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A Tête-à-Tête about Women, the Internet, and Jonathan Franzen's 'Purity'

Two VICE editors discuss Franzen's latest lightning rod of literary controversy.

af Jennifer Schaffer
06 september 2015, 5:21am

Jonathan Franzen is one of the world's most famous living novelists as well as one of the few writers whose every new book in a bona fide publishing event. His latest tome, Purity, which came out this month, is yet another lightning rod of controversy: It's been mostly praised, sometimes lavishly, but has also called "problematic" and been criticized for being a touch over the top.

The novel takes the form of several interconnected stories starring several different protagonists. There's Pip (short for Purity), a young woman working a dead-end job in San Francisco to pay off her six-figure student debt; Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange–type tech maverick who has a number of secrets from his youth in East Germany; and Tom and Leila, a pair of investigative journalists in Denver. Set across multiple generations and continents like any good American epic, Purity takes readers from a squat in Oakland to a church basement Stasi-controlled East Berlin to Brown University to the urine-tainted bedroom of a physically handicapped alcoholic author in Denver. As evidenced by the fairly disparate reviews that have come out thus far, Franzen fans and dissenters alike will find much to discuss and digest in Purity. We thought we'd get the ball rolling by having a bit of a tête-à-tête between editors Harry Cheadle and Jennifer Schaffer. They tried to avoid revealing too many spoilers, but if you want to avoid knowing anything about the book before you read it, you should probably just go read the book right now.

Harry Cheadle: What struck me about Purity is that it's probably the most intricately plotted of Franzen's big books (the other two being The Corrections and Freedom). I feel like marquee "literary" novels are often admired for their prose style and complexity and their memorable characters, but rarely for their page-turning pacing. Franzen is obviously making a big nod to Dickens by naming the first protagonist we meet "Pip," and the book is pretty Dickensian as well in the way the story moves through a series of twists, reversals, unlikely coincidences, and secrets that are concealed until they are revealed at the moment when they'll have maximum impact. I could see this being made into a melodramatic Netflix drama a la House of Cards, only with a lot more fucking—as usual in a Franzen novel, nearly everyone has some sort of sexual hang-up.

The other thing I liked about this book was that it really tries to engage with contemporary issues. People like to shit on Franzen a lot for a being a misogynist, or a technophobe, or being pompous or whatever—some critiques of him I think are awfully vague—but at least he's grappling with questions like, "What right do people have to keep their own secrets?" New York magazine called him America's "leading public moralist," and I'm sure people who dislike him hate that description but I think it's a novelist's duty, as highfalutin as that sounds, to talk about ethics and morality.

What were your initial impressions of this thing?

Jennifer Schaffer: Oh, I would totally watch a House of Cards-style adaptation of Purity. I almost feel like the book would have been better as a Netflix original series—it's a lot easier to depict cunnilingus on-screen than it is to describe it in words, and this book has a lot of cunnilingus. (Sometimes I feel like Franzen is more self-aware than we give him credit for, and he's just mocking us with his descriptions of sex. He has to know, at this point, how bad he is at describing the workings of genitalia. He's very good at other things, yet he insists on talking about pubic hair and tongues and masturbation.)

That said, I think Purity is at its best when it's talking about the opposite of genitals: dystopian technology! I'm both a Luddite and a Soviet history nerd (which, who knows, may be Franzen's target audience?) so I found his take on East Berlin and the fall of the Wall and the Stasi—which he later likens to the internet itself—fascinating. Franzen can be cranky about the internet, but we should all probably be a bit more cranky about the internet, and in Purity he delivers some solid commentary on the culture of likes and leaks. That Franzen has taken a sexy, sociopathic Aryan hacker as his main character here indicates that he's not as much of a grouch as we take him to be: He's clearly following the world of Assange and Zuckerberg and Musk like the rest of us.

What I found really frustrating about the book, though, and what would be interesting to hear your perspective on, is Franzen's approach to family relationships here. In his previous novels, I've found his depictions of family life to be fairly spot-on. In Purity, though, some of the situations Franzen lays out—between a dad and a daughter, say—seem completely implausible.

Women writers are often appraised in light of their personal life choices (see: Doris Lessing, Clarice Lispector, every woman you read in high school English), and I think it's interesting to consider whether this novel might have been stronger if Franzen himself had known what it's like to be a parent.

A lot of Purity is about serious, old-fashioned stuff like honor, debt (of all different sorts), secrets, murder, and how your parentage can shape your fate. —Harry

Harry: You mean, you think the novel might have been stronger if he adopted an Iraqi orphan? Maybe it would have been—although I've always found Franzen to be pretty good at exploring the dynamics of families, particularly families defined by conflict and a constant push-pull of secret-keeping and betrayal. The dynamics between parents and children are incredibly important in Purity but I think all the relationships all so singular and strange I never questioned how the characters reacted to one another.

