Jonathan Franzen suffers from the weight of expectation

Franzen's prose exemplifies the 2011 Booker judges’ exalted “readability”, but his life has become a soap opera not of his making.

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We’re reluctant to pity anyone for being too successful, but the position Jonathan Franzen currently occupies has its invidious side. He didn’t apply for the post, either. Once the last generation of anointed American greats left the building – Updike, Bellow, Mailer, et al; the last remaining elder icon, Roth, has formally retired – the role of literary king of the hill was going begging, and it went without saying that the throne would be reserved for a man. David Foster Wallace abdicated in the most unfortunate manner possible. Franzen didn’t claim the crown; it was crammed on his head.

The obvious downside to being the Great American Novelist of your era is the clamorous expectations that greet your publications. The attendant close scrutiny sometimes elevates your achievements into the other-worldly, but can always pick them to pieces instead. Ghouls in the wings await a fall from grace. Any writer feted as God’s gift is in danger of losing a discipline and capacity for self-criticism that most authors take years to develop. Excess becomes enticing. Editors grow deferent.

Given these unprofitable pressures, Fran­zen is still pretty good. In Purity, his fifth novel, he continues to employ the simple good storytelling that issued him into the Pantheon in the first place. His prose exemplifies the 2011 Man Booker judges’ exalted “readability”: it is inviting, accessible, clear and well crafted. The text is imbued with the fairy dust every writer would sprinkle on manuscripts, were the stuff in the cupboard – whatever enigmatic quality makes you turn the page. I would never downplay this talent. If sheer fictional competence were commonplace, everyone would write a bestseller.

Purity is a three-ring circus. Ring One: the eponymous Purity. In her early twenties in contemporary California, the young woman tolerates her flaky mother’s unhealthy dependency, which we suspect works both ways. Pip for short – the Dickensian allusion is later made unnecessarily explicit – Purity Tyler is a telemarketer for a middleman company connecting renewable energy with customers: virtue once removed. (“And Pip wanted to do good, if only for lack of better ambitions.”) She doesn’t know who her father is, and her mother has no intention of telling her.

Beguiled by a German visitor to her house-share in Oakland and persuaded that professional hackers might help to trace her paternity, Pip journeys to Bolivia to join the Sunlight Project, an ambitious WikiLeaks clone headed by a charismatic man from the former East Germany named Andreas Wolf. True to his surname, Andreas seduces multiple younger women around him, and zeroes in on Pip.

Ring Two: Andreas, not meant to be a mere fictionalisation of Julian Assange. Before the fall of the Wall, as a younger man Andreas harbours wayward views of the state while counselling teenagers in an East Berlin rectory, where he becomes infatuated with Annagret, then 15. She is being abused by her stepfather, an informant for the regime. Already showing signs of megalomania, Andreas conspires with the girl to murder her stepfather. Though they appear to get away with it, he later imperils their impunity by blurting the story to an American journalist he has barely met, Tom Aberant. If that sounds hard to credit, yes – it’s a bit of a stretch.

Ring Three: Tom. In his youth, Tom marries Anabel, a loose-cannon heir to a fortune she spurns, because it has flowed from a “river of meat” – a company whose trade in butchered animals the vegan daughter cannot abide. At their wedding, Anabel spits in her uninvited father’s face. Taking a break from his predictably rocky marriage during a journalistic trip to Germany, Tom not only submits to Andreas’s terrible tale, but helps him move the body. If that sounds hard to credit, yes – again, it’s a bit of a stretch.

Tom returns to Anabel in the States and keeps only in cool postcard touch with his disturbing new friend. Resigned to divorce, Tom accepts his father-in-law’s blood money to start a non-profit for investigative journalism. Disgusted, Anabel vanishes. Meanwhile, Andreas grows famous, and Tom has the power to destroy the provocateur’s reputation. At least Tom has found a comparatively sane woman in the present, a colleague on the trail of a missing nuclear warhead (a subplot that goes nowhere).

