Purity: A Quick Note From Captain Obvious

This will be short.

Hamlet. Andreas. Go.

hamletWhat Franzen is doing with Hamlet is pretty smack-you-in-the-face, if you’re looking for it. So I’m not going to go into too much detail. I’m just here let you know to look for it.

If you remember anything from high school English, then you’ll be alarmed that Andreas and his mother’s biggest point of bonding is Hamlet. That’s what I mean about smack-you-in-the-face. But if you don’t remember Hamlet, it’s worth knowing a few things as you read Purity:

  1. Hamlet likes his mom. I mean, he really likes his mom.
  2. His dad is a ghost.
  3. What defines Hamlet’s life is his relationship with murder.
  4. He destroys the girl he loves–but does he love her? Can he love her, being as self-absorbed as he is?

The parallels aren’t perfect, but they’re there, and they’re fun and easy to find. If you are new to looking at literature for themes and uncovering hidden mysteries within a book, this is a enjoyable softball lobbed your way.

So if Purity‘s on your list, take your knowledge of Hamlet (and if it’s just the SparkNotes you scanned, good enough), and look at Andreas’ life when you read Purity.

To Level Up…

Now, if you really want to do a psychoanalytic criticism of Purity, get a basic grasp of Freud and read this thing. Oh boy. Pretty sure Franzen himself was reading a lot of Freud as he wrote this. Some of the most powerful phrases in the book come more from the mouth of Freud than Franzen.

But looking at the book on this level, if you’re a psych newbie, will take a bit more dedication. Freud has a pretty impressive body of work. Hamlet, on the other hand, is just, well, Hamlet.


Hey, here’s a fun fact! T.S. Eliot, writer of “The Wasteland,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (my favorite poem), and the collection of poems that would inspire the musical Cats (yes, google it), thought Hamlet was awful and Shakespeare was a total literary mess when he wrote it. The more you know…

Purity: The Trouble with Gender

Here I am, just hanging out on the internet, about to be the four-billionth person here to talk about how Franzen is white and male. But I hope to avoid polemics-as-usual and be sensitive while remaining true to feminist roots.

The Criticism

Franzen’s biggest critics are women, and one of his biggest criticisms is his need to check that male privilege/mansplaining at the door:

Article 1: “Awwww, poor victimized famous bestselling author Jonathan Franzen!”

Article 2:  “The charge of misogyny, like the charge of racism, is a serious one, and I shy away from making it. But …Franzen continues to indict himself with gender theorizing that panders to the worst instincts of the male intellectual.” “Franzen can do better.”

Article 3 (and this is both legit AND hilarious): “He sounds like he’s just observing the patriarchal dictate that before we can talk about any woman artist or intellectual or politician or activist, we must first rank her on Hot or Not.”

Article 4 (by Roxane Gay, one of my favorite people. Follow her on Twitter; she’s a blast.): “He is offering up an earnest, albeit rather narrow and privileged assessment of the world we live in,” noting that, in Franzen’s world, feminism equals “angry womenfolk.”

Criticism Justified?

Oh, totally. Something you’ll see over and over in these articles is a reference to the part in Purity where the radically feminist (and radically unhinged) Anabel miserably guilts Tom into only peeing sitting down because the expression of inequality–standing up to pee–hurts her. You’ll also see that the extremist, separatist feminists that grab ahold of Annagret are not unlike the German Stasi in the book. They’re a totalitarian, police-like force of harpies. Franzen puts feminist in his books, and they are all life-crushing shrews.

Also to be noted is the phallocentrism of Purity, which is probably my biggest complaint about the book. You can look forward to hearing alllllll about the state of every male character’s penis, allllll the time. Is it disappointingly at half mast? Is it a throbbing beast ready to bust a hole in space time? Is it tentatively pushing on something, asking permission? Don’t worry. You’ll get to hear all about it. ALL. ABOUT. IT. And I don’t mean to be prude, but it takes away from my experience of the book. I can’t imagine why Franzen’s brain is just a nonstop flow of “penispenispenispenis.” Why are all these characters so obsessed with the state of their genitalia? Why is Franzen so obsessed?

But then, here’s where my sympathy may set me apart from the rest of the angry readers. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in Franzen’s head, and I accept that this phallocentrism is his thing and it’s not mine. My experience has made me who I am, and he’s been shaped the same way.

For instance, if I wrote fiction, my real-life experiences with men would no doubt show up via my male characters, and considering that feelings I’ve taken away from many of those experiences, that might draw accusations of misandry from critics. (You know, the myriad of critics who would read my best-selling book.) I personally wouldn’t feel that assessment justified, but there would likely be evidence for that argument from my writing.

Going back to Franzen…yes, there is evidence of male-centric, anti-feminist, super-privileged writing here. Some of the articles I linked objectively point out these problems, which are worth noting. But others are outrage-seekers, trying to tear apart the overdog just because no one likes the overdog.

