OVERWHELMED. That’s what I’ve felt most often over the past fifteen months. Overwhelmed by giving birth and recovering from it. By nursing and weaning and diapers and laundry and meal planning and owning a home for the very first time. By being married to a doctor dealing with his own overwhelming first job outside of training. By the events of last November and the subsequent feeling of hopelessness and defeat that hasn’t gone away. That only seems to get worse as the world keeps spinning, as they said that it would. Because what is to be done? And more importantly for me, for any of us who write, who wish, or once wished, to communicate with a world beyond ourselves: what is to be said?
Faced with this daunting question, domestic chores, and new life to support, I simply stopped saying much of anything. It was easier to tune it all out than to try to process this bizarre combination of feelings—joy and hope as my daughter began to bloom, exhaustion and rage as the news came to sound more like satire each morning. Everything felt nonsensical, and I had so much to do, and so, for the past fifteen months, I have not really written. But I have read. And read, and read. And while much of what I have read has been good and terrifying and fascinating and enjoyable (The Circle and My Brilliant Friend are standouts), nothing has triggered me to put pen to paper again until now. Until Purity, a book so impure by the standards of liberal identity politics that as I read, I alternately wanted to toss it out the window and press it into the hands of all the holier-than-thous chatting away on the internet.
Franzen’s most recent novel opens with Pip (real name Purity), a recent college grad with a morally-dubious “environmental” job living in a squathouse in Oakland, California. Her mother, who lives alone in a rural cabin, is a poor grocery store employee with no family, or none she’s willing to tell her daughter about. Burdened by 100K-plus of student loans, Pip’s central motivation is to find her father, about whom she knows nothing, in case he might be willing to help her out with her debt. As a main character, Pip is fine, and certainly relatable, but she’s far from unique or exciting. Indeed, her blandness has been seen as a flaw in the book by many reviewers, including those offended on behalf of all women that this one should be anything less than thoroughly complex and fascinating.
Soon enough, however, the reader is introduced to someone much more enigmatic (and male)—Andreas Wolf. Moving back in time to 1980s East Germany, we meet a teenage Andreas living a life of relative advantage in the Socialist country thanks to his father’s position in the Stasi. But when Andreas publishes some rebellious poetry in a student magazine, he finds himself kicked out of his home and the privileged inner circle. Taking refuge in a church basement, the young Andreas begins to “help” girls even younger than himself, who come to him in various kinds of trouble. When he falls in love with one of the girls—the fifteen-year-old Annagret—Andreas winds up partnering with her to commit a terrible crime. Although the pair get away with it, the experience will haunt him for the rest of his life, even as he grows up and becomes famous as the founder of the Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-like internet operation that divulges the secrets of individuals and governments around the world (though, of course, not his own). Given the hypocrisy of the adult Andreas’s position, the reader is at first inclined to believe that the title of the book is ironically directed at him. This view is strengthened by his connection with Tom Aberrant, an American Andreas meets by chance in Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin wall and not long after the aforementioned crime.
Like Andreas, Tom, too, is provided with an elaborate backstory, primarily having to do with his relationship with a woman named Anabel Laird. Although the reader first meets Tom as an adult newspaper editor, we spend the most time with him in a chapter-length flashback to his college days, when he first meets Anabel. At the time, Tom is an editor for the student newspaper and Anabel an artist activist. Though the heir to an agricultural fortune, Anabel’s moral beliefs lead her to renounce her family’s wealth. Her purity—and, crucially, her hardcore (supposed) feminism—however, is not beneficial for everybody, particularly not Tom. Although Anabel refuses to accept her family’s ill-begotten wealth, she has no problem allowing Tom to give up his dream of writing fiction in order to support her artistic endeavors. Since she can’t stand up to pee, she insists that Tom sit, too. Because she’s a vegetarian, Tom also abstains from meat. And, since she can’t have an orgasm outside of the three days a month when the moon is full, she refuses to have sex at any other time. As Franzen portrays it, Anabel’s rigid and illogical feminist beliefs compel her to consolidate power while insisting that Tom make reparations for the entire history of the patriarchy. In other words, Anabel is one of those crazy, man-hating, awful feminists you might have heard about—or have been accused of being yourself. As such, she is absolutely infuriating. And maybe just a little bit amusing.
“Because I feel agitated by but not connected to the people in the book, I’m pressed to seek that connection with people outside of it—that is, with other living minds.”
