Purity

Tue Sep 8, 2015

Who doesn’t like an inferred apocalypse?* Maybe you remember the theory of The Sopranos’s ending that proposed Tony, Carmela, children, onion rings, and Members Only all were evaporated by a nuclear bomb that Tony had inadvertently helped smuggle into the country. In Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, there’s a seemingly absurd sub-plot involving a cartel attempting to steal a nuclear bomb with the aid of a drug-dealing nuclear supervisor. The plot fails because he trips and severs an artery after the tequila bottle he’s carrying shatters on the pavement. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to gauge how likely that is. It pleased me somehow to think that the happy ending, with Purity “Pip” Tyler securing her inheritance and the love of a young man who wants to revolutionize the teaching of statistics, would soon turn into a post-apocalyptic nightmare after another stolen bomb was detonated. I mean, why bring it up?

Why would I think such terrible things? Some of it is disposition, I understand. But I also think that there’s a deep misanthropy in Franzen that extends to the occasional wish to depopulate the planet. And it’s not the kind of warm and genial fantasy seen at the ending of Dr. Strangelove; with Franzen, it’s personal. I haven’t read all of the reviews of Purity that have appeared thus far. The ones I have did not mention what seemed to me a conspicuous set of parallels between Andreas Wolf, a celebrity leaker, and an American writer Franzen once was on Charlie Rose with. Wolf is not what you’d call a sympathetic character, and it goes quite a bit beyond what you find here. Reviewers may not have seen this, thought it too obvious to mention, were embarrassed by it somehow, or perhaps suspected that it was an interpretive trap of sorts for people inclined to think the worst of Jonathan Franzen.

I’m teaching a class (and writing a book) about how twentieth-century statistics changed (or didn’t) the way writers represented causality, coincidence, and chance. Purity, from its Dickens-titled protagonist to its machine-learning algorithms, calls attention to the author’s manipulation of coincidence. Brazenly, I’d say. There’s a novelist, Charles Blenheim, who suffers through a long period of writer’s block, publishes a “big book” that’s panned by Michiko Kakuntani, and then suffers traumatic injury in a drunk-driving accident. He becomes a more aware and sympathetic character, in some ways, after the accident—willing to provide marginal notes to his students about accurate ways to describe lines of cocaine, for example. I am suspicious of novelists within novels. The idea that Purity is Blenheim’s big novel, despite its interpretive uselessness, crossed my mind several times. I could imagine Kakutani criticizing Blenheim’s overreliance on coincidental plots and misogyny.

As with Freedom, there’s a first-person narrative in Purity that Franzen has not attempted to distinguish from the narrative voice of the rest of the novel. The obvious explanation is that this kind of ventriloquism is beyond his ability (as it was, again, conspicuously not with the other writer haunting the text). Another is that Tom is a novelist himself and will go on to write this story after abandoning journalism. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that Franzen’s commitment to omniscient social realism is so strong that he does not allow himself the bourgeois comfort of subjective viewpoints. (One of his attempts at free indirect discourse, in the conversation between Leila and Phyllisha [182], seems so clumsy that it reminded me of an improvised example written on a chalkboard before a class who couldn’t quite get “repairing” to the outhouse.)

Another thing: which character is a more likely scion of an agribusiness fortune—David Laird or Mason Verger? Anabel, from all that we see, acts as if her father was Mason Verger when he’s presented to us (through Tom’s eyes) as being pretty much the nicest billionaire you could ever hope to find. He re-reads Augie March and knows the New Yorker cover to cover. He leaves Tom many dollars to save journalism in a Season Five of The Wire-like way. The resulting publication, The Denver Independent, becomes a foil in some ways to Wolf’s indiscriminate leaks in his Sunlight Project. That the internet and its media degrades humanity to the point that it should expire in a nuclear holocaust has long been one of Franzen’s key precepts (if phrased somewhat more mildly), and Purity maintains this position. Anabel is identified after a long disappearance through one of Wolf’s hackers utilizing facebook’s machine-learning programs for image identification. That the technical details behind this scheme are ludicrous is not the point; rather, it’s that Franzen sees this kind of complete surveillance and inability to be forgotten as the logical consequence of the network society. If I’m right about what happens next, though, it will come undone and at least the towhees will still be around.

*I do not mean an “implied apocalypse.”