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Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’

By posted at 6:00 am on August 27, 2015 42

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1.
There are a few digs at you, reader, in Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s big new novel. Here’s one buried in the musings of Andreas Wolf, the sociopathic leader of a data-dumping transparency project — one analogous to but at odds with WikiLeaks: “The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death.” Have you read a take or a tweet excoriating Jonathan Franzen? You inhabit a world “governed…by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”

Ironically, the Internet — the thing with which Franzen’s opprobrium is most frequently associated — is also the vehicle by which his utterances become collectively memorable. The Internet is why I know, for example, that 20 years ago, Franzen expressed anxiety about  cultural irrelevance in the type of tone-deaf revelation primed to annoy less-famous writers and destined to become characteristic: “I had already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.”

No one should be permanently lashed to his or her remarks of decades past, but Franzen, with his frequent public grumping, invites a certain amount of scrutiny. And despite the easy prey of Franzen’s Vogue shoots, that essay, “Perchance to Dream,” published in Harper’s in 1996, contains an artist’s statement that remains the tidiest, most cogent thesis on the project of Franzen’s writing: “It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.”

Of course, nailing the “public context” was a source of considerable anxiety:

I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale? Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change…

With Purity, the project is long, the cultural change significant, time of the essence. Time presses in all of Franzen’s novels, for reasons of health — human or environmental — or economics, or plate tectonics. In his latest, several plot devices add urgency: there’s a home on the verge of foreclosure, a sensational news story in danger of being scooped, more data in need of the “disinfecting” sunshine of the aforementioned Wolf’s Sunlight Project.

coverIf there’s anything that denotes a Franzen text, it’s a socio-cultural rant, and the slightly Bill-and-Ted-like deployment of the adjective “excellent.” Here’s Walter Berglund of Franzen’s last novel, Freedom, telling the employees of an Appalachian body-armor plant what’s what:

‘You, too, can help denude every last scrap of native habitat in Asia, Africa, and South America! You, too, can buy six-foot-wide plasma TV screens that consume unbelievable amounts of energy, even when they’re not turned on. But that’s OK, because that’s why we threw you out of your homes in the first place, so we could strip-mine your ancestral hills and feed the coal-fired generators that are the number-one of cause of global warming and other excellent things like acid rain.’

coverOr Chip of The Corrections, foaming at the sister who is just trying to get him upstairs for a parental lunch:

‘I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed. I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as “diseased.” A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroy the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental “health” is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.’

Franzen, for all that he attracts online derision, knows that nobody is irredeemable who has a sense of humor (as he told the Guardian in a recent profile, he considers himself a “comic novelist”). Comic, ranting males abound in his last two novels, but Purity as a whole is comparatively humorless in ways that are both intentional and not; humor’s absence, on the intentional front, is what damns the leaker Wolf and a cruelly drawn character named Anabel Laird, the mother of the novel’s heroine, Purity “Pip” Tyler.

coverPurity is baggy — comprising several deep, character-driven sections linked together by a series of unlikely events. Wolf’s segments are in a jarring, significantly darker key than that of Franzen’s previous fiction. Wolf wrestles throughout the book with a second self he calls “the Killer;” in some especially gross moments he almost channels Jonathan Littell’s seemingly placid, ultimately depraved Nazi narrator in The Kindly Ones. Here’s Wolf recalling his troubled mother: “He remembered remembering, when he saw her pussy in the rose garden, that this wasn’t the first time he’d seen it — that something he’s thought was a disturbing dream from his early childhood hadn’t actually been a dream.” Or here, exercising his sexual frustrations about Pip: “It was a relief to stop fighting the Killer and submit to the evil of his idea; it turned him on so much that he went to the spot on the floor where Pip had stood naked and used the panties she’d left to milk himself, three times, of the substance he hadn’t spent in her…”

Purity’s “public context,” as Franzen put it in 1996, also feels more urgent than that of his previous work; there’s a polemic built into Wolf that his character is finally a bit too flimsy to support. You’d think that someone like Wolf would worship the Internet for its purifying possibilities; but its potentiality is more obliterating — more like the state in George Orwell’s Oceania — than it is a vehicle for liberation. In Wolf’s conception, the Internet is aligned with the totalitarian system that characterized the East Germany of his youth: “If — and only if — you had enough money and/or tech capability, you could control your Internet persona and, thus, your destiny and your virtual afterlife. Optimize or die. Kill or be killed.” In a keystone passage, Franzen intersperses a description of East Germany under Socialism with the tech orthodoxies and infelicities of the present day:

The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory of the class enemy was assured. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.