Franzen’s own river of meat includes numerous narrative tributaries and a vast delta of characters. Keeping “Anabel” and “Annagret” straight takes concentration, ditto keeping distinct Tom’s and Andreas’s bad marriages to each, and all these people seem to have trouble with their mothers. We start with Pip and then abandon her for great tracts of text, which is structurally problematic. To the degree that we have seemingly been presented with a DNA mystery, the expectation is thwarted when Pip’s true parentage is revealed well before the halfway mark (so if we’ve guessed already, fine). But if we’re not waiting to find out who’s the daddy, what are we waiting for? Plot-wise, for too much of the latter part of the novel we’re tying up loose ends.

There is much to admire in this book (as they say). The East German sections are well researched and feel authentic. Description and characterisation are stylish: “a handsome, ruined, clean-shaven drinker’s face”. Many lines merit appreciative checks in the margins, even throwaway parentheticals: “self-destructive behaviour
was itself a form of self-importance”. I enormously enjoyed various philosophical and political riffs, and I was perfectly happy when they went on for pages.

Take the neatly reasoned passage that defines totalitarianism as any “system it was impossible to opt out of”. In East Germany,

You could co-operate with the system or you could oppose it, but the one thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not be in relation to it. The answer to every question large or small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet.

The tyranny of having to be “in relation to” the internet would be woefully familiar to a celebrity author.

On the other hand: I yearned for jokes. Broadly, Franzen’s most considerable deficit is his sense of humour. He can be ironic, even biting, but he’s almost never funny. Across 563 densely printed pages, we could use some help.

There’s nothing wrong with a long novel per se. If nothing else, in bang for the buck, fat books are a bargain. But this one is very long indeed, which raises the architectural bar, one Purity comes close to clearing, but not quite. (A authorial wink: “Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now ­bigness was essential. Thickness, length.”) In the last third of the book, something odd happens: the longer we spend in Andreas’s head – the more we explore every twist and turn of his relation to his flirtatious mother – the more he goes curiously dead. More and more text simply digs the character in a hole. Trying too hard to make the man fascinating, Franzen makes him tedious instead.

Though bunted with intellectual trappings, the spine of this novel is a melodrama: the missing father, the covered-up murder, a great fortune in search of an heir, the big man and his terrible past. Again, nothing wrong with melodrama – but this author is often credited with capturing the American zeitgeist, and Purity in its soul is not social commentary but soap opera. (One might say the same of other Franzen novels; why, perhaps that’s his secret.) While the small stories are well told, the big one is a little clumsy, not 100 per cent persuasive, and too complicated. Despite the author’s uncanny gift for momentum, the larger arc’s extreme attenuation ultimately creates narrative drag.

Maybe Purity is a spirited, skilful execution of a weak idea. For I was left strangely mystified why, of all the stories in the world, Franzen was impelled to tell this one. I don’t mean we should be able to find direct links between a novel and a writer’s life. Rather, what purpose drove the creation of this book? Franzen makes any number of interesting points in passing. But I do not get the point. It’s not that I demand a tidy aphorism as takeaway, or a moral of the story as such. Yet having found the novel generally agreeable along the way – if running-on-the-spot in sections – by the last page I couldn’t help but puzzle: What was that? More precisely: What was that for?

That’s the problem. I don’t understand what this book is for. I don’t expect every work of fiction to change my life, aside from affecting the actual hours I devote to it. But after completing truly satisfying novels, I walk away with something – something hard to put into words, but which I can reference in my head often years later: a feeling, a perspective, an atmosphere, a sensibility. Already when I reach for Purity on my mental bookshelf, I draw a blank. That’s far better than recalling misery, which the memory of reading truly bad books summons in high relief. But from a novelist of Franzen’s stature, I want something I can take to the bank. If that means I, too, have heaped unrealistic hopes on an author who never asked for such stature, I guess that’s not fair. 

Lionel Shriver’s most recent novel is “Big Brother” (Borough Press)

Jonathan Franzen's Purity is available now from Fourth Estate (£20).

Lionel Shriver is an author and journalist. Her most recent novel is Big Brother.

This article appears in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars