Reviews — From the September 2015 issue

The Prisoner of Sex

Franzen and the women

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Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 576 pages. $28.

Purity Tyler, Pip to her friends, is a recent Berkeley graduate with $130,000 in student debt. Raised by a socially isolated single mother who works as a checkout clerk in a grocery store, Pip has no connections or mentors, only a vague notion of “doing good in the world” and the ambition “not to end up like her mother.” She’s a squatter in a makeshift household of activists and Occupy sympathizers in Oakland. She barely ekes out a living at a Bay Area startup, a shady operation that “bundles” and “brokers” clean-energy systems for suburban communities in exchange for a large cut of the tax-incentive payments.

Nobody had warned her that the figure to pay attention to when she was being interviewed by Igor, the head of consumer outreach at Renewable Solutions, was not the “thirty or forty thousand dollars” in commissions that he foresaw her earning in her very first year but the $21,000 base salary he was offering, or that a salesman as persuasive as Igor might also be skilled at selling shit jobs to unsuspecting twenty-one-year-olds.

Pip could use some guidance, and also some money. Faced with the hard work of making a life for herself under these not horrible but not terribly promising conditions, Pip wishes she had an exit strategy. Somewhere, she has a father whose identity her mother has always refused to reveal. Maybe he has money. Maybe he can pay off her debt.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Many in Pip’s position would daydream in just this way. Fortunately for her, she is a character at the beginning of a novel, and it’s not the kind of novel that chronicles ordinary daily life. One evening, a representative of the Sunlight Project, an international organization devoted to leaking classified information in the manner of WikiLeaks, gets in touch. The representative suggests that Pip apply for a paid internship, pointing out that the organization has an expert team of hackers and researchers who can help Pip find her father. Soon the famous founder of the Sunlight Project, a former East Berliner called Andreas Wolf, is personally exchanging emails with Pip, urging her aboard. Pip is suspicious, but the offer is too intriguing, the money too good, and Andreas’s attentions too flattering to refuse. His unexpected summons offers “the thrill of imagining that she really was an extraordinary person, and that this was the true reason her life was such a mess.”

Some important things happen to Pip while she’s in Bolivia, and then in Denver, and then back home in the Bay Area. Pip’s mother had feared that Andreas was luring her daughter to South America for sex. In one of the novel’s many ironic twists, he turns out to be using her for other things; when it comes to sex, Pip uses him. But the larger surprise is that Pip, unlike her namesake in Great Expectations, proves not to be the center of the novel. She is being manipulated by Andreas in his attempt to get close to another man, an American journalist named Tom Aberant. The stories of these two men, both old enough to be Pip’s father, form the heart of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.

Tom is the founder and editor of the Denver Independent, an online-only newspaper. He has led the life of an ordinary middle-class professional, with two exceptions. On a trip to Germany as a young man, he played a minor role in helping to cover up a murder that Andreas committed. Some twenty years later, after becoming a world-renowned leaker, Andreas develops an obsession with Tom, ostensibly because he’s worried that Tom will give away his secret but really because he is a lonely megalomaniac who has sort of platonically fallen in love with Tom; he has perceived in Tom a strong moral compass that he himself lacks, and desperately seeks his approval.

But how to get Tom’s attention? After some digging, Andreas uncovers the second unusual thing about Tom: he has a daughter he doesn’t know about. The daughter, of course, is Pip. After luring her to Bolivia, Andreas arranges for her to get a job at the Denver Independent, at which point she is spontaneously befriended by Tom and his girlfriend, Leila. Tom eventually discovers Pip’s identity and, through several more plot loops, is led into a dramatic confrontation with Andreas. The Tom–Andreas relationship is reminiscent of the conflict between nice Walter Berglund and bad boy Richard Katz in Freedom, but it transpires in a very different key. The actual contact between the two men is brief, their thirty-year-old cover-up turns out to have geopolitical implications in the present, and their final scene together involves literally cliff-hanging suspense.

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?

The emotional core of the novel is Tom’s section, which comes in the form of an unpublished memoir that he wrote years ago in order to maintain his sanity at the end of his twelve-year marriage to Anabel, the woman who would eventually become Pip’s mother. Freedom, too, had a memoir-within-a-novel conceit. Some critics charged that the sections of that novel supposedly written by Patty, a sardonic, unhappy housewife, were implausible, too obviously the work of an experienced novelist. Tom, by contrast, is a writer by profession, but his account is more credibly the work of an amateur memoirist in one respect. He is still mad at his wife, and we can feel it: the memoir has a strong whiff of grievance.