It’s unclear, ultimately, why Wolf, with his mistrust of the Internet’s role in society, has spent so much time, so much effort, to set up his Bolivian hacker’s commune. (Because he’s a little insane, basically.) And his Sunlight Project, apart from the spectacular descriptions of its setting in a Bolivian valley, takes place essentially in front of a green screen, cobbled together with references to a “private fiber-optic line,” a “network of malcontents and hackers,” “facial-recognition software,” or an “impenetrable maze of electronic red herrings to protect the source.”

Perhaps due to generational differences, something about Franzen’s “public context” has never quite rung true to me — his college freshman’s September 11th in Freedom didn’t match my freshman self, staring blank-faced at the television in week two of college. But it has also never much mattered to me, because I think Franzen’s ability to convey the private experience is often transcendent and perfect. I can just look at the final paragraph of The Corrections and start crying — Alfred and Enid and the ice chip and the changes she’s going to make in her life. Goddamn.

But in Purity, like Freedom, the world is sometimes only an echo of a world that should be familiar. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was “no there there,” and Franzen seems content to take her at her word. Pip, too, occasionally lacks a “there;” in the end she works as a character — you root for her happiness — but Franzen includes oddly few context clues for her. Who were the friends that Pip slowly broke up with via aloof text messages and hangout-cancellations? What clothes did they wear; what things did they read; what shows did they watch? Barring financial constraints, would Pip see Magic Mike XXL in the theater? $130,000 in student loans is alleged to loom over Pip, clouding her future happiness, but the day-to-day math of her straitened circumstances is missing, with none of the lovingly crafted accounting of pitiful finances that resulted in Chip Lambert’s memorable salmon-down-the-pants scene in The Corrections. Nothing about the description of the Oakland squatters’ domicile that Purity inhabits — or her co-residents — necessarily convinces the reader that Jonathan Franzen has embedded with Occupiers and freegans.

Purity sang for me in its least overtly culturally relevant moments — like the complex romantic history of Pip’s mentor (and Wolf’s brother/foil) Tom Aberant, or that of his partner Leila Helou, who blooms into brilliant life for one section and then more or less fades away. There’s the twisted romance of Tom and Pip’s mother, Anabel, put forth in a memoir saved on Tom’s hard drive as “A river of meat.” Like Patty Berglund in Freedom, Tom’s explosive personal document drives events in the text. This is a vengeful — on Franzen’s part, it seems — piece of writing that describes Tom’s long marriage with a comically unhinged harpy. Anabel is an artist; for much of their marriage she is at work on a decade-long performance piece visually documenting every centimeter of her own body: “You need to do whatever it takes to be finished,” Tom tells her. “You know I’ve never finished anything in my life,” she says.

She beat her fists on her offending head. It took me two hours to talk her down and then a further hour to emerge from the sulk she’d put me in by suggesting that my aesthetic was vulgar. Then, for three hours, I helped her block out a rough schedule for completing her project, and then, for another hour, I began the transfer of important thoughts from the first of her forty-odd notebooks into a new notebook, written by me. Then it was time for her three hours of exercise.

It’s cruel, but it works. We never get Anabel’s point of view, although Pip more or less corroborates Tom’s account with her experience of being Anabel’s dutiful child. But unlike Tom, Pip has access to Anabel’s most endearing feature: “The pure, spontaneous love in that smile, every time she’d caught sight of Pip…Her mother had needed to give love and receive it…Was that so monstrous?”

