Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jonathan Franzen's "Purity" Arrives with Great Pomp and Circumstance

Oh my goodness, what a tamasha, what a big fuss! Jonathan Franzen, who is apparently now regarded by many as our greatest and most famous American writer, has produced a new novel, “Purity” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), even heftier (576 pages and 1.5 pounds, according to an online bookseller) and more portentous than his prior novels, it seems. I have not yet read it, and haven’t decided whether I will do so, although I did put my name on the local library request list for it, just to have a look at it. Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I liked “The Corrections,” but was very put off by “Freedom,” to the extent that I posted about it several times (on 11/8/10, 11/11/10, and 11/13/10); I did, however, finish it. In the past few weeks, I have read an outpouring of reviews of “Purity”; it is obvious that for better or for worse, when Franzen publishes a novel, elaborate attention much be paid. The reviews have been respectful but mixed. They mostly note that the nickname of the main character, “Pip” (her real name is the Purity of the title) draws attention to the Dickens-like intentions of the novel, which is bursting with topics and characters. They note the length of the novel, and the word “sprawling” is frequently used. They mention that Franzen addresses many issues of our time, including the dangers of the Internet. (There is a sort-of-based-on-Snowden character, who is also a sort of cult leader.) They point out that in “Purity,” as in Franzen's other novels, the story is really a collection of several characters’ stories, told in separate sections and gradually connecting with each other. Most reviews have been what I would term cautiously positive, although a couple of them have been rather negative, deeming the novel disappointing. Colm Toibin (one of the great writers of our time, in my view) concludes his review in the New York Times Book Review (8/30/15) as follows (note the hedges and the damning with faint praise): “It is, in its way, an ambitious novel…but there is also a sense of modesty at its heart as Franzen seems determined not to write chiseled sentences that draw attention to themselves. He seems content with the style of the book, whose very lack of poetry and polish seems willed and deliberate.” Maureen Corrigan on NPR’s Fresh Air gave a similarly cautious review. Elaine Bair, in Harpers (September 2015), had a more positive take, but then moved into a long and somewhat confusing riff on how Franzen has been accused of sexism, but he is no worse than other male writers, but on the other hand he seems to be trying on some level to be sexist (!). I will not even attempt here to summarize the story, although I feel I have a decent grasp on it after reading and hearing so many reviews. If I do read the novel, I will write more about it. Here I am simply noting how each of Franzen’s novels receives increasing attention, and it almost seems that the novel is as much a media event as a literary event. Perhaps I should be pleased that a novel can still get this much attention, in these days of worry about decreasing readership. And I admit that after reading “Freedom,” and also after reading Franzen’s strange, sexist, and condescending article about Edith Wharton in the Atlantic (see my post of 2/22/12), along with some other pieces by and about him that I have read, I am somewhat biased against him, quite possibly unfairly so. If I do read ”Purity,” I will try (sort of….) to be open-minded about it. To be continued…perhaps.
Site Meter