Purity starts out, as Jonathan Franzen’s books do, with a word used unusually well, a little signal that the author is in control. In The Corrections, it was “the berserk wind.” In Freedom it was “conniving with the coal industry.” In Purity, it was “without undue weirdness transpiring,” where “transpiring” has the sound of the old meaning—not “happening” but “leaking out.” That feeling of being in a comfortable seat on a transatlantic flight doesn’t let up. He’s going to make sure we’re entertained for this trip; we won’t have to wait more than ten pages between sex scenes, usually much less.
For almost 400 pages, all these pneumatic sex setups have the feeling of physics problems from a universe without friction—should Andreas feel worse about having sex with 52 teenage girls who haven’t been abused or one who has been abused, but he really loves her? Should Tom feel worse about leaving his wife for a woman who is 28 or a woman who is 41, but she has a Pulitzer Prize, but the Pulitzer is for group reporting? In the logic that governs all the book’s equations, any theoretical 28-year-old would be a woman of higher value, so Tom lets himself feel less bad about leaving his wife for the Pulitzer Prize winner. When she gets a little older, sleeping with her is the moral equivalent of veganism, practically a charitable donation. If men would leave their wives for slender, middle-aged Pulitzer Prize winners instead of shampoo-smelling menstruating twenty-somethings, we could defeat global warming.
That’s the purity of the title, the yearning toward a state of cleanliness free of all kinds of sins—sins against the environment, sins of capitalism and socialism, sins against health and animals, but above all, the sins of masculinity, a man’s half-ashamed feeling that maleness itself is an attack on something less powerful, femaleness. Purity is also the name of a character who has $130,000 of student loan debt, but in this frictionless universe, she isn’t poor in the way that would keep her from being rude to her boss, or walking away from her cheap living arrangement and traveling the world. She’s not the kind of poor that would get under her fingernails or limit her options. Mostly she’s poor in the way that gets her into sexy situations. Almost everyone else in the book is rich—sexy rich—but most of them feel a bit bad about it.
There’s some heavy-handed signaling about Purity’s links to Great Expectations—the plots and themes are similar, but the souls of the two books are different. Great Expectations doesn’t have a single page, not a paragraph, that’s not both funny and sharp beyond anything else even Dickens ever wrote. Great Expectations is written like a note Dickens put on his last scrap of paper stuffed in his only bottle; every word is the most important thing he ever said. Purity is entertaining but it’s not that book, or even really trying to be. Purity doesn’t even hit the ground fully until around page 342, when the landing gear engages, jarring after all the champagne and warm nuts. I started taking more notes. Franzen isn’t likely to write another book as deeply felt as The Corrections, but Purity eventually became something interesting in a similar way.
The Corrections was such an epochal hit because of the way Franzen described the complications of love. He is notoriously not much of a sex writer, but he understands love. His version is never peaceful; his characters experience love like they’re on the rack of it, tortured, humiliated and destroyed. I’m thinking of Enid Lambert’s desperate, self-deluding wish to have her grown children come home for Christmas one last time before their father loses his mind to Parkinson’s disease—she has nowhere to hide from how pitiful she is, how much she is defined by her circumstances. She can’t jump in a plane and reinvent herself; she can’t just go find a new husband or new friends, new kids. She doesn’t have the money and she doesn’t have the cultural capital, and above all, she doesn’t want to. She just wants her family, and she is at their mercy—and because of that, she is also horrible to them.
The Corrections used the techniques of the big systems-novel writers, Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon and others—to describe the system of love inside a family, and the way that characters can be brought so low, and in their humiliation, raised up. He found the dignity in being so naked and full of needs. The five Lambert family members resemble Franzen’s family of origin, more or less, if his nonfiction serves as a guide, and part of the reason The Corrections was so effective was that even the most Jonathan Franzen-iest guy in the family was neither more nor less important than any other person and just as culpable. The Lamberts lived as a pentacle of evenly distributed love and pain, cause and effect.
In Purity, Franzen seems to have lost that pure, self-loathing intelligence of The Corrections (sorry, to Freedom fans; I maintain that it was light-minded and unconvincing)—until suddenly, he’s got it again. Everything snaps into focus. Two college students are dating: Tom and Anabel. Tom feels bullied and coerced by the idea of collective guilt for his maleness; there are a small handful of bad, male things he has done, including accidentally poking his high school girlfriend in the anus when he meant to lose his virginity the P-in-V way, causing her to yelp and call the whole thing off. It’s easy to mock his sense of being aggrieved. A boy can have an older sister who teases him; where is your god now, feminists? A girl can yell at a boy while she’s wearing boots, and he feels bad but also gets a boner; if there were a patriarchy, wouldn’t it have rescued him by now? He is confused and his feelings are hurt! He is CONFUSED, and his FEELINGS are HURT!
Anabel asks for various concessions to her feminism, including vegetarianism, and that he pee sitting down. He is willing to trade meat and his wide stance for sex, that’s the bargain. He debases himself to apologize to her for his masculinity, and in return he gets to fuck a really beautiful girl. She is also repulsed by her father’s unethical, (by the book’s logic, masculine) pursuit of money—and over dinner, Tom and Anabel’s father see eye to eye: the girl’s a nut, but she’s beautiful enough to get away with it.
Tom doesn’t believe in his girlfriend’s ideals, or what constitutes “purity” in her mind. To him, purity is a lie about his true nature. Purity, long used to target women, is in Franzen’s book used to target men: their maleness is equated with carnivorousness, forcefulness, making money and effectiveness at any pursuit, of any kind. Women’s femaleness, while closer to being “pure,” is weakness, a clinging domesticity, a vine-like binding of the limbs. It’s no surprise that Tom and Anabel’s relationship ends with him viciously hate-fucking her while fantasizing about strangling her to death and throwing himself in front of a bus. Only compassion for the bus driver keeps him from following through.
The system of this novel isn’t the system of family, it’s the system of male anger. The story hits these notes again and again. A man needs to do something to survive or to thrive, and is dirtied by the suffering he causes. Men become isolated when they are too good at pursuing these masculine purposes: making money, becoming famous, being effective. Women, in turn, become mentally unstable, grasping, and depressed. A woman gains only enough power to make a man feel bad about the injustices of her life; then, to even the emotional score, he wants to make her feel worse. If he is true to his nature, he is cruel, and if he is true to her nature, he is lying. All love contains the seed of failure—of honesty or of kindness. Purity is impossible.
At one point one of these men goes into a “feminist cafe,” and “some regulars arrived, all women. Though they didn’t seem actively hostile, [he] felt like a foreign body in an organism quietly trying to rid itself of him. A midge in a watering eye.”
That’s a good description. I felt sympathetic to him. It would be hard to be that midge. And yet, Franzen’s female characters are the real midge, the ones stuck in everything cordoned off as “masculine,” which includes power, and money, and any source of dignity beyond youth and beauty. That’s the great pattern of the book, and its uneasy wisdom: inside the system of male anger is the legitimate need for feminism. Like the Lambert family, they create and pollute each other.
Catherine Nichols is on Twitter.