2.
In a recent article in Harper’s, William Deresiewicz lamented the neoliberalism that has taken over the university campus. “For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today…presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options.” Franzen gives Pip a healthy dose of agency, considering the challenges posed by her financial situation and her difficult mother, but he also gives her a Dickensian surprise, making a millennial fairy-tale out of the story that somewhat corroborates Pip’s oblivious young-person-ness: “The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable…”

As Pip hits tennis balls with a young man in a touching, chaste courtship, Franzen gives us all tacit permission to stop caring about the big stuff; it’s nearly an acknowledgement that the big stuff, globally speaking, is never really what matters in his novels — not nearly so much as love, anyway: “All over the state, reservoirs and wells were going dry, the taste and clarity of tap water worsening, farmers suffering, Northern Californians conserving while Orange County set new records for monthly consumption, but none of this mattered for the hour and a half that she was on the court with Jason.”

coverFranzen’s last book was The Kraus Project, an annotated translation of essays by the Viennese writer Karl Kraus. In one of these, Kraus lashes out against a style of brief, impressionistic journalism ascendant in his day. “Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head,” Kraus grumped, and thus provided a point of entry for Franzen’s own celebrated brand of grumping. By coincidence, mere days after the release of Purity, New Directions will publish a collection of feuilletons by Joseph Roth, the great Austro-Hungarian novelist and journalist — and a contemporary of Kraus — beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann. Roth was a master of shedding light onto the “public context” in the uneasy interwar moment when Germany was gearing up for the great smash-up, when “in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they [were] now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on grimy walls.”

I read this haunting compilation — one which utterly gives the lie to Kraus’s denigration of the feuilleton form — concurrently with Purity. About Germany in this awful, pregnant moment, Roth wrote:

Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a sick patient will know that the hours are not all pathos and anguish. The sick man will talk all kinds of nonsense, ridiculous, trivial, unworthy of himself and his condition. He is missing the regulating consciousness. That’s just want is missing in Germany: the regulating consciousness.

I can’t say how well Franzen writes Germany — according to Roth in 1923, it is the “least understood nation in all of Europe” — but I know that he is interested in the “regulating consciousness.” The noble art of journalism practiced well, the good sense of Pip, whatever it is that keeps Tom from strangling Anabel, whatever it is that’s lacking from Andreas Wolf’s strange brain — these things are that consciousness embodied. Franzen is also, I think, interested in creating the kind of luminous societal prophesy that animates Roth’s short, wondrous pieces. But Roth himself knew the pitfalls of that effort:

From time to time I think of describing the ‘German,’ or defining his ‘typical’ existence. Probably that isn’t possible. Even when I sense the presence of such a thing, I am unable to define it. What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory.

I think Jonathan Franzen is a wonderful novelist. I don’t know him, but I often feel like he knows me, and for that I love him. His work is most vulnerable to attack when it tries too visibly to be the chief diagnoser and prognosticator of “the culture.” It is most meaningful when it deals in those “singularities within the profusion.” Still, it endeavors always to do both — and therein, I think, lies its essential goodness, its essential purity.

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42 Responses to “Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’”

  1. Jack M
    at 7:57 am on August 27, 2015

    Thank you for not joining the Beat Up Jonathan Franzen Club. The book isn’t even out yet and all the critics are using their knives to carve him up. Nice to see a different perspective.

  2. Curtis
    at 9:36 am on August 27, 2015

    Who is carving up the Franz? I’m legitimately curious, I feel like I’ve read many reviews and have yet to come across any knife work.

    That said, it shouldn’t be surprising if there is a backlash with this one. The praise for Freedom was goddamn orgasmic – literally dozens of reviews included the phrase “Great American Novel” – but once the initial wave of hype subsided it became clear how thoroughly mediocre (to put it kindly) it is.

    Critics have a tendency to over-correct, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see some carving.

    Personally, it seems that with Freedom and Purity, Franz has become the kind of writer who builds his novels around a checklist of cultural touchpoints (Eggers seems to have gone down this road too). So his books become this odd amalgam of Farmer’s Almanac-esque “Hey Remember The 2010s?” plotting/ciphers and fairly human characters experiencing fairly human emotions. If he would quit trying to jam the How We Live Now bullet points into his novels and focus on the characters, I think he could write a damn fine novel. But it seems as though he’s comfortable executing his formula, which guarantees big sales, book-club popularity, and critical reception (and helpful backlash), but also, in a year or so, a huge influx of said book at the local used book store, and in five years, a book that has not aged well.

    I’d go so far as to say Franz’s career says more about our culture than any of his books do. He starts writing weird, sorta-ambitious, sorta-pomo novels…can’t stand the obscurity…decides to consciously skew more commercial…Corrections/9-11/Oprah…re-invents self as brand…literati buy into the brand…cover of Time…etc etc.

