Jonathan Franzen on his new book Purity
He writes stories that offer relentless insight into the confusing business of being human
Jonathan Franzen puts you in mind of a shy person whose destiny it is to attract attention, and he doesn’t always submit with grace. For instance, our interview began inauspiciously with him saying: “The part [of book promotions] I don’t like is the interviews.” While this truth bomb is unpalatable on a personal level (I am a delight to talk to!) I still get it. People who write do it at least partly because they don’t much like the talking. Besides, if you’re also nostalgic for a time when you never heard from authors except through their work, you’ll nod in sympathy when he says, “I guess I’m old-fashioned, but to me the performance is in the book.”
And this is my central problem with Franzen’s stream-of-crotchetiness: I get it. The Oprah Book Club logo obscuring the cover of a book is off-putting. Pet cats should be kept indoors if they’re stalking about killing endangered birds for lulz. The state of discourse online is yuck. This makes it hard for me to be unreservedly mad at Franzen, although a lot of people manage it just fine.
I suspect one of the reasons Franzen is considered arrogant is that he doesn’t return the world’s fawning appreciation of him with fawning appreciation of the world. That can be awkward. But I’m afraid your reward for loving Jonathan Franzen’s work will just have to be his work. If you’ve never read him, make the time, clear your schedule, and start with The Corrections. Don’t Google him or read op-eds about him till you read at least one of his novels. A big fat book with complex moral situations soaks up your energy. Franzen says that when a book he’s writing is going well, he sleeps badly. Reading his books, I am held in a similarly feverish grip. It’s relentless, the onslaught of insight, the recognition of your dysfunction in a made-up character. But this is also the most rewarding way to read him. When the fever breaks, you feel less alone.
While he may not be a fan of interviews, Franzen says he enjoys talking to a live audience of readers, confidence-deflating as that can sometimes be. “Pretty much every time I do a reading from my work, someone comes up to me afterwards and says, ‘I had no idea you were a funny writer, it’s only when I heard people around me laughing that I understood that this is funny.’” You sympathise with these people because the average Franzen book tackles one or all of the following cheery subjects: self-deception (The Corrections), the destruction of precious things (Freedom), both daddy issues and mommy issues (Purity, HarperCollins) and depression.
The German word he uses most is weltschmerz. “I guess it’s melancholy, but a specific kind of melancholy.” He has a talent for communicating this state. It’s in The Corrections that he fully demonstrates his ability to throw light on a depressed mind without disturbing any of its shadows. That might be due to his experiences, his own “brushes with moderately severe depression”, but that makes the achievement all the more remarkable because it’s a condition that blanks you out. After all, how do you describe nothingness? You laugh into it.
“Depression is kind of a tar baby; everything it touches makes you feel bad. If you can try to be funny about it, it’s the only way out.” One of the lights in which depression is funny is the modern self-consciousness about it. As Chip Lambert (The Corrections) wallows drunk and devastated in the faculty accommodation he will soon lose, along with his job, for having sex with and then stalking a student, the phone rings. He reaches for it reflexively, then stops. The more appropriate behaviour for a depressed person, he decides, would be to just let the phone ring.
An upcoming not-quite biography of the author by Philip Weinstein is titled Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy Of Rage. Franzen’s quibble is with the title, “The rage kind of dissipated after the success of The Corrections. I don’t spend my days in a state of anger like I did when I was in my twenties and thirties. The comedy is still available but there’s less rage in [his latest novel] Purity than in anything I’ve written yet.” It has settled, he says, into a simmering resentment. Purity is positively sunny, by his measure.
As the young Pip Tyler tries to live down her given name (Purity), get some distance from a clingy mother and track down her father, she finds herself first in the headquarters of an elite group of international whistle-blowers led by a dodgy hero, and then working as a fact-checker for a formidable investigative journalist called Leila Helou. All the idealism in the book is youthful and hence doomed. (Franzen himself used to identify as a Marxist in his twenties.) There are more pages of dialogue, which, by the way, is his forte, than pages illuminating the darkness of his characters’ minds, which is also his forte. It doesn’t just step out of the American Midwest, the terrain of his previous novels; Purity travels around a lot: California, Bolivia, East Germany. Compared to his two previous novels, there are parts where this one doesn’t feel like him at all: particularly the scenes of almost domestic bliss. And the observations on feminism.
