist.

Purity is not that response. It doesn’t transcend the category so much as embody it. Franzen’s latest is a symptomatically fascinating, but ultimately depressing, attempt to answer his critics by identifying wholly with the role they have assigned him.

Like several of Franzen’s other novels, Purity is a formal hybrid. One half is the personal drama of a young fatherless woman floundering in a whirlpool of student debt, the other half an international story of the origins of hacktivism that spans Berlin in the last days of the German Democratic Republic and a contemporary Bolivian hideout. The bourgeois family romance and the paranoid political thriller: these have frequently been Franzen’s poles, although perhaps never before in his fiction have the poles been so stark, the distribution of attention so equal, the attempt to connect the plots so ingenious and strained.

In Strong Motion, The Corrections, and Freedom, Franzen presented a “political” plot, involving either the ecological depredations of corporations, or the exploitative energies of capital in post-Communist Eastern Europe, and harmonized it with a personal plot of middle-class familial and marital tensions. The result gave a particular psychological tonality to his novels: the compressed yearning of living with, and through, inchoate but strongly felt ethical passions. Renée Seitchek of Strong Motion and Walter Berglund of Freedom
are idealists in the mode of Tolstoy’s Levin or Eliot’s Dorothea: unclear how to translate their idealism into works, worried about how erotic passion diverts them from their ethics, devoted to the particular (specific loved ones, specific landscapes) but concerned about the general (the planet). This is familiar, traditional realist ground.

That balance has served Franzen well; it gave him a formal structure through which to blend his two allegiances, the Gaddis-and-DeLillo style of paranoid postmodernism and the Yates-and-Updike mode of middle-class poignancy. It also tapped into the crisis of liberal good intentions in the Bush II years in ways that made him think-piece-worthy. “Realism” in those novels was the psychological strain felt by characters who want to know how to connect the two plots they live within, a dilemma that the novels themselves never wholly resolve. Franzen’s contemporary versions of Tolstoy’s or Eliot’s idealists feel the futility of their values, a plight that, no doubt, gained him many of his readers, who saw their own helplessness mirrored by the trap of his novels’ hybrid form.

Franzen’s latest is a symptomatically fascinating, but ultimately depressing, attempt to answer his critics by identifying wholly with the role they have assigned him.

Purity empties this structure precisely because, to its cost, it has a resolution to offer. Franzen here isn’t fiercely defending realist ambivalence so much as offering realism as a solution to ambivalence. Part of the novel’s resolution is borrowed, because Purity is also a version of another postmodern genre, the rewriting-of-a-classic-forebear—in this case, Great Expectations, which offers Franzen an armature for bridging his domestic and international plots. Purity Tyler, known to all as Pip, is spending her postcollegiate years adrift in an Oakland squat with some remnants of the receding Occupy wave, including a medicated schizophrenic, an activist married couple with a mentally disabled adopted son, and a pair of German anarchists who happen to be passing through. She does telemarketing for a start-up called Renewable Solutions, whose business model seems to be skimming current or future energy tax credits from clients they convince to go green, a parasitic scam wrapped in good intentions. Her real concern is her shut-in single mother living in a decrepit cabin in the San Lorenzo Valley woods, who has carefully prevented Pip from knowing the identity of her father.

Pip is a 21st-century American orphan, fatherless by maternal choice and declassed by virtue of student debt. Enter the Dickensian transformation: one of her temporary German housemates, the enigmatically attractive middle-aged Annagret, reveals herself to be a recruiter for the Sunlight Project, the secretive, world-famous, and apparently thoroughly virtuous alternative to Assange’s more notorious WikiLeaks, run out of a Bolivian compound by the former East German dissident Andreas Wolf. Pip, she is told, has just the right qualities to work for Wolf. What those are, Pip cannot quite tell, but Annagret gives her a way out of loan-induced penury and an escape from stifling maternal dependency—her own set of appealingly radical great expectations.

The set-up makes it clear that the latent question of Pip’s father, and the manifest question of why Pip has been lured to Bolivia to work for a mysteriously sexy, internationally famous hacktivist whose targets are “social injustice and toxic secrets worldwide,” are linked. Dickens provides the map for the familiar Franzen double plot, which turns out to involve more intricate plot machinery than is his norm. How exactly Andreas Wolf connects to Pip’s father is revealed with what is for Franzen an unusually high investment in delayed revelation, even as those plot surprises, given their Dickensian scaffolding, never really quite surprise.