  3. Jack M
    at 10:06 am on August 27, 2015

    There’s a link to one right here on this website. The Daily Beast article, “Jonathan Franzen’s Icky Secret.”

  4. Curtis
    at 10:53 am on August 27, 2015

    Hm. You said “all the critics are using their knives to carve him up”…that’s one review, a pretty mild one at that. I’ve read about a dozen positive ones. Are you saying Franzen should be exempt from negative reviews?

  5. timble
    at 1:01 pm on August 27, 2015

    I rather enjoyed Harper’s review: http://harpers.org/archive/2015/09/the-prisoner-of-sex-2/

    Franzen’s inability to project beyond his middle-aged middle-classed white maleness is really his only severe weakness.

  6. Lydia Kiesling
    at 1:04 pm on August 27, 2015

    Yes, timble, I thought that review was fantastically well done.

  7. Curtis
    at 1:33 pm on August 27, 2015

    Eh, the Harper’s review is about 50% convoluted plot summary/book report. I thought it was pretty weak as a piece of criticism.

    Considering Franzen’s target audience is middle-aged (upper) middle-class whites (okay, males AND females), I think that “weakness” has served him pretty well.

    It’s his laziness as a writer than really gets me. I.e., in Freedom, writing Patty’s diary not in her voice, but in his, because why exert the intellectual effort? Or his super convenient killing-off of the cartoonish object of Walter’s affection to avoid having to resolve their relationship. His refusal to take any risks or grow as a writer. On and on.

    I won’t even start on his insufferable moralizing.

    So yeah I’d say he has several severe weaknesses. But, to each her own.

  8. Mygod
    at 2:51 pm on August 27, 2015

    A real social critic isn’t universally liked in his time.

    A lot of these reviews seem to go:
    “But Franzen doesn’t like the internet and I write for the internet someone tell him the internet is cool.”

    Well the internet isn’t cool. It sucks. It hasn’t done any of the things it promised. For every positive you can name a negative (more diverse voices, well, there’s more racist voices, etc). And Franzen is brave enough to point that out, but because people are incredibly socially invested in it, dare I say, addicted to it (especially people who write for sites like this) they just can’t stand to hear the negative side. He’s absolutely right, and he’s doing a huge favor to the culture by pointing out the dark aspects of the internet.

  9. Mygod
    at 2:58 pm on August 27, 2015

    Also, I am extremely happy that, like Jack M pointed out, this review does not beat up on Franzen based on his race, gender, and age.

    But there have been plenty of reviews that do, those critics who “sharpen their knives.”

    For example, Curtis Sittenfeld, I’d point to your own review in The Guardian, where you blatantly accuse Franzen of sexism, and dig on him for his race, gender, and age, and also make a serious category error: assuming that because his female characters suck as people, he’s sexist. ALL his characters suck. He fucking hates people. And people, generally, in today’s world, aren’t exactly paragons of virtue all around. Ergo, he’s the perfect novelist for our time.

  10. Curtis
    at 3:24 pm on August 27, 2015

    Mygod, I guess our definition of “brave” differs…Franz branding himself as techno-curmudgeon at the great personal cost of…selling more books?

    Also, what did the Internet ever promise you?

    Also, did it really take Franz to make you realize the Internet aint, like, the greatest thing ever? This has always seemed to me as self-evident.

    I will agree with you, though, that Franz has a bizarre effect on critics. The insane hype around Freedom caused a lot of critics to go blind to the serious literary flaws in the novel. And now the pendulum is swinging. I can’t think of another novelist who inspires such projection – of Franz the man into the novel, of the writing onto Franz the man. It’s just so irresponsible of critics to do this. I don’t get why it’s so difficult to review a book on its merits (or demerits).

  11. Jacques Fleener
    at 3:33 pm on August 27, 2015

    I’m sure Purity is flawed; all his novels have been. Maybe I will like it, maybe I won’t. I’m 2 for 4 on Franzen novels. But I am doing what I can not to go into it thinking it will be either good or bad. I usually find when I read a book that I have no trouble determining how I feel about it. So I never get why people spend so much time deciding how they’ll feel before they read books.

  12. Anon
    at 4:07 pm on August 27, 2015

    If I want to read contemporary musings by a middle-aged white prick I’ll save myself the money and read my emails instead.

