Jonathan Franzen and The Great American Novel

October 5, 2015, by

Purity with borderOn Monday, September 21st, I went to the Wortham Center in Houston for Jonathan Franzen’s sold-out Inprint Margarett Root Brown reading.  I couldn’t wait to hear something from his new novel, Purity, for reasons that are a little impure. For better or worse, I had that same feeling that I have when I go to rock concerts, as in, maybe there will be high drama or difficulties and I am going to be there.  Yay me.

No wonder it feels a little hysterical in the room when I get my seat.  It is completely bustling, packed. He has won a slew of awards, sold millions of copies.  It’s nice to anticipate, a feeling that you think might be becoming extinct as we are previewed to death about so many things now.  Even if you have read the book, you don’t know what he will choose to read and how he might sound.

Franzen looks exactly like you expect from photographs:  glasses, jeans, casual without trying. Levy tells us that “Charlie Brown” is Franzen’s favorite comic strip, and I think of how so many times it is Lucy cruelly taking away the football before Charlie Brown comes in for the kick that parallels Franzen’s dramatizations of American desires and subsequent disappointments.  He is good at reminding us how it feels when we hit the ground, duped, yet weirdly, up for it again when Lucy lies to us, asks us to kick it.  Franzen has not written books called The Discomfort Zone for nothing.

Franzen is funny right off the bat.  I already like him since one of his favorite things is Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor’s struggles being grotesque yet hilarious.  Franzen has learned much from him.  Franzen looks at the audience and confesses: “It is always weird reading from one side of the stage.  I feel like I should be showing you slides.”  In a way, he sort of does, showing us glimpses of the main characters through a series of short readings on (or from) each. 

The book covers a wide swath—geographically, chronologically, psychologically, professionally—and we have California, East Germans, recent college graduates, spouses, journalists, and parents.  He reads first from the sections on Purity—also known as Pip—who has her own dashed great expectations as she slogs through life in a cubicle, crushed under the weight of undergraduate debt.  The americandreamesqueness of the college degree is not just a mirage, but also a burden, albeit one that forces her to confront larger questions of identity.  Her given name, “Purity,” betrays the idealism of not only her mother, but of all Americans for their kids, but adulteration seeps in anyway, regardless of our efforts.  Her name isn’t meant to be cruelly ironic, but wistful as she embodies how the counterculture of the fifties and sixties were successful sexual revolutionists—where the illicitness of love doesn’t exist because anything is possible, and one handles a crush without secrecy about sex, but secrecy about emotions:  “The third time she saw him, at a noodle joint where she was forced to pretend not to be hungry because her latest Renewable Solutions paycheck hadn’t cleared yet, she found herself at a crossroads:  either risk friendship or retreat to the safety of casual sex.”  Her name alone, “Purity,” simultaneously conjures up hippie baby-naming along with Puritan moral censure—we realize the strained, impossible efforts of both.

There is nothing sadder or funnier than Pip telling her mother who complains that “Sometimes I think my life is nothing but one long process of bodily betrayal” that everyone’s is from her cubicle at her job at “Renewable Solutions”—of which there are none.  I don’t know how he does it, but Franzen knows exactly how a certain kind of twenty-something female thinks, and he can come up with the most convincing diction to carry it off:  the manipulative potential of thinking of relationships in terms of “moral hazard,” the acknowledgement that the idealism of the 60’s has not exactly saved the world (She tells her mother, “Let’s not romanticize the cubicle.”  That would be the same one she has decorated with a bumper sticker that reads, “AT LEAST THE WAR ON THE ENVIRONMENT IS GOING WELL.”)  It is not that everything is ironic, but so much is, so you have to fake it until you make it and speak fluent sarcasm in order to cope.  You get what you need, even if you never get what you want.  Franzen has identified our times, even if we want to look away, deny it, wish it were otherwise.  There are sociopaths in our midst (as a character is described, “she hurt his feelings but she didn’t care”), so you better just accept it and state your lament when you get a chance, as when one injured party claims, “you did consume my youth and abandon me.”  It is funny and sad because the shock of it happening is gone.  Things are what they are, but Franzen is witty as he dramatizes the state of things.