Tom’s reaction to his first glimpse of “feminist” thought is the kind of attitude that sets the liberal corners of the internet ablaze. When his father finds his stash of porn and scolds him for it, Tom feels regret, but also confusion. “I felt as if I was up against a structural unfairness; as if simply being male, excitable by pictures through no choice of my own, placed me ineluctably in the wrong. I meant no harm and yet I harmed.” The reader feels that Tom is sincere, but also kind of pathetic. One can almost hear his detractors sarcastically tweeting away about the poor white guy feeling bad. This mood continues as Tom learns more about sexism at university. “In my first years at Penn…my intimations of male guilt were given a firm theoretical foundation. From lectures both in and out of classrooms, beginning with an orientation-week sex talk delivered by a female senior in bib overalls, I learned that I was even more inescapably implicated in the patriarchy than I’d realized. The upshot was that, in any intimate relationship with a woman, my motives were a priori suspect.” While the message seems to be getting through here to some degree, the fact that Tom feels the need to mention that the person delivering it is a woman in “bib overalls” makes his sincerity dubious.
In a scathing review of Purity in the LA Review of Books, GD Dess writes, “None of [the book’s] characters can become more than what they are because Franzen doesn’t get inside them. He keeps an ironic distance, and consequently we never feel them come to life.” I can see what Dess means. In many cases characters seem to function more as symbols than as people. Anabel, for example, is the loathsome feminist, Tom the worthy journalist bravely questioning the teachings of the university. Pip represents the poor, naïve millennial, and Andreas fills the role of hypocritical secret-spiller. While Dess decries the broader strokes that leave Franzen’s characters to stand-in for ideas, in my view it is this very lack of attachment that makes me excited to talk about the book. Because I feel agitated by but not connected to the people in the book, I’m pressed to seek that connection with people outside of it—that is, with other living minds. By irritating readers and withholding the accepted liberal narrative about feminism and the internet, Purity provokes real-life conversation.
I HAVEN’T FELT my mind warm this way for quite some time. Of course, part of the freeze for me personally was due to the birth of my daughter, and to leaving my job as a college professor to become a stay-at-home mom. But it’s more than that, I realize now. My baby was born three months before the 2016 presidential election, and it was at three months exactly that post-partum depression set in.
You might think—I would have thought—that the political turmoil surrounding the 2016 election and its ultimate selection of Donald Trump to the office of the presidency would have set off engagement and intellectual debate like nothing else in recent history. But this does not seem to be the case. On the contrary, people appear less open to views that diverge from their own by the day. We rage on social media, shaming and shunning those whose questions and opinions we find intolerable. We shut down the opposing side with epithets and labels, refusing, as James Wolcott puts it in a Vanity Fair article, to work or even be associated with any potential ally who doesn’t meet our “ideological-purity standards.” Potential allies, perhaps, like Jonathan Franzen.
Offices of the East German newspaper Neue Zeit, just beyond the Berlin Wall, 1984.
In Purity, the culprit behind this kind of silencing is not Donald Trump or the right-wing voters who put him in power. Nor is it the liberal political correctness police. The villain, according to Franzen, is the internet itself. Purity came out in 2015, before the U.S. election was in full swing, but it predicts the political climate today with some prescience. In another review in LARB, Urmila Seshagiri writes that Purity “arrives into a literary world already dated. The manufactured consent of internet users has been a lightning rod for more than a decade, and Franzen reacts to the omniconnected conditions of our existence with familiar polemic instead of fresh nuance.” Respectfully, I disagree. To me, the way that Franzen links the “totalitarianism” of the internet to Socialism feels brand new, and particularly subversive at the present moment. For Seshagiri, “Purity…villainizes the unchecked liberty accorded to women and the internet in the 21st century.” She views Franzen’s provocative depiction of one flawed feminist and his suggestion that the internet might be lulling us into intellectual complacency as absolute condemnation of both things. But in fact, far from criticizing the freedom afforded to women and those who use the internet, Franzen is actually saying that if we cannot even question the supposed “goodness” of either, then we are not actually at liberty at all. As Emma Brockes puts it in an article in The Guardian, it is Andreas alone, with his pre-internet experience in socialist East Germany, who understands how “systems that claim to liberate human potential can actually constrain it.”
Jonathan Franzen is not on the internet. He has no social media presence, and though others on social media love to talk about him, he has resisted the urge to fire back (at least online). In other words, Franzen has chosen literature as the venue to explore and disseminate his unique and provocative ideas, not the internet. Maybe the overwhelming scope of the internet actually inhibits thought. Maybe the cacophony of voices we find there softens rather than amplifies our own. Maybe fear of shame and censure are shutting down imagination. Maybe literature remains the best venue for provoking sustained and nuanced conversation. And maybe as a white male Franzen is privileged to be able to do his work without seeking connection with marginalized groups or even his readers online. On the other hand, maybe stepping away from the overwhelming tide of voices and instead attempting calmly and honestly to observe and depict confusing and unsettling truths is a sound use of such privilege. Maybe we could all do with a little more silence to hear what it is we actually think.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer and editor in Denver, Colorado. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, The Montreal Review, and Mediander.com, among other publications.