  13. timble
    at 4:08 pm on August 27, 2015

    I think Franzen is polarizing because he’s basically a very talented Dan Brown.

    @Mygod

    Franzen is brave? Would it be brave to call the printing press a bad invention, because of all the racist books? Gimme a break. Without the internet, nobody would know the hell Franzen is. The truth is, the internet has only degraded the social standing of white middle/upper class Americans (who have always had access to and control over what we only now call ‘mainstream media’), and improved the standing of everyone else. Franzen simply doesn’t have any idea what it feels like to be voiceless, or more pointedly, disconnected, and has no appreciation for the power of the internet to enfranchise historically suppressed people. That’s okay, though, because he’s just a curmudgeon?

    @Jacques Fleener

    I would hope people read reviews not to decide how to feel about a book they are going to read, but to decide whether they are going to read the book at all.

  14. Mygod
    at 5:08 pm on August 27, 2015

    @timble lol – you’re literally a Franzen character.

    Your rant on how great the internet is at degrading white middle-class Americans (yay! fuck the middle class and white people!!!) basically disproves the point Curtis was trying to make and show that it is true that plenty of people, timble obviously included, believe that internet culture is some great savior. It’s a modern-day sacred cow.

    Franzen takes it to task, everyone gets angry and upset. When you’re down to calling out someone’s race, gender, and age, you’re both the lowest of the low, and also so clearly out of arguments.

  15. timble
    at 7:39 pm on August 27, 2015

    @Mygod

    Your disingenuous reply is a great example of why I hate “internet culture”. But I don’t trash Don DeLillo and Janis Joplin just because America also spawned Big Macs and Michael Bay. Franzen, on the other hand, clearly hasn’t a fucking clue what the internet is about, judging by any number of stupid things he’s said about it. What he doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care to understand, is that just because he finds Amazon and Facebook and Twitter and WikiLeaks irritating, irrelevant, annoying, destructive, deadening, and/or foreshadowing of an apocalyptic end to culture (which is typically about white male culture–his culture, to be sure, but, well, you’ve probably stopped reading), doesn’t mean all these things are something entirely different to, say, a 15-year-old gay kid in South Africa, or a 50-year-old Ukrainian writer in Vladivostok, or a Muslim woman in Lebanon. Someone, in other words, who might one day find themselves in a Franzen novel, but to their surprise, when they try to speak, nothing but a little Franzen comes out.

  16. timble
    at 7:40 pm on August 27, 2015

    *all these things -aren’t- something entirely different

  17. heather curran
    at 6:27 am on August 28, 2015

    Really interesting, measured and dispassionate review Lydia, which engendered a lively discussion. It is compelling to me that it is nearly impossible to separate the man from the book. Is it because his characters are perceived as one dimensional mouth pieces for his own views? Perhaps. I can see that a bit. I’ve observed it with Amis and McEwan. I hope it isn’t because he is a white, middle aged man, because that is just dumb. I mean he can’t very well help that, although maybe the point being made is that his status there has compromised his ability to write a character that rings true. Maybe his next book will be 500 pages of “Franzen” written over and over again? Anyway, I also want to acknowledge Anon’s comments about reading his own e-mails if he wants to read anything by a white middle aged prick. I spit out my coffee laughing. And, since no one is holding a gun to my head forcing me to read Purity, I will continue with Stella Gibbon’s back list…thank you Vintage Classics.

  18. Eric S
    at 9:35 am on August 28, 2015

    The real question is this: where’s the hot Indian femme fatale in Purity?

  19. Tom B.
    at 11:50 am on August 30, 2015

    While I will probably read Purity — I greatly enjoyed The Corrections and, to a lesser extent, Freedom — I am amused by the attention his work draws. For the most part, those books are well-wrought fiction of the sort that used to be called middle brow. Purity gets beaucoup attention while, for example, The Dying Grass — one of the best American novels in many years — has been mentioned at this site once, in its 2015 book preview, and not at all otherwise. (It has been studiously ignored by The New Yorker and the daily New York Times book column — probably that’s for the best, as no one needs to know what James Wood or Michiko Kakutani thinks of it.)
    The Dying Grass strides the American literary field like an elephant strides above ants. But then, one can probably read Purity in between checking text messages. A fable about a protagonist charmingly named Pip is so much more reader-friendly than a novel about our murderous theft of this continent, a book whose design teaches you how to read it, a book whose innovative structure makes one think that William Gaddis — Franzen’s Mr. Difficult — was a pussy.