Pip herself, meanwhile, lacks both the unfocused but urgent idealism of Franzen’s previous protagonists and the narcissistic susceptibility of her Dickensian namesake. What is left is a viewpoint that is often winningly skeptical, but thoroughly parochial—“grounded,” one is tempted to say. The tension between local, or psychological, and political contexts becomes slack, as when Pip overhears her Oakland roommates discussing their theory of labor utopia: “She’d listened to a lot of these utopian discussions, and it was somehow comforting that Stephen and his friends could never quite work all the kinks out of their plan; that the world was as obstinately unfixable as her life was.” This is the novel’s strange keynote: the comfort we might take in the gap between ideal and messy reality, not the disenchantment or bitterness it might produce.

Pip is not politically enamored of the Sunlight Project, except in general generational terms involving the glamour of Wolf’s publicity; she’s careful not to be flattered by the mysteriously opaque nature of her recruitment. She’s self-aware but directionless, a fatherless woman with all the expected sexual neuroses that condition is supposed to produce, kind and guilt-afflicted and self-preoccupied. Put more simply, she’s nice. She personifies the mundane psychological complexity of realism, which is here an aesthetic traditionalism exhibited as a moral virtue.

On the other hand, there is Andreas Wolf, whose plot introduces the novel’s opposite themes: sexual predation, intergenerational violence, and the totalitarian psychology common to the Stasi and the Internet. Wolf’s story shoves aside the contemporary flatness of Pip’s story to make way for historical fiction (the East German ’80s), suspense, political argumentation. Wolf starts as the disaffected scion of high-ranking Party apparatchiks. Already maimed by a charismatic and castrating mother, he lives in a Berlin church basement and spends his time counseling and then seducing the female runaways who come there for help. This cynical lassitude is disrupted when one of his teenage supplicants, the young Annagret, admits to sexual abuse at the hands of her Stasi functionary stepfather. Suddenly in love, trapped by circumstances and seeing no other way to resist, Wolf and Annagret proceed to murder the stepfather, a crime with personal and historical consequences. For the two of them, it means a shared burden of guilt that pulls them apart; but when the Wall falls and the investigative files related to the murder threaten to emerge, it means Andreas’s transformation. He steals into Stasi headquarters to remove the potentially threatening file, and then, to cloak the reason for his theft, proclaims himself a dissident devoted to total transparency. In a moment the dissident and murderer become the proto-hacktivist.

When paranoid thriller meets quotidian realism—when Wolf and Pip finally meet—Franzen’s prose becomes particularly slack, as in this description of Pip’s young Bolivian colleagues:

To a person, they had backgrounds more fascinating than Pip’s. They were Danish and British and Ethiopian, Italian and Chilean and Manhattanite, and they appeared to have spent their college years not going to class (they’d already read and reread Ulysses at twelve while attending private academies for the supergifted) but taking semesters off from Brown or Stanford to fabulously work for Sean Combs or Elizabeth Warren, combat AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, or sleep with college-dropout founders of billion-dollar Silicon Valley startups.

This is neither effectively broad social comedy nor precise description: it’s the unintentional comedy of a group of James-Bond-villain international henchwomen possessed of chiseled clavicles, a working knowledge of C++, and the politics of Naomi Klein.

On its own, however, Wolf’s story figures to become Purity’s most notorious element, because it presents a deliberately controversial genealogy: out of a reaction to totalitarian surveillance, the political spirit of the Internet is born, midwifed by a murderer desperate to bury his crimes, thus leading inevitably to the Internet becoming the next totalitarianism. So Wolf himself muses, with a directness sure to be relished by the legions of the Franzenphobic, once he realizes he has exchanged one hated regime for another:

Before he quit doing interviews, the previous fall, he’d taken to dropping the word totalitarian. Younger interviewers, to whom the word meant total surveillance, total mind control, gray armies in parade with medium-range missiles, had understood him to be saying something unfair about the Internet. In fact, he simply meant a system that was impossible to opt out of. The old Republic had certainly excelled at surveillance and parades, but the essence of its totalitarianism had been more everyday and subtle. You could cooperate with the system or you could oppose it, but the one thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not be in relation to it. The answer to every question large or small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet.

