(Current fiction & past quality fiction)
The Albuquerque public libraries used the publisher’s handouts in listing this novel, “A huge-canvassed novel about identity, the internet, sexual politics, and love from the author of ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Corrections.’” At last glance 91 readers had asked that the next available copy be held for them. The library system had ordered 25 copies – back in June. Gee, those advanced notices work, don’t they?
You had to know something was up when Farrar, Straus and Giroux released in advance of its September 1 publishing date, 9,810 words of “Purity,” Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel. There’s nothing unusual about publishers releasing advances, but Examiner sensed in this case it might be so reviewers could wade through the density in search of another “indelible portrait of our times,” to borrow a phrase from The New York Times review of Franzen’s last novel, “Freedom.”
Examiner is obviously not among the Franzen fans, not now, not previously. When the publisher released an advance for “Freedom” five years ago, Examiner wrote of “Freedom” the following on Aug. 17, 2010:
Here’s Franzen in an excerpt released by the publisher: “. . . in Merrie’s opinion, if you were to scratch below the nicey-nice surface you might be surprised to find something rather hard and selfish and competitive and Reaganite in Patty; it was obvious that the only things that mattered to her were her children and her house – not her neighbors, not the poor, not her country, not her parents, not even her own husband.’ – Copyright © 2010 by Jonathan Franzen
Yes, an indelible portrait of our times. But the lasting taste of contemporary literature need not be bile, though the time in which one lives be distasteful. Examiner, in currently re-reading William Faulkner’s “Light in August” revels in the simplicity of the rhythm of his language – “. . . thinking as he had thought before and would think again and as every other man thought: how false the most profound book turns out to be when applied to life.”
Whether an indelible portrait of our times comes from Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Pynchon or Roberto Bolaño, it’s the quality of the writing that counts. In which case, Franzen finishes a very long-distant third, reminding us of Janis Joplin singing “Me and Bobby McGee” – where “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Also sort of reminds you of a philosophical twit from Roberto Bolaño: “So everything lets us down, including curiosity and honesty and what we love best. Yes, said the voice, but cheer up, its fun in the end.”— Roberto Bolaño (2666)
So everything lets us down. What else is new? But there’s little excuse for extolling novels that lack any sense of rhythm of the language as “an indelible portrait of our times.” Surely scads of novelists do better; certainly write better. Readers deserve to expect “an indelible portrait of our times” to at least meet the definition of literature: “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” Read from “Purity” for yourself:
“She’d since come fervently to wish that her mother had a man in her life, or really just one other person of any description, to love her. Potential candidates over the years had included their next-door neighbor Linda, who was likewise a single mom and likewise a student of Sanskrit, and the New Leaf butcher, Ernie, who was likewise a vegan, and the pediatrician Vanessa Tong, whose powerful crush on Pip’s mother had taken the form of trying to interest her in birdwatching, and the mountain-bearded handyman Sonny, for whom no maintenance job was too small to occasion a discourse on ancient Pueblo ways of being. All these good-hearted San Lorenzo Valley types had glimpsed in Pip’s mother what Pip herself, in her early teens, had seen and felt proud of: an ineffable sort of greatness. You didn’t have to write to be a poet; you didn’t have to create things to be an artist. Her mother’s spiritual Endeavor was itself a kind of art-an art of invisibility. There was never a television in their cabin and no computer before Pip turned twelve; her mother’s main source of news was the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which she read for the small daily pleasure of being appalled by the world. In itself, this was not so uncommon in the Valley. The trouble was that Pip’s mother herself exuded a shy belief in her greatness, or at least carried herself as if she’d once been great, back in a pre-Pip past that she categorically refused to talk about. She wasn’t so much offended as mortified that their neighbor Linda could compare her frog-catching, mouth-breathing son, Damian, to her own singular and perfect Pip. She imagined that the butcher would be permanently shattered if she told him that he smelled to her like meat, even after a shower; she made herself miserable dodging Vanessa Tong’s invitations rather than just admit she was afraid of birds; and whenever Sonny’s high-clearance pickup rolled into their driveway she made Pip go to the door while she fled out the back way and into the redwoods. What gave her the luxury of being impossibly choosy was Pip. Over and over, she’d made it clear: Pip was the only person who passed muster, the only person she loved. This all became a source of searing embarrassment, of course, when Pip hit adolescence.” – Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Franzen
Well, the earth didn’t exactly move, did it? “Purity” may be contemporary, but it certainly isn’t literature.
Wrote Publishers Weekly: “Franzen succeeds more than he fails, but the failures are damning.” The New York Times found hope: “Franzen has added a new octave to his voice. In fact, even readers who have found his earlier work misanthropic, too filled with bile and spleen for their tastes, are likely to appreciate his ability here to not just satirize the darkest and pettiest of human impulses but to also capture his characters’ yearnings for connection and fresh starts — and to acknowledge the possibility of those hopes.” Examiner believes in hope as a power in itself. Remember Carl Sandburg: “Hope is an echo, hope ties itself yonder, yonder.” — Carl Sandburg
Let’s therefore hope the next Franzen novel includes more memorable writing, something with the rhythm of language and less stereotypical ordinariness. Leave that stuff to pulp fiction; defined, “fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp.”
“Purity” does, however, have a story line. Here’s the set up from Amazon, provided by the publisher: “Young Pip Tyler doesn’t know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she’s saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she’s squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother–her only family–is hazardous. But she doesn’t have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she’ll ever have a normal life.”
Makes you want to read the story, doesn’t it? After all, according to Amazon, “Purity” is the most daring and penetrating book yet by one of the major writers of our time. As Will Rogers said, “A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries.”