  20. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 3:00 pm on August 30, 2015

    The thing about Vollmann, though, is that he’s incredibly tedious and often very (unintentionally) silly. But high-brow yes, for whatever it’s worth, though you seem to be under the impression that high-brow books used to be widely purchased, read, and discussed. It seems unsurprising, almost tautological, that “well-wrought middle brow” fiction would be what most intelligent readers would be interested in. This description would historically include stuff like Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, etc., also wide lens social novels that, like Franzen per Lydia’s review, are usually more interesting when they focus on particular characters.

  21. Tom B.
    at 4:24 pm on August 30, 2015

    Under no such impression, I assure you. Gaddis labored mostly in obscurity, and plenty of people bought Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest, but how many stuck with either to the end?

    I have had a similar experience with some Vollmann — tedium, unintentional silliness — but he avoids those problems in The Dying Grass, though of course it might be *a bit* shorter. I’m mainly disappointed that this extraordinary novel isn’t being discussed in places where it SHOULD be part of the literary conversation, like The Millions. It says something discouraging about the current audience for literary fiction — not everything should be easy.

  22. M Morgan
    at 11:09 pm on August 30, 2015

    Well I’ve been on the fence about The Dying Grass but you might’ve convinced me to give it a try. I’ve gone at multiple Vollmann books and liked most of them, but the only one I’ve loved was his short, strange hobo-reportage book Riding Toward Everywhere. He’s one of those writers I find consistently interesting if not consistently great, and I always assumed one of these days he’d put out an actual masterpiece. And I’ll probably also read Purity.

  23. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 11:15 pm on August 30, 2015

    Tom B,

    Interesting to hear you say that, bc I’ve generally found Vollmann fans to be somewhat fanatical and undiscerning about everything he writes. The reviews I’ve seen have looked good, maybe I will give him another shot (tried WV a couple of times 10+ years ago and found him somewhat unreadable). Thanks for the post and response.

  24. CCV
    at 6:42 am on August 31, 2015

    I’ll argue Franzen doesn’t place characters in dynamic social settings at all. Haven’t read Purity, but the conflicts of his tone deaf novels centering on what he calls middle-class–but in contemporary context are clearly upper-middle at worst–suburbia aren’t relevant to anyone outside that bubble and his insights about matters beyond are surface deep. Born and raised within that Midwest malaise where simple “dysfunction” is elevated to a grand issue in our time, Franzen hasn’t attempted to venture beyond in all his years, sitting back reading sanitized New Yorker fiction and staring down his nose at all us plebes who dare connect with the modern world and its (very real) problems while failing to recognize the brilliance he’s been ordained with by the anesthetizing force of academia…unless he has, indeed, engaged at last with this novel. If so, I salute him for finally coming into the twenty-first century, at last, where REAL problems are life or death, future or no future, desperately in need of artists to address them as best they can to inspire brave people to step up and save us. But I doubt it.

  25. Maureen Murphy
    at 1:29 pm on August 31, 2015

    It IS always fascinating to see where William Vollmann will go next!

    But for all the high-brow, lo-brow, Great American Novel, and rumbling Twitters about Mr. Franzen, Edward P. Jones, in my opinion, has already blown all living fiction writers out of the water just on the basis of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” “Lost In The City,” and “The Known World.”

    Transcending his time, gender, race, and location, he ranks up there with Dickens, and is the James Joyce of Washington DC. A creative force of dazzling originality and epic confidence. I am thrilled to know he yet lives in Northwest DC, watching “Judge Judy,” burning chicken, and creating to the time clock of his own imagination. Long may he write!

  26. Tom B.
    at 7:58 pm on September 1, 2015

    Right. I just wish Jones wrote more.
    Also, after reading CCV’s comments, I hereby take back anything I ever said bad about Mr. F.

  27. Mygod
    at 11:21 am on September 2, 2015

    @CCV

    If you think Jonathan Franzen is an “academic writer” or has the backing of academia…. you simply aren’t in academia.

  28. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 1:51 am on September 5, 2015

    @Mygod,

    This is very very true. It’s hard, in fact, to think of a writer who has less of the academy’s backing than JF.