I really agree with you about Franzen being more self-aware than people give him credit for; he even name-checks himself in one bit, which I don't think I've seen a writer do unless it was part of a larger postmodern metafictional stew. That's why I couldn't help but think that the section where he is talking about the culture of the internet, ostensibly written from the point of view of Andreas, is pretty close to what Franzen actually thinks of the internet. At one point he describes the web as a place "governed more by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten." That's an accurate description of how some people experience the internet—or at least social media—but I think that it's an incomplete perspective. You don't need to be a techno-utopian, or part of the "New Regime," as Franzen refers to it, to think that the internet has given a lot of previous voiceless people a voice, enabled a lot of activism and engagement, and allowed isolated weirdos to find their tribes. Yet pretty much everyone in Purity, even the hacker, has the sort of negative view of the web that I'd expect from a 50-something novelist who gets shit-talked on Twitter a lot. If Franzen had a kid, if he related with that kid in such a way that he saw the internet through the kid's eyes, would the book have changed? I'm open to more crankiness about the internet, and I don't think Franzen is wrong about anything, exactly, I'm just thinking about Balk's Law: "Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people."

You brought up women, and I wanted to get your take on the character of Anabel, Tom's disturbed and estranged wife, who at least a few people have been taking as an attack against feminists because she is militant about gender equality (and veganism and pretty much everything else). I read her as being unstable to the point of real mental illness and therefore not representative of feminists generally—and I also thought there were plenty of admirable female characters, particularly Leila. But I'm also a man. What did you think?

Jennifer: Oh, Franzen and women—Franzen and, in this particular case, a young woman. Where Franzen has described the plight of the older woman past her beauty's prime with sometimes devastating accuracy (in The Corrections and Freedom, certainly), I think Franzen loses his footing a bit with Pip and young women in general. (I'm thinking now of Lalitha in Freedom, too...) This is not to say that I think Franzen is anti-feminist; to me, that's not only an inflammatory and reductive take on Franzen, it's also a stance lacking in much evidence. Instead, I think Franzen just doesn't know that many young women.

There is a pattern in Franzen's women in Purity: they always, always revert back to their initial desire. —Jennifer

Pip is an unbelievable character to me; or, she seems real enough at the outset, but becomes more and more unrealistic with every choice she makes. Not to spoil the ending, but the romantic choice she makes at the novel's close is laughable: It is simply not how the heart and mind of any young woman I know would work—even one with substantial daddy issues. The men you are attracted to before having a transformative experience (say, traveling to another continent and having an brief and corrupt love affair with a man several decades your elder) are not the men you will be attracted to afterwards! There is a pattern in Franzen's women in Purity: they always, always revert back to their initial desire. Women in the real world are pretty much the same as men in this regard: A partially satiated desire will instead transform into a different, more ravenous one altogether. In Purity, Pip is irritating and dysfunctional at the start of the novel, and she ends up... basic.

You mention Leila as a strong female character. I have to disagree here, and in doing so I'd like to draw attention to Franzen's portrayal of women-relating-to-other-women. Leila comes across strong at first, but is ultimately depicted as petty, jealous, and dependent. She is, bizarrely, more jealous of the thought that Tom might have a daughter than of the fact that Tom might be having sex with a 23-year-old! That kind of hysterical, ridiculous insecurity echoes that of Pip in an earlier scene: Pip is jealous that a boy she might hook up with has a sister. Pip's only friend at Andreas's Sunlight Project abandons her out of jealousy. And, of course, the crazed femme fatale Anabel is jealous of her husband's career, his friendships, his relationship with his mother...

Harry Cheadle: Points well taken about Leila—though I think like many other men and women in the book she's a mix of being really good at her job and being hopeless at navigating the personal relationships she finds herself entangled in.

I don't know if I found Pip unbelievable or not but I definitely thought that opening section was the novel's weakest. God knows I have nothing against aimless, alienated twentysomethings either in fiction or in real life, but Pip is so passive, so limp, that I just want to shake her. Now, that was probably an intentional choice on Franzen's part, and as the plot unspools, Pip's directionlessness—and the way that leaves her open to manipulation—serves the story well. But it doesn't make it enjoyable to spend a bunch of pages hanging out on her shoulder.

Mostly, though, Purity is a really enjoyable book, the kind I read over the course of several long sittings. Maybe that sounds like faint praise, but I don't think so—I find Franzen to be a really readable author the same way Orwell and Dickens, for instance, are readable authors. He's also relentlessly old-fashioned in all sorts of ways. A lot of Purity is about serious, old-fashioned stuff like honor, debt (of all different sorts), secrets, murder, and how your parentage can shape your fate. Compared with his peers like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, Franzen is undeniably archaic, putting out these big bricks of realist, not particularly voice-y narrative. But I'm glad he's around, just as I'm glad his critics are around. Purity is the kind of book that's supposed to start conversations, and those conversations are happening all over the internet. Good job, everyone!

Jennifer: I'm glad Franzen is around too. I'm impressed with his ability to get thousands and thousands of people to sit down and read thick novels. That seems like the most old-fashioned thing of all. I also read Purity over the stretch of a few long sittings, and these days I usually can't read a few pages without getting restless.

While the structure and style are, yes, a throwback, to me the best part of Purity was Franzen's willingness to grapple with the internet. I mentioned this before, but the more I think about it, that willingness seems like the most important feature of this book. Purity gets many aspects of the internet dead right. Writers have been struggling to depict the internet naturally since the internet has existed—I sort of attribute the recent wave of books set in pre-internet eras as an avoidance tactic—because it's tremendously hard to portray the world wide web in a novel. But from our relationships to pornography and coyly flirtatious emails to WikiLeaks and iMessage, Franzen sort of... nails it. It feels real; it feels like the internet we know. The internet gets to play its own character in Purity.

The way the internet is responding, then, is like a character from the novel is talking back. And that's nothing short of strange, and awesome.

Follow Harry and Jennifer on Twitter.