Conversations, Franzen teaches us, reveal our real motives, “bust us every time.”

Franzen also explores the wages of technology, how they spawn unearned celebrity on the internet that reveals more about us than the objects of fame, and the psychological frames of mind that result:  “Pip had gotten the idea—her mind was like a balloon with static cling, attracting random ideas as they floated by…”

Franzen is interested in systems that are “impossible to opt out of”—and sometimes they are political, but often not.  We just don’t see any way out of them, regardless of their origins.  Fear is fear, but maybe we were not ready to let go of traditional threats.  With “the terrorists of technology,” we at least know the enemy, but the result is a terror of “the state of nature.”  Hence the title and all it suggests:  we are terrified of the natural, the pure, “purity” itself, because we no longer understand it.

It is too far away, the “irrationality” of it too distasteful for us.

In the Q and A, Rich Levy notes Franzen’s tendency to have “structured interlocking novellas,” and one can see why Franzen idolizes the short fiction of Alice Munro with her ability to surprise as well as authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Smiley, Paula Fox, and Saul Bellow, among others, and how sometimes literature “gets everything by going small.”  But he admits that he is “never satisfied by the one character or one perspective.”  The long novel is a way for him to satisfy what he describes as wanting “to go down some deep wells of my own.”  Harboring secrets is his great theme—identity and characterization hinging on the tension between the “imperative to keep secrets” and “the imperative to have them known.”  He loves his characters, even if they are “damaged.”

My favorite part is when Franzen says: “Without mistakes there would be no novel—mistakes are what literature is about.”  He is likable, tells us that “I feel like I myself am a person who feels genuine doubt about their own goodness,” and thus writes “a book very much about guilt.”  He is joining an important American tradition:  Hawthorne, anyone?

Franzen9-21-15_IBRS-0569 Franzen, like Munro, is intuitive and sensitive to the machinations of the heart, but he is also, like Kafka, a very entertaining and humorous writer.  He says, “Some people get the idea that the serious novelist is serious.”  What Franzen does so well is make serious points while being able to make the ready laugh, a tricky business in and of itself.  As far as humor is concerned, he says it is “a sign that the author is in control.”

As Franzen talks about his experiences with Germany, Germans, and the German language, Alice Munro’s “genius,” the novel as “more forgiving” as a genre than the short story, and the accidental nature, sometimes, of our interests and obsessions, I realize how difficult it is to imagine him doing something else, as his sense of purpose is so closely aligned with the making of his novels, or “creating little worlds in which meaning is possible.”  “Successful novels,” he says, “are little havens of meaning in a world that doesn’t make sense.”

When I go to get my books signed, the line is so long it snakes around and it really does feel like you are getting an autograph from a rock star.  Someone tells us “no pictures,” and that he wants you to tell him what you want written in your book.  Many people have stacks of his big, heavy books waiting to be inscribed by his circular scrawl.  I don’t know why some reviewers are so bothered by long books:  less is not always more.  The discursive moment forces us to acknowledge the ideas in the things around us, the details on a cubicle wall, the nuance of a conversation fraught with tension and long-held resentments.  Not everything fits into the box of the imagist poem, and we have plenty of those anyway.  It’s not like we are going to run out.

Franzen9-21-15_IBRS-0711When it is my turn, Jonathan Franzen writes a kind note in a copy of Purity to a friend of mine in Chicago writing his own long novel.  I tell him I am going to write about the reading, and he visibly winces:  I think the critics have wounded him a little, even as his success continues to soar: Purity has been out only briefly, yet jumped quickly to number 2 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.

I tell him I am not a book critic or a journalist, but am a teacher, and sometimes I like to write about books.  He immediately relaxes.  I tell him we need the long American novel, that I am teaching Henry James the next morning.  He wants to know what we are reading, laughs when I tell him I gave up Chardonnay for a while after reading Freedom.

Jonathan Franzen is funny in person and on the page, he works like hell, and his obsessions with his novels are an object lesson in the very American values he explores so mercilessly in his books.

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