Reviews — From the September 2015 issue

The Prisoner of Sex

Franzen and the women

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This may sound complicated enough, but it’s only a sketch of the action. Purity’s plot is a beautiful arabesque. It reaches back from the present day to the 1950s, moves between three continents, and involves murder, rape, family secrets, duplicitous mothers, and several missing fathers. Subplots are doubled and trebled. But the remarkable thing is that the novel does not seem convoluted when you’re reading it; to an astonishing degree, the melodramatic swoops of the plot are well orchestrated and thrilling.

As usual, Franzen unspools the story from several points of view: Pip, Andreas, Tom, and Leila each get at least one section of the book, and each section takes us deep into that character’s past. The son of Communist Party insiders, Andreas became politically disillusioned as an adolescent in the 1970s, after a personal crisis. When he was fourteen he noticed “a gaunt and bearded figure in a ratty sheepskin jacket” watching him play soccer after school. The bum appeared every evening at the same time for a week until Andreas gave in to curiosity and approached him. The bum told him that he was Andreas’s real father, and that he’d had an affair with Andreas’s mother, Katya. Katya’s husband, the man Andreas thought was his father, had avenged the affair by having his wife’s lover arrested as an enemy of the G.D.R. The facts checked out. Andreas’s mother had been lying to him, and the lie cast a new light on her talk about the greatness of the socialist republic.

Katya is a high-relief villainess, guilty of selfish mothering, adultery, vanity, deceit, and complicity with a corrupt political regime. After finding out about the one affair, Andreas suddenly recalls that there were others, and that Katya had even shown him her genitals on two occasions during his childhood. Was it abuse? Exhibitionism? Manic hypersexuality? The novel offers no diagnosis. Andreas, in any case, resents his mother’s libidinal activities. Though he doesn’t really care about politics, he begins a new life as a political dissident — to spite his mother and, relatedly, to meet girls.

During his university years, Andreas gets in trouble for publishing a dirty poem that is addressed to his mother and his motherland, which contains an acrostic that reads, “I dedicate the most glorious ejaculation to your socialism.” He’s sent to live in a church basement with ineffectual fellow dissidents and counsel at-risk youth. The ironies of this punishment are not lost on Andreas.

Had any East German child ever been more privileged and less at risk than he? Yet here he was, in the basement of the rectory, in group sessions and private meetings, counseling teenagers on how to overcome promiscuity and alcohol dependency and domestic dysfunction and assume more productive positions in a society he despised. And he was good at what he did . . . and so he was himself, ironically, a productive member of that society.

It’s in his capacity as a youth counselor that he meets a beautiful teenager named Annagret, on whose behalf he will commit murder. As Franzen leads Andreas to the crime that holds the plot of Purity together, he strains at the outer limits of psychological realism. He calls in literary antecedents for support. This chapter of the book is dense in literary reference and allusion. Hamlet, Lear, and Oedipus are named; Milan Kundera and David Foster Wallace are evoked.

None of this can stop Andreas’s story from seeming schematic and overdetermined. It feels as though Franzen has arrived at the details of Andreas’s biography by working backward through some faulty process of induction. Why would a man want to leak classified documents on the Internet? Because he hates the idea of official secrets. Why? Because he has committed a secret crime of his own. What kind? Murder. Why’d he do it? To help a pretty girl. What? She is being molested by her stepfather, which upsets Andreas because the truth is that he likes sex with teenage girls, too, but he’s not comfortable with that part of himself, and so he feels a homicidal rage toward the stepfather. Still — an actual murder? He’s megalomaniacal with suicidal tendencies! How did he get that way? He had a really bad mom.

That a former citizen of East Germany who saw the Communist bureaucracy up close might be taken with the ideal of total transparency wouldn’t seem to need quite so elaborate an explanation, but the exigencies of the plot, combined with Franzen’s own inclinations as a novelist, push Purity relentlessly toward psychosexual motives. So much so that, along the way, the novel ends up making a hash of potentially interesting questions about the possibility of political commitment in the Eastern Bloc, or about the morality of leaking.

Compared with The Corrections and Freedom, Purity rarely feels like it’s nailing some aspect of our current cultural conditions. The novel seems to have all the right settings and character types: a houseful of Occupy squatters, a Silicon Valley startup, a notorious leaker and his staff of hackers, a newsroom of an Internet-only journalism outlet, plus historical sections featuring second-wave feminists and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Franzen shrewdly translates nineteenth-century plot elements — radical political actors, gross income inequalities, absent biological parents — into present-day terms. But the melodrama of the high-stakes personal relationships ends up undercutting any real sense of the cultural and political forces at work in American life. In other words, it’s hard to think seriously about leaking and journalism when this particular leaker is a deranged murderer and this particular journalist might accidentally hook up with his own daughter.

Speaking of which, Purity has a pointedly oedipal plot. Franzen plays with the possibility of unwitting incest when Pip briefly comes to stay at Tom and Leila’s house. Pip, who is just getting over an earlier crush on a different middle-aged man, feels “a little bit in love” with Tom. Leila becomes intensely jealous, and Pip notices that Tom is “suddenly uncomfortable around her.” Is Tom attracted to Pip, too? By this time, readers already know what Pip doesn’t: Tom’s discomfort and his close scrutiny of Pip have nothing to do with attraction. He has come to suspect that Pip is his daughter. Though Franzen quickly defuses the threat of incest, his novel abounds with instances of sex between older men and much younger women (all of them consensual except for the case of Annagret and her stepfather). But what do such relationships mean to us in the absence of incest or abuse? What sort of danger — to the characters, to the kingdom — is posed by the wrong kind of coupling?

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