We have now reached that part of the Jonathan Franzen interview where we talk about the Oprah episode of 2001. Why do we have to go back 14 years to discuss what was not even a proper spat by Kardashian standards? Because, as Franzen himself acknowledges, the Oprah stuff is still very much in the air. This is the short version of what happened: he was ungracious about The Corrections being accepted into the Oprah Book Club, considered a badge of honour and saleability for any American author. He explained it to journalist Boris Kachka, who wrote a book about his publishers, like this: “I’d been working nine years on the book and FSG had spent a year trying to make a bestseller of it. It was our thing. [Oprah] was an interloper, coming late, and with an expectation of slavish gratitude and devotion for the favour she was bestowing.” You might call this a PR fail. Except that his next novel, Freedom, got him on the cover of Time magazine (‘Great American Novelist’) and back into the Oprah Book Club for a second time. “I went on her show, we hugged on stage. Oprah is over it, why isn’t everyone else over it?”
So why isn’t everyone else over it? Franzen has an idea or two. First, how the episode was reported. “People don’t read and if they read, they don’t read carefully. And there’s a kind of echo chamber online, where received opinion is amplified. So at this point, there’s a certain category of feminist who is just never going to read a word I write because they already know that I’m the bad guy.”
But the Time magazine cover and many inches of newsprint devoted to his book in prestigious literary publications were also seen as signs of an old rot in the American publishing industry, i.e. its blatant preference for male writers. He says, “There were these women here, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, who felt that I was getting too much attention because they write family novels, I write family novels. ‘Why is he getting the prize nominations?’ And if you don’t actually read the books, it is completely mysterious.”
Despite that elegant burn, Franzen is not unsympathetic to the point being made by those like Weiner. He says, “Their fundamental gripe is legitimate: there is more attention paid to the work of male writers, and there are more male reviewers. There are these imbalances. The fact that I myself have spoken out against it for decades doesn’t really matter because I’m the guy getting all the attention.” The amount of attention he gets can be hard on those who love him too. Girlfriend and writer Kathryn Chetkovich wrote about it in a memoir for Granta titled ‘Envy’: “At home sometimes I don’t want to check the phone messages; when I step into a bookstore and see that stack on the new-book table, I can sometimes feel my heart rattling the bars of its cage.”
Many of the most interesting women in Franzen’s novels struggle with ambition. Leila in Purity is a strong female role model to Pip, but she also suffers from a kind of feminist guilt: the discomfiting realisation that though she opposes the patriarchy, her own personal association with powerful men has paved the way to her professional success. The guilt, in other words, of privilege. Franzen is not immune. “We men who went to college in the ’70s and ’80s really bought the feminist program. We did feel a lot of intrinsic guilt just because we’re male. Nowadays there’s a code of conduct, especially online. I think younger men now have gotten clever about not saying the wrong thing. And frankly, they may have it right because no matter how hard you try, as a man, you’re not going to make yourself a woman.”
Franzen’s male characters are prolific self-loathers — a generalisation he disagrees with, by the way. While his men chase some ideal of sensitivity, success or sanity, the women grapple with what are, to me at least, even more interesting dilemmas. His telling of the relationship between mothers and daughters is pitch-perfect, whether it’s strained to breaking point, like in The Corrections, or complicated in its great love, like in Purity. Patty Berglund from Freedom cheats on a nice guy with a not-so-nice guy, but you understand why she made that trade. Franzen neither idolises nor condescends to these characters, he simply provides context to the compromises they make. There’s a listening quality to his prose that encourages you to reserve judgment till you know more.
It’s something he wishes more people would do outside novels, too. “I hate the state of discourse online. They shout and tweet before they think or read. The whole thing is yuck.” Franzen is sometimes charged with elitism. (“It’s a strange kind of elitism where many of your best readers are serving long prison sentences.”) This might also be because he’s famously trained his ire on popular things that give the average Joe pleasure or a means of expression, like Twitter, e-books or Apple computers. Or on popular causes like climate change, the focus on which, he argues in The New Yorker, is shortchanging the wildlife conservation movement. “Even the most ominously degraded landscape could make me happy if it had birds in it.” You can imagine the backlash.
A sense of superiority is the secret heart of shyness, he observes in Purity. Haters might say that’s an accurate self-analysis. But once you’ve read Franzen’s fiction, you’ll find it hard to see him as the misanthrope he’s sometimes painted out to be. Not impossible, mind you, just hard. Then you’ll feel like your brain is being split neatly in half: one part understanding, the other undecided. It’s the kind of uncomfortable state that Franzen’s novels are uniquely equipped to preserve you in.