by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Jonathan Franzen hates the internet.
His quixotic (in all the perfect senses of the word: nostalgic, romantic, hopeless, doomed) war against online culture is fun to watch from a distance: he insults it, and internet users swarm to counterattack with tweets and comments like a fusillade of missiles ricocheting off Godzilla as he lumbers back into the sea. Franzen’s animus toward the internet is the fire under the feet of his latest novel, Purity. The novel, like Franzen, hates the internet, and simultaneously tries to embody his idea of its antidote: an intelligent page-turner; a ripping good read in which contemporary anxieties about the future of privacy and information lie immediately under the surface without ever being didactically articulated.
Despite all the things one could call Franzen—smug, boorish, sexist, privileged, ungrateful, a Luddite, a reactionary, a crank, a prick—he is (also?) a very good novelist. He is a writer in the retrograde tradition of the elegantly plotted novel, a form that flourished in the mid-to-late nineteenth century: the kind written for lazy bourgeois Sundays and long train rides, the kind that enthralls, that makes the reader cry when Little Nell dies and smile with schadenfreude when Uriah Heep gets his comeuppance.
I bring up the Dickens characters because Dickens is one of the best, and the best example, of a writer of such novels. Dickens is also the ancestor Franzen claims in Purity: most obviously in that its main character is a young woman nicknamed Pip (Purity Tyler). Her most immediate concerns—crippling student loan debt and a stagnant job market—typify those of a “millennial,” as construed by someone who reads New York Times style section articles about millennials. I say he claims Dickens as an ancestor, but the real father to his style is also still his real bête noir, William Gaddis. And I say “still” because Gaddis is still an influence on Franzen in spite of himself.
In 2002, a year after The Corrections was published to critical acclaim, Jonathan Franzen published an essay in the New Yorker, “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books,” in which he established a dichotomy (false, as all dichotomies are, but useful) between what he called the “Status” novel and the “Contract” novel. The Status novel is exemplified by Ulysses, The Recognitions, Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and so on. Franzen criticizes the snobbery around Status novels, the assumption that, “if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” These novels demand a lot of work from the reader. The Contract novel, on the other hand, seeks to be understood transparently, “with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” In the essay, Franzen describes his evolution as a reader and writer. When he was young, he hoped to join the “guild” of Gaddis, Gass, Pynchon, Coover, Barth, Barthelme, and so on—but:
My problem was that . . . I didn’t particularly like the writers in my modern canon. I checked out their books (including “The Recognitions”), read a few pages, and returned them. I liked the idea of socially engaged fiction, I was at work on my own Systems novel of conspiracy and apocalypse, and I craved academic and hipster respect of the kind that Pynchon and Gaddis got and Saul Bellow and Ann Beattie didn’t. But Bellow and Beattie, not to mention Dickens and Conrad and Brontë and Dostoyevsky and Christina Stead, were the writers I actually, unhiply enjoyed reading.
Much of the essay is about his second—and first successful—attempt at reading The Recognitions. He says he read it “as a kind of penance,” flagellating himself with Gaddis as punishment for trying and failing to sell out with a screenplay. This time around, the novel got so under his skin that he titled his next novel The Corrections, partly in homage to it. The Corrections—by far Franzen’s best book—is what made him the “great American novelist” that Time would call him nine years later in its hysterical anticipation of Freedom. The book is widely loved, and rightly so.
I just opened The Corrections to a random page, and found this sentence:
Smells of sun-warmed creosote and cold mussels, of boat fuel and football fields and drying kelp, an almost genetic nostalgia for things maritime and things autumnal, beset Enid as she limped from the gangway toward the tour bus.
That prose is alive. It’s awake. Most of the book is written that way, in zany, over-the-top language that delights from one sentence to the next as the masterfully crafted story leads the reader forward with a carrot on a string.
A metaphor I often use when talking about writing fiction is that of the composer and the musician: a novelist has got to be both. The composer structures the piece, and the musician plays the notes. The composer needs the musician, but the musician who thinks he doesn’t need the composer is just noodling. There are some novels—all of them “Status” novels—in which the musician has jettisoned the composer, and those are the impenetrable slagheaps that charlatans pretend to see greatness in, but are only a lot of noodling. Sometimes, though, the noodling is spectacular. There are some sentences in The Recognitions so technically dazzling that I reread them three times for pleasure before moving on. I relish what morsels of pleasure I can get from Gaddis when I find them, because I’m certainly not motivated to turn the page by a curiosity about, to say nothing of an understanding of, what the hell is happening.