Tom met Anabel in college. A good boy who was highly susceptible to guilt, he had been chastened as a teenager by his liberal father for looking at a porn magazine (“Simply by owning it you’ve materially participated in the degradation of a fellow human being”) and then chastened all over again by campus feminists. “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.”

Bearing this load of guilt — or is it victimhood? — he meets Anabel, an artist, feminist, and vegetarian, and the heiress to a billion-dollar fortune. More intellectually sophisticated and sexually experienced than Tom but also thin-skinned and depressive, she exerts an erotic and emotional hold on him. She leans on his sense of guilt to drive a wedge between him and his mother, makes him feel bad about his journalistic accomplishments when her own career stalls, and even persuades him to pee sitting down, in the name of gender equality. “I have to sit down,” she argues, “why shouldn’t you sit down? I can’t not see where you splatter, and every time I see it I think how unfair it is to be a woman.”

As we absorb Tom and Anabel’s story, it becomes clear that Purity not only has a Pip, it has a sort of Miss Havisham as well. Tom is the one who finally ends their marriage, much against Anabel’s wishes, years after their relationship has soured. Anabel, now in her late thirties, takes her revenge by persuading Tom to have unprotected sex, and then going into hiding to keep the resulting pregnancy a secret. Like Miss Havisham, Anabel effectively falls out of time, severing all her social ties, taking on an assumed name, and raising a child in obscurity. Notably, however, Anabel’s bitterness over her female condition, unlike Miss Havisham’s, precedes being spurned by Tom. It is inextricable from her feminism.

Anabel vanishes partly to keep Pip’s existence a secret from Tom but also for another reason: she considers her family’s fortune morally tainted and doesn’t want it to pass into her hands when her father dies. She even rejects the idea of possessing it long enough to give it away as charity. Anabel is the character who most ardently pursues an ideal of purity: no money, no meat, no sex (she remains abstinent after her marriage), no Internet presence. She raises Pip — Purity — lovingly, but she denies the girl knowledge of her father as well as many creature comforts they might have had. And of course she harms Tom, conceiving his child without his permission and then denying him knowledge of his daughter. There are shades of Merry, the terrorist daughter in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, in Franzen’s portrait of Anabel. In her quest for moral purity, Anabel is guilty of monstrous wrongs.

Anabel also has a peculiar sexual condition. “She could only achieve satisfaction in the three days when the moon was fullest, no matter how hard she tried on other days of the month.” On her three good days, however, she is “a total pleasure machine.” Yes, it’s true: Anabel seems to go into heat.

In recent years, Franzen has had what the New York Daily News has called a “female problem.” He’s been under scrutiny for something between outright sexism and a kind of literary elitism that slights female audiences and genres. It began in 2001, with his public hesitations about being an Oprah’s Book Club pick. His skepticism of popular television and Oprah’s “corporate ownership” read to some as a snub of Oprah’s female audience. More recently, the rapturous critical reception of Freedom was an occasion for some writers and readers — most prominently the novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner — to raise questions about double standards in literary publishing and reviewing. Franzen’s response, which included accusing Weiner of “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon . . . to promote herself,” earned him a volley of derisive personal attacks from her. They also made him an enemy of the feminist blog Jezebel, which has kept his name in regular circulation as the preeminent example of male authorial pomposity.

I am all for discussions of gender bias when it comes to literary prestige; it’s a prejudice that can be devilishly subtle but nonetheless real. I also can’t clear Franzen of every charge of possible bias in his writing and public statements. But it has long seemed to me preposterous to single out Franzen, of all male novelists, for these accusations. Not only are The Corrections and Freedom extraordinarily good novels, they are books in which Franzen distinguishes himself by writing brilliantly about male sexual anxiety without allowing it to curdle his depiction of women. The women in those two novels are as intelligent and as foolish as the men, and the latter category is the crucial one: it’s by their foolish ardor that we know Franzen’s characters. Their indignity and shame and poor choices break them open to us, make them real and recognizable. Patty and Denise (one of the three adult children of the Lambert family in The Corrections) are denied no measure of folly — and there are, unfortunately, not all that many female fools in literature.

And so it is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: “No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.” Tom’s depiction of his relationship with Anabel, with its obvious misogynist clichés, its backhanded self-pity, its stale preoccupations with the political correctness of private sexual fantasy, seems to want to be some sort of satire. You could imagine it reworked into a comic treatment of both the puritanical streak in second-wave feminism and a certain kind of defensive male response to it. Instead, the material is forced into an ungainly sincerity in defense of Tom.

