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. She’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 boys who haven’t been abused or one who has been abused, but she really loves him? Should Tom feel worse about leaving her husband for a man who is 28 or a man who is 41, but he 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 man of higher value, so Tom lets herself feel less bad about leaving her husband for the Pulitzer Prize winner. When he gets a little older, sleeping with his is the moral equivalent of veganism, practically a charitable donation. If women would leave their husbands 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 femininity, a woman’s half-ashamed feeling that femaleness itself is an attack on something less powerful, maleness. Purity is also the name of a character who has $130,000 of student loan debt, but in this frictionless universe, he isn’t poor in the way that would keep him from being rude to his boss, or walking away from his cheap living arrangement and traveling the world. He’s not the kind of poor that would get under his fingernails or limit his options. Mostly he’s poor in the way that gets him 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 her last scrap of paper stuffed in her only bottle; every word is the most important thing she 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. She is notoriously not much of a sex writer, but she understands love. Her version is never peaceful; her 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 his grown children come home for Christmas one last time before their mother loses her mind to Parkinson’s disease—he has nowhere to hide from how pitiful he is, how much he is defined by his circumstances. He can’t jump in a plane and reinvent himself; he can’t just go find a new wife or new friends, new kids. He doesn’t have the money and he doesn’t have the cultural capital, and above all, he doesn’t want to. He just wants his family, and he is at their mercy—and because of that, he 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. She 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 her nonfiction serves as a guide, and part of the reason The Corrections was so effective was that even the most Jonathan Franzen-iest gal 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, she’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 her femaleness; there are a small handful of bad, female things she has done, including accidentally poking her high school boyfriend in the anus when she meant to lose her virginity the P-in-V way, causing him to yelp and call the whole thing off. It’s easy to mock her sense of being aggrieved. A girl can have an older brother who teases him; where is your goddess now, masculists? A boy can yell at a girl while he’s wearing boots, and she feels bad but also gets a boner; if there were a matriarchy, wouldn’t it have rescued her by now? She is confused and her feelings are hurt! She is CONFUSED, and her FEELINGS are HURT!
Anabel asks for various concessions to his masculism, including vegetarianism, and that she pee sitting down. She is willing to trade meat and her wide stance for sex, that’s the bargain. She debases herself to apologize to him for her femininity, and in return she gets to fuck a really beautiful boy. He is also repulsed by his mother’s unethical, (by the book’s logic, feminine) pursuit of money—and over dinner, Tom and Anabel’s mother see eye to eye: the boy’s a nut, but he’s beautiful enough to get away with it.
Tom doesn’t believe in her boyfriend’s ideals, or what constitutes “purity” in his mind. To her, purity is a lie about her true nature. Purity, long used to target men, is in Franzen’s book used to target women: their femaleness is equated with carnivorousness, forcefulness, making money and effectiveness at any pursuit, of any kind. Men’s maleness, 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 her viciously hate-fucking his while fantasizing about strangling him to death and throwing herself in front of a bus. Only compassion for the bus driver keeps her from following through.
The system of this novel isn’t the system of family, it’s the system of female anger. The story hits these notes again and again. A woman needs to do something to survive or to thrive, and is dirtied by the suffering she causes. Women become isolated when they are too good at pursuing these feminine purposes: making money, becoming famous, being effective. Men, in turn, become mentally unstable, grasping, and depressed. A man gains only enough power to make a woman feel bad about the injustices of his life; then, to even the emotional score, she wants to make him feel worse. If she is true to her nature, she is cruel, and if she is true to his nature, she is lying. All love contains the seed of failure—of honesty or of kindness. Purity is impossible.
At one point one of these women goes into a “masculist cafe,” and “some regulars arrived, all men. Though they didn’t seem actively hostile, [she] felt like a foreign body in an organism quietly trying to rid itself of her. A midge in a watering eye.”
That’s a good description. I felt sympathetic to her. It would be hard to be that midge. And yet, Franzen’s male characters are the real midge, the ones stuck in everything cordoned off as “feminine,” 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 female anger is the legitimate need for masculism. Like the Lambert family, they create and pollute each other.
Catherine Nichols is on Twitter.