Take Article 1’s (above) comment. Let me put it in context. This is the paragraph before, quoting a fascinating Guardian interview with Franzen.

“In his Guardian interview, Franzen says that ‘I’m not a sexist. I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section [of ‘Purity.’] is that he’s really trying to not be male…. There’s a sense that there is really nothing I can do except die – or, I suppose, retire and never write again.’

Awwww, poor victimized famous bestselling author Jonathan Franzen! Why are feminists so meaaaaaan?

I understand where the sarcasm and lack of sympathy comes from here. But I don’t lack that sympathy.

Franzen’s a human being. He’s trying to write stories about how human beings hurt each other and make each other’s lives worth living. I don’t think he’s on a woman-hating mission. I think he’s expressing a lot of himself through Tom, who really wants to be a good feminist and just can’t do it without decoupling himself from crippling guilt, so he’s just given up. And wouldn’t you, if the idea of male privilege had seeped into your bones? If it seemed like the only thing you can do to be rid of this original sin is to never say anything again, lest your inherently poisoned point of view seeps through and victimizes all these people you’re unknowingly oppressing?

“There is No Way to Make Myself Not Male”

The subtitle of this Guardian interview is “there is no way to make myself not male,” and I think there’s an evolution of thinking behind it. I imagine that, once upon a time, he felt ashamed in realizing it, as if there was some essential thing wrong with him.

But now, I think Franzen is saying “there is no way to make myself not male” in a different way. He has been attacked for being male by critics for a long time, and sometimes with good reason. He’s made a couple of boneheaded PR moves (see comments on Edith Wharton). But I think he’s given up carrying that cross of guilt the way anyone with good intentions faced with constant attacks might.

I say he has good intentions because I think he portrays all characters, both male and female, with incredible empathy and nuance. I think Franzen isn’t lying in that Guardian interview when he says he loves people. And if you love people and are constantly attacked as a hate-filled bigot, well, I think there’s good reason to be bitter about it.

As for me, I see the male-centrism, but I like his books too much to think he should be silent. Though I do hope he’ll keep the state-of-the-phallus alerts to a minimum next time.

Purity: Overview

I’ve been waiting for this.

Tl;dr Synopsis

This story is about lives coming together and ripping apart, but it’s done in a calculated way that builds to a crescendo and…well, kind of ends on a crescendo.

We’re introduced to Pip Tyler, a young girl with a lot of student debt and daddy issues. Andreas Wolf is a German Julian Assange, except he’s super cute and less rapey. Well, publically. Privately, he’s a troubled narcissist with mommy issues. Pip and Andreas come together and rip apart.

Andreas falls wholeheartedly, frighteningly in love with a teenage girl, and that teenage girl can’t ever get over the terrible thing they did out of desperation. Their lives come together and rip apart.

Tom Aberant and Anabel Laird (a journalist and an artist/psychotic mess, respectively) meet in college. Like being electrocuted, they’re locked together by a seemingly unbreakable force, both being psychologically fried to a crisp, until the current abates long enough for their lives to rip apart.

There’s little Purity airtime given to Tom and Andreas’s relationship. Their lives come together and rip apart in a matter of days. Then again, much later—this time for only one day—there’s another coming together and ripping apart. But I think this relationship might be the most important one in the book.

There is a plot to this story, but (1) to tell it here would fill this post with spoilers, and this is not a book I want to spoil for you, and (2) I think that this ebb and flow of relationships and the nature of how people come together and tear apart is the real heart of the story.

Writing Style

Franzen writes with clarity and frankness. He is an extremely accessible writer, but that’s not what makes him remarkable. What’s really incredible is how he keeps it accessible without sacrificing intelligence. Sometimes his passages take on a “literary” or “psychological” affect in a way that seems stilted, but that’s really the only complaint I have about the writing style. It is wonderfully modern, page-turn-y, and easy to read, but it’s also full of inventive simile and heart-gripping insight. I feel like this is best exemplified by passages, so let me throw some at you.

Right on one of the first pages, Franzen tosses out an analogy that’s perfect. Pip understands that she can get away with nearly anything, as far as her mother is concerned, because “she was like a bank too big in her mother’s economy to fail.” Pip’s mother (who, by the way, reads the news “for the small daily pleasure of being appalled by the world”) is just one character that demonstrates Franzen’s fascination with mothers and children. I suspect he’d been reading a good amount of Freud during the creation of this book because ol’ Sigmund is everywhere in Purity. It’s worth an entire separate post. Anyway, Pip’s mother is like Andreas’s mother, which is to say they are inevitably creators of victims. It’s discussed in this passage (and close your eyes if you don’t like profanity):

An accident of brain development stacked the deck against children: the mother had two or three years to fuck with your head before your hippocampus began recording lasting memories…you couldn’t remember a single word of what you or she had said before your hippocampus kicked into gear.