And again, even more grandly:

Like the old politburos, the new politburo styled itself as the enemy of the elite and the friend of the masses, dedicated to giving consumers what they wanted, but to Andreas (who, admittedly, had never learned how to want stuff) it seemed as if the Internet was governed more by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten. In the Republic, people had been terrified of the state; under the New Regime, what terrified them was the state of nature: kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. In both cases, the fear was entirely reasonable; indeed, it was the product
of reason.

So, in this half of Purity’s formal hybrid, we have an argument: the Internet is the new totalitarianism, and Purity is itself a statement of dissidence.

The argument isn’t particularly interesting, although it will be a big, fat target for Franzen’s critics, for those who mock his self-dramatizing (but understandable) Twitterlessness and inept forays into online controversies (yet who hasn’t come off badly in some thread somewhere?). What is interesting, if demoralizing, is how mechanical, how algebraic, and how ultimately clumsy Franzen’s formal hybrid has become. His novels have always been interested in resolutions—happier outcomes given to characters who outlive their crises—but not necessarily solutions. Purity’s historical/political plot, however, offers a totalizing diagnosis of a contemporary malady, and the domestic/realist plot offers a cure: the ultimately reasonable niceness of Pip, who recoils with instinctive distaste from Wolf’s predatory aura. Instead of friction and ramifying complexity and doubt, we get soft catharsis. To get there Franzen has to jettison the wrenching outcome of the Great Expectations plot, in which the revelation of a past to which one has been blind opens up a vista of uncorrectable error, poisoning even the memories one thought one had.

The catharsis hinges on a subplot involving two American journalists, Tom Aberant and Leila Helou, who hire Pip to work for them after her Bolivian adventure. Eventually we learn that Tom met Wolf in Berlin during the chaos of the Wall’s demolition and helped him relocate the body of Annagret’s stepfather to a more secure location (where he watches, appalled, as Wolf ejaculates over the newly dug grave). When we first meet Tom, what we know is that he has started an independent online investigative venue with seed money from his ex-wife’s fantastically wealthy father, and that he is romantically involved with Leila, a tenacious reporter still married to an embittered novelist and creative writing professor, who complains at one point, inspired by whiskey: “So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans.” We might think that the realist muddle of Tom and Leila’s lives—the modest ambitions of the feet-on-the-ground journalism they espouse, the intractable complications of their middle-aged affair—will provide an alternative to Wolf’s totalitarian-Internet fantasies of total transparency. But while Franzen clearly sympathizes with their version of the future of journalism, the texture is thin, the narrative attention rote. The subject of their work, as with Wolf, is mentioned parenthetically, as a series of asides or pretexts; aside from a minor plot strand involving the theft of a dummy nuclear device, the content of the secrets that Tom and Leila uncover, and that Wolf exposes online in bulk, are only sketched.


What in an earlier Franzen novel would have been the core of the matter—the struggle between Wolf’s reach as a celebrity and Tom and Leila’s unheralded, possibly futile diligence—is merely a plot hinge to reunite Pip with her father, and to disclose to her the Dickensian secret of her mother’s life: the mammoth inheritance she has long resisted from her family’s enormous, sinister agribusiness. The generation of Pip’s parents has spent their lives in hapless and strenuous rebellion against such legacies—as, for that matter, have the figures in several of Franzen’s other novels. No such resistance animates Pip, who greets the news with none of the shock or readjustment her Dickensian namesake feels when greeted with the news of the dirty origins of his gentility. Pip convinces her mother to use the money to pay off her student loans, buy the Oakland squat for her friends, and provide a modest monthly stipend with some left over for graduate school tuition. It’s a compromise between parent and child, defeatist Gen-Xer and flexible millennial, in which a small enough dividend solves the calculus of an uneasy conscience. “There’s got to be a way to forgive and move on,” she sagely chides her mother.

It’s a “realistic” ending—consistent with Pip’s uncommitted psychology, with her generation’s suspicion of ideological fixity; a probable outcome—but without “realism,” if by that we mean a sense of how large impersonal processes impinge painfully on small lives. It’s also a shocking revision to Dickens: no confrontation with one’s own bad faith, no grip of the past on the present—just sensible, evenhanded practicality, the novel’s present dissolving the nightmare of the past. Wolf kills himself, Pip’s student debt evaporates, the future is open to her. All it took was a willingness to use the information the Internet provided—one of the novel’s few ironies—and then, once it’s been put to use, to hit Delete on the rest. How reasonable; how nice!