  29. Kirk
    at 2:24 pm on September 8, 2015

    “Franzen’s inability to project beyond his middle-aged middle-classed white maleness is really his only severe weakness” ?.

    You never hear this type of thing said about Toni Morrison.

  30. Tom B.
    at 6:29 pm on September 8, 2015

    Yeah, Toni Morrison has never had a problem with that.

  31. Mygod
    at 2:01 pm on September 9, 2015

    That’s cause if someone said about Toni Morrison:

    “Morrison’s inability to project beyond her middle-aged middle-classed black femaleness is really her only severe weakness”

    That person would be crucified in the town square of the internet. I get that it’s not the same magnitude of offense when someone degrades Franzen for his race/gender, but just because one is worse than the other doesn’t make it okay.

  32. heather curran
    at 6:02 pm on September 9, 2015

    Kirk, mygod and tom, rest assured not all women think like that. Like I said, no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head to read this book. It wasn’t the only book published in September. I also bought Joy Williamson, Bernardine Bishop, Melanie Finn, Mina Alvar, Tessa Hadley as well as the new William Boyd and Justin Cartwright. There is a wealth of books to choose from. (I believe even Jennifer Weiner might have a new one out).

  33. heather curran
    at 6:39 pm on September 11, 2015

    Ugh * mia * Alvar and Joy * williams *. Sorry!

  34. mark
    at 7:42 pm on January 1, 2016

    hi…in franzen’s “purity”….why, on page 431, say “i never saw him again”, referring i believe to andreas?

  35. Queenie Chiasitiwe
    at 4:52 pm on January 2, 2016

    The “she’s-pretty-much-hot-as-a-model” count in Purity is so high, it’s as though the book is a novelization of a 12-part TV series full of cameos from people who “know” Terry Richardson. Oh, and then one of the buxom hotties turns out, at the (yes, I know, Dickensian) end to be an heiress worth billions. Yawn. So why no flying carpets or crazy, unfettered-imagination stuff like plain men falling utterly in love with plain women, while you’re at it, Franzen? Eh? Have you learned *nothing* from Chip Lambert’s script-writing debacle…? Purity is the kind of thing Franzen could *only* get away with writing because DFW is dead. No offence meant to Franzen’s fans…

  36. Moe Murph/Maureen Murphy
    at 7:29 pm on January 2, 2016

    @Queenie Chiasitiwe

    Have been enjoying following your recent remarks here on Millions. OK, that is the funniest assessment of an author I’ve ever heard. Your comments on plain men and women falling in love, and the “she’s-pretty-much-hot-as-a-model” count pack an even more devastating punch, I dare say, when We Mortals click on your link! : )

    Moe Murph
    (“It’s a…nice face” – Makeup Consultant – Macy’s)

  37. Queenie Chiasitiwe
    at 1:20 am on January 3, 2016

    Hey Moe! Thanks much! By commenting, you’ve saved me from being devastatingly embarrassed… It was only after after sassily pressing “submit comment” that I noticed that this article is from August of 2015! Ugh! The Internet is an endless opportunity for me to make an idiot of myself! But I’m having fun! Hugs to you, Moe, and Happy Newness 2016!

  38. Moe Murph/Maureen Murphy
    at 11:09 am on January 5, 2016

    Hi @QueenieChiasitiwe… I will keep you company here at the tail end of the “Purity” comments. I have been thinking more soberly about the instinctive distaste many women feel for Franzen’s work, and think it boils down to the issue of varicose veins.

    I remember listening to a draft short story, read by a young (mid-20’s) man in a creative writing class we both took. He had taught English in Korea and was returning home via a long drive over the U.S. from west to east. He stopped at a small coffee shop in Las Vegas, and mentioned the “dumpy middle-aged waitress with ink-blue varicose veins.” How pleased he was with his description! How apt his choice of adjective! What repulsed me was his diminution of this human being. His entire mindset, his way of looking at the world, was crystal clear as he read in a clear and energetic voice. He was on a Journey Home to embark on his Career as the Young Writer in Iowa. This waitress was grist for his creative mill, and no more.

    Now, the funny thing was, I was instantly bored and distracted from his tale and spend the rest of the time he was reading wondering about the Waitress with Varicose Veins! Who was this woman? How did she end up at the coffee shop? Was she the ex-wife of a hard-luck close-up coin magician who left town and stuck her with the hotel bill? An ex-showgirl? On the lam from Phoenix? Did she sometimes drive over at night to the junked neon lot and poke about among the other abandoned figures?