Then there are other novels in which a good composer has hired a workaday session musician competent enough to play the notes; a lot of well-plotted but lazily written genre fiction is like this. Pick up any Stephen King novel for an example. The Corrections, though, is a novel written by a guy whose real first love was the “Contract” novel, but who has done the work and knows the hard-won rewards of a very good “Status” novel, and hasn’t yet begun to think of the two things as a dichotomy. The novel is the perfect balance between the two: masterfully plotted and beautifully written. The composer and the musician are working together.
Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult” essay begins quoting an angry letter from a reader of The Corrections whom he calls Mrs. M—:
She began by listing thirty fancy words and phrases from my novel, words like “diurnality” and “antipodes,” phrases like “electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces.” She then posed the dreadful question: “Who is it that you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.”
“Diurnality” (opposite of “nocturnality”) and “antipodes” (directional opposites) are words that, it’s true, require either some education or a trip to the dictionary to understand: that’s their “price of entry.” “Electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces,” for someone who has the cultural knowledge of both pointillism and Santa Claus, as well as the experience of having seen those things, is a hilarious and poetic evocation of an incredibly specific image.
And “electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces” is also a more musical and interesting string of five words than anything that appears in Purity. In it, and in his last novel, Freedom, Franzen seems to have sided resolutely with the Contract novel tradition, and dialed his style way back. The sentences are perfectly transparent and accessible. They are neither unadorned, nor do they sag with decoration. Occasionally, there are forgivable duds like this: “For a week, because nobody was paying much attention to her, she let herself go a little nuts.” Really? Did the same writer who wrote “electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces” go on to write something as bland and vague as “she let herself go a little nuts”?
Purity’s style is purely plain-Jane, probably by design. It makes me want to say to Franzen: Don’t let respect for Mrs. M—’s good ol’ everyday horse-sense push you too far away from Gaddis! Where is that writer of The Corrections who delighted in playing around with the English language? The one who wasn’t afraid of looking like a showoff? Who could occasionally be so funny? I remember cackling like a hyena alone in my armchair with The Corrections in my lap, but I don’t think I cracked a smile throughout the entirety of Purity. Or underlined a sentence because I loved it. I totally get your populist, democratic new mantra. Just don’t be afraid to let your language be interesting, amusing, playful, beautiful.
Franzen was clearly thinking about Dickens when writing Purity. There’s the bang-you-over-the-head allusion of the main character’s name, some thematic similarities to Great Expectations—secret fortune, mysterious benefactor—as well as a plot that’s self-consciously Dickensian in its byzantine zaniness: an eccentric, reclusive mother with a shady past, a long-lost parent, a suave international playboy/truth-crusader who may be hiding something. . . . Its strokes are broad, and its universe, like Dickens’s, is slightly cartoonish realism. There’s also this strange tic that runs throughout Purity: “How many smells the earth alone had!” “How sick of syncophancy he’d become since he succumbed to paranoia! How refreshing it was to be called out on his dishonesty!” How nineteenth-century it is to begin a sentence with the word “how” and end it with an exclamation point!
Dickens is the King of Contract novelists. Franzen has embraced him as an influence because he represents the opposite of what he hates: Twitter, Facebook, frenetic pluralism, fractured and incomplete narrative, distraction, narcissism, the internet in general. Dickens is the populist writer who crafts full, compelling narratives that require long attention spans, gladly given. Dickens is Franzen’s antidote to Twitter.
But one of the crucial differences between the two writers is that Dickens truly loved humanity. Dickens had an embracing heart that loved fiercely and therefore hated just as fiercely. When he hated, it was because he loved. Franzen, on the other hand, cannot help that he is a postmodern baby: sullen, cynical, judgmental, and all the more defensive because he is not sure that he is right.
I was once in a college literature seminar taught by a brilliant old asshole, who, walking into the classroom a minute late one day, shut down a conversation about Dickens being a sloppy, sentimental pulp writer, saying:
“Dickens was a great, great, great writer. But—he was kind of dumb.”
Dickens was the ultimate popular writer, a mug, a raconteur, a crowd-pleaser. In 1841, a famous anecdote goes, a crowd of readers in New York stormed the wharf when the ship carrying the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop was pulling in to anchor, to ask if Little Nell made it through (she did not). If there’s anything analogous to that sort of thing in the literature of our own time, it wouldn’t be Jonathan Franzen—the only books I’ve seen people get storm-the-wharf frenzied about were J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.