This is what I mean about Franzen being easy to read but never lacking intelligence.


Franzen’s character niche is “people totally out of control.” If they’re torn or distressed or confused or flailing, Franzen is all about them. You know who he really doesn’t do? Healthy, sane people with a complete sense of self. Maybe that’s what he’s trying to get at. None of us are.

Commentary aside, Franzen’s characters are almost always conflicted and, consequently, readers are almost always sympathetic. We’re in the heads of all the characters, and it’s hard not to feel for them, even if they’re the self-absorbed borderline Andreas or the self-martyred basket case Anabel. How they struggle, every one.

These characters are complex, and Franzen goes the extra mile by showing us how they got there. They aren’t always likeable, but you feel like you really see them for who they are, and it’s hard not to be invested in them.

That being said, some of the characters are totally ridiculous. Anabel, for example, is so over the top that it’s hard to see her as real. But I’ll just say this: I am a very character-centric reader, and this small complaint did not stop me from loving every second of this book.


Oh, it’s so hard to choose between the endless highlights.

  • Any of the more innocent, pure-hearted interactions Andreas has with the only two women (no, neither his mother) he truly loves more than himself
  • The passages that follow Leila on her interviews in Texas
  • Andreas’s childhood, though the experience is not entirely pleasant
  • Pip’s time in South America

Really, most of the book is a highlight. I have a hard time going through Tom’s narrative, just because it’s such a long time of waiting for him to escape. You always sense it coming and are frustrated when page after page go by without any action. I also found Andreas’s relationship with Annagret after pining after her for years to be immensely unsatisfying, including the description of why it couldn’t work.

Who Should Read this Book

Everyone. I would recommend the book to absolutely anyone.*

*Except maybe those in the literary community who are predisposed to vehemently hating the overdog without leaving room for nuance in their opinion. Or, you know what, maybe you’re not and still won’t like it. Google Purity and check out the polarized titles on the first page. No, you know what, let me do it for you.



Sycophants and haters. Everyone seems to be one or the other

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

Out of all the books I’ve read in the last month, this is the one that has haunted my dreams and made dreamscapes out my days. It’s like I’m lovesick. It’s taken me to another world, and it’s a world I haven’t been able to leave.

Let me be clear—Purity is not without its flaws (and I’m going to tackle the main flaw in a future post). Let me also be clear about this, though. Its flaws do nothing to stand in the way of how much I loved this book, loved the experience of reading the book, and love remembering the book.

And that’s really the difference between how I’ve felt about the other books I’ve been reading lately, even maybe in the last year. I’ve admired the craftsmanship of other books. I’ve been entertained and charmed and filled with respect. But I just flat out LOVE Purity. It hits something deep inside of me—the part that likes to get lost in stories and be swept up by the romance of a narrative completely separate from your own life, the part that likes to completely lose myself in a magnetic world that runs deep.

Hate on Franzen. Go Ahead.

But portray the dysfunction of human relationships like he did in The Corrections. I dare you. 

Hey girl.

Anyway. I am EXCITED.

So, if you rely on me for your literary news, (1) I’m sorry, and (2) Jonathan Franzen is coming out with a book named Purity in September. All the world is abuzz with Franzen hate right now, and I’m sorry–I just can’t comprehend it. The main accusation? “His booksexes be all, you know, not sexy and stuff.”

You people. The essence of the sex in his books is that it’s awkward. It’s one of the many things that makes the relationships in his book so believable and so human. So you want perfectly natural scenes of seduction where two fabulously attractive people with great communication skills and no mommy/daddy issues feel free to ask each other to fulfill their deepest desires, fall naturally into perfect sync and find utter satisfaction with one another? End scene; light cigarette? Well. The erotic fiction department of Amazon is thriving, and you, too, can donate your crisp dollars to the cause.

Franzen’s writing reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. We have a character that’s terribly awkward and struggling to connect with others while being cripplingly self-conscious and selfishly single-minded in his pursuit of ephemeral satisfactions–all the while being in terrible psychic distress–these are Franzen’s characters. Faulty. Awkward. Selfish. Bad decision makers. Above all, human.

I cannot WAIT for the new novel. Naysayers, I am glad you found some titillating thing of his to pick on, just to go against the grain. And you may even have a point. But for all the accusations of being a literary priss, I love me some Franzen. I can’t wait for Purity.

Note: If you haven’t picked up a Franzen book, skip Freedom for the time being and pick up his The Corrections. You will find someone you know in there–someone you could likely write your own book about. Everyone has a mother, father, sister, brother, or significant other that is in this book. I promise. Plus, the storyline and the characters are just better–more fascinating, less frustrating.

Couple posts brewing in the background, but, you know, life. I’ll get there soon. Thanks for tuning in and HAPPY FRANZEN READING!