The problem here is niceness. Ordinary, unprincipled, reflexive kindness, a refusal to do harm that is also a self-protective refusal to get too involved with the sources of the harm one hasn’t done; a social lubricant that is also psychologically isolating; a weak but stubborn kind of justice built on paralyzing inhibitions. As a territory, it is worthy of a novel, even a great one; but in writing Purity as a defense of his cultural positions, on the Internet above all, Franzen has turned niceness into an ethic rather than taken it on as his subject. The result is the abandonment of what had been his greatest strength, his ability to chart the contortions into which niceness wraps itself.

A “nice” realism, rather than a realism about niceness, is not a memorable one.

At his best Franzen has been a tragicomedian of American niceness: its political naïveté, its partially sheathed aggressiveness, its relentless and sometimes surreal drive to conformity. Niceness has a geography in Franzen, associated with the Midwest—St. Louis in The Corrections, St. Paul in Freedom—and its typical situations; it erupts most notably in Franzen’s skill at evoking the mixture of balked loathing and tepid considerateness, a kind of limping on, that exists between siblings. Importantly, Purity is a novel of only children. One felt that Franzen understood niceness from the inside and hated his training in it. Its push and pull was his ground in the way that the ebb and flow of sexual passion was Lawrence’s. There is still an echo of that older Franzen in Purity, when Tom, on his way to an ill-advised tryst with his estranged wife, finds himself trapped not by desire but by niceness and the aggression it both spawns and smothers:

I considered, quite seriously, strangling her to death while I fucked her and then throwing myself in front of the 8:11 bus. The idea was not without its logic and appeal. But there were the bus driver’s feelings to consider …

Rueful commentary on niceness is otherwise rare in Purity, although the novel’s difficult mothers—perhaps the novel’s strongest element—offer memorable portraits of women who resist its allure; indeed, one of those women mocks Tom’s youthful literary ambitions by calling him “just a very nice person, Denver-born.” Much of the interest of Franzen’s earlier novels was his Quentin-Compson-like relation to Midwestern niceness—“I don’t hate it!” his novels seemed to be shrieking. In Purity, he seems here to have reached an accommodation with it, and in Pip Tyler found a figure who could exemplify its virtues without its baggage.

As an ethic, niceness is the opposite of purity: it yields quick preemptive forgiveness, ad hoc compromises between desire and obligation, being willing to sacrifice the desires of others in exchange for sacrificing one’s own. As a plot, it has a way of making narrative interest disappear. If it is scarred, fragile, or about to erupt into hostility, it can be fascinating, but taken straight, niceness has a way of rendering every story of how things came to be irrelevant. When Purity excises Wolf neatly from the story and places moral weight on Pip’s encouragement of her mother to accept the bequest that had poisoned her life, to come to a forgiving forgetfulness of where that money may have come from, it espouses compromise without exploring it. A “nice” realism, rather than a realism about niceness, is not a memorable one.

And in doing so, Purity paradoxically loses sight of its own argument about, well, purity: although Franzen wants to encourage a suspicion of the drive toward purity that he reads as endemic to Internet activism, he has written a novel that is virtually a purification rite. The Internet bogeyman Andreas Wolf sacrifices himself, and absolves us; Pip accepts her inheritance and cleanses it with good future intentions, reaping the reward of forgiving her parents. Treats and consolations all around! It is a perversely uncomplicated plea on behalf of, supposedly, complications and nuance. Realism might be particularly good at capturing American niceness; but it can’t do that by playing nice, by believing what realism’s antagonists say about its banality. Better to be cruel. icon

  1. Weiner’s fullest critique of Franzen’s elitist literary gatekeeping was produced for her blog, A Moment of Jen; see her post of February 13, 2015.
  2. See Marcus’s coruscating “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It: A Correction,” Harper’s (October 2005), pp. 39–52. As elsewhere, but here most notably, Franzen and realism per se—in this case a commercialized, “populist,” banal realism—are indistinguishable targets.
Featured image: Berlin, July 4, 1987. Photograph by Thomas Uhlemann / German Federal Archives