    I hated what she had been reduced to, and stuck her into my writer’s journal. Nothing ever happened to her (yet) but maybe it will. That is what I hate about Franzen’s writing. I hate the reduction of the female characters to “markers.” I hate the blindness to his own external view. I hate his blithe pronouncements on another writer’s work that he has never read. I hate the fact he would even joke about adopting “an Iraqi war orphan” to learn about kids. I’m also cheesed off about the externality of his books, which seem spring not from some deep need to access art from the well of the collective unconscious, but his need as an anointed oracle to write his next book on “the events of the day.” How perfect that he ends up on the Royal Booklist for the President’s vacation.

    But enough venting. As noted above, it all boils down to the varicose veins!

    Moe Murph/Maureen Murphy

  39. Queenie Chiasitiwe
    at 1:24 pm on January 5, 2016

    OMG, MOE! So much to take in, so many “direct hits”, there!

    Because, first of all, while The Authorial Everymen are eternally busy congratulating themselves on their sensitivity in cursorily addressing the thorny issue of “The Other”, they haven’t the time to consider the fact the many of the so-called Other are “The Other” not for intrinsic reasons but simply because they have been Othered… by The Everymen!

    Your Not-Really-Model-Material Waitress (aka Everywoman) gets Othered and flattened and relegated to her spot in the scenery for a flaw no worse than male pattern baldness or beer belly (certainly not as bad as bushels-of-nose-hair syndrome)… if the majority of the readership can’t identify with *her* to the extent that she deserves a package of details or even a voice, who are they? Are Young Male Models the target demographic for Literary Fiction, these days, or is there a kind of sleight of hand at work, here? The “magic of Lit” perhaps being less about Imaginary Realms on the page than the self-servingly-delusional state too many Dudes enter into order to identify with the Model-Boinkers who pepper the Franzonian Genre. And, to the Dudes reading this: I LOVE YOU! I do. But, come on… let’s get Realish. Why doesn’t the Pot want to read about The Kettle?

    I mean: sure. “Chick Lit” is rotten with shallow, escapist, wish-fulfilment texts of mega-foxes strapped to narrative arcs of Rape-Lite and chisel-jawed Pots of Gold, but what bugs me is that Franzen and his ilk are held up as ABOVE all that; his junk is treated as LIT with a capital DICK while Fifty Shades of Rape is considered lucrative swill for the Chick Unwashed and sniffed at. Well, I sniffed at PURITY and I smelled cheese. The fact being that Franzen’s junk belongs to yet another cheezy genre, merely. It’s shallow escapism for Boymen with two-plus years of college under their belts. With which I have no problem, per se! But call it what it is.

    The difference between the divine ambiguity of SERIOUS LIT and the pointed panderings of Shallow Escapism is obvious, if we’re paying attention, and in your Varicose Veins trope you’ve provided a very good Litmus Test, Moe!

    We need to start a Facebook meme: “I AM VARICOSE VEINS”

  40. Queenie Chiasitiwe
    at 1:29 pm on January 5, 2016

    correction: ” too many Dudes enter into IN order to identify”

  41. Moe Murph/Maureen Murphy
    at 2:22 pm on January 6, 2016

    @QueenieChiasitiwe Just to reassure you that I am not a perennially cranky misanthrope-ess, just a mention again of my writer’s idol (further info above, in case you missed at 8/31/2015):

    [“Edward P. Jones, in my opinion, has already blown all living fiction writers out of the water just on the basis of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” “Lost In The City,” and “The Known World.”]

  42. Queenie Chiasitiwe
    at 2:10 am on January 7, 2016

    Moe!

    I saw your initial reference to EPJ and I happen to have “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” and I loved that book dearly when it came out (and it was one of the first non-Sci Fi books I bought with my own money)! I have two REAL friends (period; sad but true) and both are writers. The older of my only two real friends is a writer who is also Black, and he doesn’t care for EPJ’s work nearly as much as I do. His reasons are interesting to me and while I don’t entirely agree with his assessment of EPJ’s merits as a writer I feel enlightened by his take on things… but all that’s a discussion for another thread or site, probably!

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