Purity: No one has read it, but everyone already has an opinion
Purity: No one has read it, but everyone already has an opinion

You really don’t have to be a big reader or overly concerned with state of the novel to have an opinion of Jonathan Franzen. For the past week, I have been carrying around an advance reader’s copy of Franzen’s new novel Purity, due for release in September. I haven't flaunted it. But Franzen's power to dominate what we charmingly call the cultural conversation “around” what we also call, perhaps less charmingly, “literature” seems to make the book glow in my backpack, like the stones of Sankara burning through Indiana Jones's satchel in Temple of Doom, compelling people to share with me their righteous antipathy toward the author. I agree that as famous men of letters go, he often comes off as a bit of an on-purpose dick, but the magnitude of people's reaction to a guy who basically just writes and holds forth about books seems disproportionate.

Well, I can’t say much about Purity yet. I’m about 30 pages in. I went into The Corrections and Freedom warily, only to find myself riveted by the domestic microaggressions—then actual aggressions—and debilitating sadness that are, sadly, the birthright and legacy of WASPs, a people now very much in decline.

The idea that Franzen is somehow not a worthy novelist is easily dismissible as willful crank, a semi-valid chain reaction of objections to a series of extraliterary gestures that have merged the writer and his writing into one big celebrity compound. (Which may just be what you get for standing on the world's stage wearing a sign that says "Serious Writer.") The pervasive resentment of Franzen comes off as a sort of a middle-class action lawsuit against a guy who gets more than his fair share of attention. (As if "fair" or "share" have anything to do with anything.) I’m not saying he’s the best “we have” (to borrow our fearless leader's locution), but he’s a serious, gifted, committed writer of books for reading. His class prerogatives, which legitimately constitute a deal pre-broken to some readers, also enrich the loamy, lusty soil of his intergenerational inquiries. He may have a tin ear for gender issues off the page, but to call him clueless about women is absurd in light of the Gordian complexity of the mothers at the center of his two big books—ruthlessly self-censorious women who pay dearly for their hedonic trespasses outside the emotional asceticism they signed on for on their wedding days.

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ANYWAY, all of this is by way of saying I get that Franzen has some shaky proclivities, but that I also recognize and respond to the assuredness of his authorial big picture. And lots of the details, too. The reach and the grasp. It vexes me ever so that he fronts like a Chevalier Dans l’Ordre Des Arts et Lettres when he’s really only a member, so to speak. But that’s the man, the secondary source material. The books have issues, too. For all the high minded inner-life rhubarb, he also has a curious tendency to introduce plot twists that seem more in keeping with ‘80s TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty than with literary fiction.

As for his relative orbit in the supernal canopy of big lit now, I give not one fuck, and neither—unless you’re directly competing with him for a contract—should you. Read the book, don’t read the book, but standing between people and a book they’re thinking about reading while a poison blow-dart launch tube dangles between your lips is perverse, not to mention insulting, not to mention an enemy of discourse (to invoke one last charmer of a term we use when trying to distinguish between what we think we think and what we think we ought to think). I’m looking forward to the rest of Purity. If the first 30 pages are any indication, there will be at least 500 more before it’s all over.

Meanwhile, Vulture published an admirably not reflexively disdainful dispatch from Franzen’s on-stage interview with Laura Miller at the Book Expo America trade show on Wednesday. The ground under Franzen’s snob pride continues to quiver with tremors of critical and sub-critical opprobrium working its way Purity-ward, which I suppose is the price of doing business for name authors. I can't imagine there’ll be a way to avoid being enlisted to take a side in it one way or another.