A few years ago I read David Copperfield on a lark. I had to turn off the MFA-lasers in my eyes that highlight all the clichés and sappy cheap tricks, but once I had, I enjoyed the hell out of it—it is, of course, a ripping good yarn. Just for fun, I began to keep a chicken-scratch tally of the number of times a character cried: every tear that rolled down a cheek, every time someone burst into tears, every fit of sobs or of weeping—because it happened on nearly every page, sometimes twice on the same page. I was in the triple digits before I gave up on my project halfway, because by then I was too absorbed in the story.
Just like the Franzen who wrote The Corrections wasn’t afraid of being called a showoff, Dickens was never afraid of being called a sentimentalist. It is generally true, as Franzen wrote in the “Mr. Difficult” essay in 2002, that fiction is essentially a “conservative and conventional” form, but Dickens had the big, open heart of a liberal. He was on the side of children, the poor, the old, the disadvantaged, the indebted. He hated the rich, hated greed, hated the English class system. But he hated so fiercely because he loved so fiercely. He was a writer who embraced the world with open arms. He could be sentimental. He was a total sap. Maybe he was a little dumb. But what a heart!
Franzen isn’t like that. Franzen inherited his tone and worldview from Gaddis—or maybe he already had such a temperament, and that’s why The Recognitions so resonated with him when he read it in the 1990s. The reason I couldn’t finish The Recognitions (and maybe I will one day—out of 956, I swam all the way out to page 757, which is where my bookmark currently remains) was not because of the sentences or the difficulty, but the coldness and meanness of it. It wasn’t frothing, hotheaded hatred, like Philip Roth—that I like. In Gaddis I found an arrogant, distant, cynical tone. That’s not a criticism of the book as a work of art. I just didn’t want to read it anymore.
That’s the atmosphere in Franzen’s novels, too. Like Gaddis, he is hyper-attuned to posers and fakers, suspicious of the new-fangled, essentially conservative. Unlike Dickens’s, Franzen’s novels are as devoid of children as the public pool during adult swim. He’s concerned with families, yes, but only after the children are grown. The tone is snide and mocking, even when he tries not to be. He can’t help it: he can’t be something he’s not.
Jonathan Franzen doesn’t just hate the internet. Or, rather, his hatred of the internet isn’t just relegated to fogeyish, get-off-my-lawn complaints about its shallowness, its encouragement of narcissism, its simplification and stupefaction of public discourse. I think Franzen is also afraid of the internet for legitimate reasons, its dark and very real threats: the evaporation of the right to privacy, the dissolution of journalism, the way it continues to dissolve the boundaries between public and private life. Franzen’s fear of the internet and hatred of what it symbolizes (youth, hipness, sexiness: fleeting, childish things foolish to stake our future on) means that he also rejects the supposedly noble aims of groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks—transparency and accountability in public institutions and political processes—as naïve, abstract idealism.
The entanglements of secrecy, transparency, narcissism, the personal and the private, the corporation and the state—these anxieties are at the heart of Purity, filtered through the complex, flawed character of Andreas Wolf: a sexy, badass internet outlaw—a “dark celebrity”—in the vein of Julian Assange, or Edward Snowden, for that matter. Assange, as many have noted, is the obvious model for Wolf: a transparency-über-alles internet “hero” who also gives off the sleazy vibe of a snake-oil salesman, a sexual opportunist, a cult leader. He has a creepy compound in Bolivia (where Pip is employed for a while), out of which he operates the Sunshine Project, which is a lot like WikiLeaks.
Long before the internet, Wolf was a counselor of at-risk youth who worked in a church basement in East Germany in the 1980s:
The girls practically lined up outside his office door to drop their pants for him, and if they could plausibly claim to be sixteen he helped them with their buttons. This, too, of course, was ironic. He rendered a valuable service to the state, coaxing antisocial elements back into the fold, speaking the truth while enjoining him to be careful about doing it themselves, and was paid for his service in teen pussy.
The character of Andreas Wolf is not meant to be a sympathetic one—eventually he becomes the closest thing the novel has to a villain. One day, in his quiet life of casual philandering with the at-risk teenagers who come to him for help, a crucial plot element arrives in the doorway of his church basement: Annagret. Annagret is a beautiful teenage girl with whom Andreas falls in love, and with whom he winds up committing a possibly morally excusable but major crime that will lead everything else in the plot to happen. In order for his crime to make sense, Andreas must fall in love with Annagret. She comes to Andreas’s office in tears (her stepfather has been raping her):
Seeing someone so beautiful weeping, seeing her press her fists to her eyes like an infant, Andreas was gripped by an unfamiliar physical sensation. He was such a laugher, such an ironist, such an artist of unseriousness, that he didn’t even recognize . . . why. He was crying for himself—for what had happened to him as a child. He’d heard many stories of childhood sexual abuse before, but never from such a good girl, never from a girl with perfect hair and skin and bone structure. Annagret’s beauty had broken something open in him. He felt that he was just like her. And so he was also crying because he loved her, and because he couldn’t have her.
This section of the novel is written through Andreas’s perspective, and I think, at this moment, before he becomes the novel’s villain, he’s the character I’m meant to be rooting for. But if this is meant to be taken at face value, it’s an abysmal description of someone falling in love. I don’t believe for an instant that this man loves the thing about which he put “childhood sexual abuse” into the same sentence as “perfect hair and skin and bone structure.” This isn’t love. It’s lust with the willful delusion of love fluttering after it like a kite-tail. Franzen simply does not understand the more tender side of the emotional spectrum. He understands hate, but he does not understand love.
Franzen has magnificent chops. He has a born storyteller’s knack for suspense, structure, and pacing, and he can write very beautifully when he cares to. But what he doesn’t have much of is a heart, and that’s why, despite himself, he still sounds a lot more like Gaddis than Dickens.
Maybe one could—another false dichotomy—divide writers into “lovers” and “haters.” Lovers: Miguel de Cervantes, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, the Brontës. Haters: Gustave Flaubert, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Flannery O’Connor, William Gaddis, and William H. Gass, who has said, “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.”
Jonathan Franzen, you’re just not a lover. You’re a hater. That’s okay. The literary lineage of haters is a fine one, and includes many great books. Just own your hatred, because you can’t fake love.
I think it’s true that if you love the good, you have to hate evil. The word “hate” has become comically associated with Franzen in the last few years. In 2013, New York magazine’s Boris Kachka compiled a list of everything Franzen attacked in his annotated translation of Karl Kraus’s essays titled, “Everything Jonathan Franzen Currently Hates.” In his introduction to the list, Kachka pointed out a literary context for his grouchiness: “his footnote-diatribe is, after all, a tribute to Kraus, the dyspeptic fin de siècle critic known around Vienna as ‘the Great Hater.’”
I last hated Jonathan Franzen when I myself was still in my postmodernism-worshipping, the-weirder-and-harder-the-better phase. It’s a stage of late adolescence a young writer needs to grow out of, and I’m glad I have. But there’s not necessarily any reason to associate the humanity-lover’s virtues with the compelling, accessible novel. One can write novels from rage and hatred that are also fun to read. Which, for the most part, is what Purity is. It’s just not entirely honest with itself. It’s a little impure.
In the end, I support Franzen’s (perhaps doomed) cause: the novel. I hope it’s not true, as Italo Calvino wrote thirty-five years ago, that “Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction.” Or, perhaps more precisely put, an anachronism. I don’t quite buy it. Recently there has been a lot of squawking about the “death of the novel”—or more specifically, the kind of long, intricately plotted, realist or semi-realist novels that Dickens wrote. Radical deniers of the novel have given us supposed examples of what will replace it: David Shields’s Reality Hunger; Sheli Heti’s How Should a Person Be? But back in 1956, Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote, “it is hard to imagine such an art can survive for long without some radical change.” Out of curiosity, I read a couple of Robbe-Grillet novels recently, and found them so pleasureless and skull-numblingly boring that I wouldn’t have finished them if they hadn’t been so short. I once heard someone say, “Times change. The avant-garde doesn’t.” That is, the writers of old-fashioned novels use a tried-and-true form to adapt to the times—as Purity certainly does, wrapping a nineteenth-century structure around twenty-first century concerns such as the internet, the disappearance of privacy, and the ongoing, ugly transmogrification of journalism. Whereas what proclaims itself to be radical and new often, as years pass, proves to have a very short shelf life. I believe in the long, intricately-plotted, semi-realist novel the way a Christian believes in Christ: defensively, irrationally, and out of pure love.
Benjamin Hale is the author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011), a novel, and a collection of short fiction forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. He teaches at Bard College.