To be sure, it is Tom’s memoir, but this brings us to a larger problem. On the topic of his marriage, Tom is an unreliable narrator — his account is understandably tendentious. When a novel has an unreliable narrator, the author typically signals over the narrator’s head so that readers understand the ways in which they should be skeptical of the narrator’s account. But the fictional memoir allows Franzen to leave us unattended. It’s Tom’s ship to steer for 126 pages; Franzen absolves himself of any authorial responsibility to complicate Tom’s interpretation of Anabel and their marriage. One might expect the rest of the novel to provide the necessary corrections to Tom’s view. But the rest of the novel lines up behind Tom. The novel loves Tom. Of course, Freedom loves Walter, the well-meaning but weak-willed lawyer, just as The Corrections loves Chip, the disgraced academic, but those characters are also comic fools; Franzen leads them into crises of their own making, and along the way we are treated to plenty of less-than-flattering observations of Chip and Walter by other characters. In Purity, however, all the other major characters — Andreas, Leila, Pip — testify to Tom’s goodness.

After treating us to many sex scenes with young women, Franzen kills off the men who participated in them, restores the other characters to age-appropriate couplehood, and reassures us that the good guy only ever had eyes for his middle-aged girlfriend and, back in the day, his wife. Although feminists do not come off especially well in Purity, the novel nonetheless seems governed by a violent, retributive pseudo-feminist conscience. Why such rough justice for the lechers? Because young women are vulnerable? Not in Purity — they are admirably resilient, downright unexploitable. Because older women are vulnerable? That may be more to Franzen’s point. Leila and the middle-aged Anabel are more fragile of ego than the younger women. Perhaps, to contemporary heterosexual sensibilities, each mismatched coupling suggests that an older woman somewhere is being overlooked — an older woman who might be running out of eggs. In Franzen’s vision, a woman’s peak vulnerability to male bad behavior isn’t in her youth (no breakup need matter very much to a woman in her twenties) but toward the end of her reproductive life, when she has only a few years left to have children. The Miss Havisham of today wouldn’t be abandoned at the altar as a young bride, she would be abandoned at thirty-nine, childless. If Purity sees age as a problem for women, guilt is the corollary problem for men — guilt of which our friend Tom is carefully absolved while other male characters pay heavily. Suppressed in Purity, yet surely giving the novel its hysterical edge, is a different dimension of the problem of age: that it can feel melancholy, even shameful, to grow older while your ideal sexual objects stay young.

All these specters of female nubility make me think of Evan S. Connell’s novel Mr. Bridge, whose title character, unlike Tom, is allowed to be aroused by his own daughters. In one of my favorite scenes, Mr. Bridge, a principled, family-minded lawyer in 1930s Kansas City, walks by his daughter Carolyn’s room and inadvertently sees her naked. He then goes to his study and tries to work.

He sat down at his desk, unzipped the briefcase, and started to examine the papers he had brought from the office; but he saw her nubile body as she posed before the mirror. He reminded himself that she was his daughter, but the luminous image returned like the memory of a dream, and although he dismissed it, soon it returned. He stopped work and held his head in his hands, wondering how much time must go by until he could forget.

Forgetting and forgoing were already out of style when Connell published Mr. Bridge, in 1969, the same year that Philip Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint. Mr. Bridge and its companion, Mrs. Bridge, are novels about the upper-middle-class, white Midwest of the Thirties, written a generation later, in the Fifties and Sixties. They are, among other things, satires of American sexual ignorance, repression, and fear. Yet Connell’s satire devastates with its generosity: he allows his protagonist the dignity of his sexual restraint, even though that restraint feels baffling, painful, and self-defeating to Mr. Bridge, and risible to readers in 1969 and after. All younger women might as well be Mr. Bridge’s daughters, so little can he imagine actually touching one.

Franzen (like so many novelists) has named the Bridge books among his favorites, which is no surprise to anyone who recalls Alfred and Enid Lambert, the aging parents in The Corrections — they have something of the Bridges in their lineage. But Franzen’s younger characters, those of his own generation, are all Portnoys. They are racked by their desires. They struggle with them volubly and flamboyantly, and in the end they act on them, usually getting in a lot of trouble and then getting redeemed.

Latent in Purity, and particularly in Tom, is the possibility of a different course of action: the lost practice of putting your head in your hands and waiting for your desires to go away. Mr. Bridge’s approach would seem to have beneficial applications beyond avoiding incest — beyond, even, the realm of sex. But which desires should you sit out, which act on, and what might be the price — both personal and social — of either choice? That much Purity cannot show us.

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