Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, is partly set in Santa Cruz, a Californian town 70 miles south of San Francisco, where the novelist lives with his partner, Kathy. Their house is in the U-bend of a crescent, on the edge of a suburban housing estate, overlooking a wooded conservation area to the Pacific Ocean beyond. It is, for one of America’s foremost literary novelists, a modest property, overlooked on three sides by neighbours in a way that, say, Philip Roth’s grand pile in Connecticut is not. However, it affords good views from the deck (the novelist is an avid birdwatcher) and the low overheads that permit Franzen to let five years go by without delivering a novel. “I’m not used to talking about this book,” he says of Purity, which, like his preceding two novels, is a 600-page doorstopper. There is a long, Franzonian pause: “I’m trying to figure out how much I should say and how much I should not say.”
Jonathan Franzen 'considered adopting Iraqi orphan to figure out young people'
That question, as central to the writing as to the publicising of the novel, is one that Franzen has frequently struggled to answer. At 55, he has the earnest, slightly puggish look of a younger man, and the occasional intemperance of one, too. On a refresher driving test he took recently, the novelist scored high on the scale for susceptibility to road rage. (“There are 11 things that are warning signs of road rage, and I had, like, nine of them.”) His fame has as much to do with the fights he has picked – or has had foisted upon him – as with the quality of his fiction; Franzen riles people in a way that is unusual, and perhaps reassuring for a novelist, given the endless debate about the relevance of that role. He has attracted the scorn, over the years, of users of social media, environmentalists, certain stripes of feminist critic, lesser novelists, the lead book reviewer of the New York Times and fans of Oprah Winfrey.
Franzen says he is “hurt” and “ashamed” to be the target of such ire, but he is also unrepentant. No sooner has one controversy died down than another pops up in its place, most recently in the wake of a long piece he wrote in the New Yorker in April, suggesting that, contrary to research published by the bird charity the National Audubon Society, climate change was not the greatest threat to avian welfare – it was more immediate dangers such as hunting and collision with glass. The society accused him of “intellectual dishonesty”, and its members attacked him online, an unpleasant, but also, perhaps, a bleakly satisfying experience: the incident foreshadowed the themes of Franzen’s new novel.
'I was cripplingly ashamed of The Corrections. I was embarrassed to still care about family'
Purity is the story of Pip, a girl in her early 20s, and a Julian Assange-type character called Andreas Wolf, who runs a rival organisation to Wikileaks called the Sunlight Project. Internet culture is, in some ways, perfect fodder for Franzen, who is never stronger than when calling out the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us – a gap wherein so much of online life now resides. But it is also an odd fit; a novel about technology by someone who avowedly doesn’t like using it. Many years ago, Franzen spoke about jamming the USB port on his computer in order to get stuff done, and more recently scolded Salman Rushdie for wasting time on Twitter. This distaste is in part aesthetic – the very brevity of Twitter offends Franzen – and partly a reaction against what he calls the “totalitarianism” of online culture, wherein retribution by the mob can be vast, swift and violently misinformed.
The irony of all this is that Franzen, a white male novelist frequently accused of elitism, is, in this scenario, something of an underdog, the nerd repeatedly beaten up by the cool kids online – although he identifies the real villain of the piece as the internet itself, which he compares in Purity to communist East Germany. “You can’t not have a relation to, in the case of East Germany, the socialism of the state,” Franzen says. “In the case of the internet, you can ignore it, or you can abet it. Either way, you are in a relation to it. And that’s what’s totalitarian.”
As for social media, “it feels like a protection racket. Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations.” There is a long pause. “Why would I want to feed that machine?”
Reading Jonathan Franzen on form is like watching a baseball star toss a ball, knowing that behind the casual gesture is a virtuoso talent and 10,000 hours of practice. Franzen’s prose is deadpan, unexcitable, almost aggressively rational, made up of long, finely planed sentences that quiver with the sarcasm that is at the root of his comedy. Unlike his friend, the late David Foster Wallace, he has never been fashionable – he isn’t avant-garde and takes everything too seriously for the postmodern style. Neither does he fall easily into a literary rat pack. “I look at McEwan and Amis and Hitchens,” he says. “They seemed like a pack. And I don’t think that’s how it works so much here [in the US]. It’s not a generational divide. At least in my experience, what separates people into packs is not age, it’s taste.” He allies himself with writer friends such as Paula Fox, Don DeLillo, David Means and Jeffrey Eugenides. “[Jonathan Safran] Foer,” he says, “I’m friendly with him. And even if I’ve never met the person – I met Edward St Aubyn once, at a reading, but he’s part of the pack. Dead people can be part of the pack.”
These friends are also “loving competitors”, and for a long time Franzen felt angry at his relative lack of progress. At the age of 40, having spent a decade writing two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, both of which were well-reviewed and little-sold, he resigned himself to a certain amount of cultural irrelevance, which he attributed not to any failing in himself, but to a failing in the culture. He was, he says, experiencing a “disillusionment” with the American reading public, the kind of grandiose attitude that the reviewer Michiko Kakutani was perhaps trying to puncture when she called him a “jackass” in the New York Times. Franzen, smiling, allows that he may at times have been a little insufferable. (Inevitably, he fought back and called Kakutani “tone deaf and humourless”.) “You adopt a certain attitude when you feel like you have something that’s not appreciated. You have to generate some sense of bigness on your own; that’s an insufferable activity.”
It is important here to note Franzen’s Midwestern background – he was raised in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, a part of the US with a regional identity strongly rooted in humility, so Franzen’s arrogance is in some ways a performance. Once he achieved success, he says, “I could revert to my native Midwestern modesty.”
His shyness is not to be overlooked, either. Franzen is pained and baffled when he hears himself described as misanthropic. “I don’t dislike people; I love people,” he says to me at one point, and there is a line in Purity, applied to a character called Anabel, that could be the author addressing himself: “She kept alienating people with her moral absolutism and her sense of superiority, which is so often the secret heart of shyness.”
Everything changed with The Corrections, Franzen’s novel of the family Lambert: Enid and Alfred, the warring old couple, and their three dysfunctional adult children. The fictional family bore strong similarities to Franzen’s own, his father a railway engineer, his mother a housewife, although, he says, as “writing becomes more autobiographical, the less it hews to actual lived experience. The text takes on meaning when you start to depart from experience. Because then it starts to tap into the writer’s nature.”
Franzen had no great hopes for The Corrections. “I thought I would write for a small audience. And had put all the stuff that was really shameful to me... it’s hard to conceive of now, that I was ashamed of writing a book, deeply ashamed, cripplingly ashamed of writing a book that turned on a mother’s wish to have the family together for Christmas.”
Because you felt it was too small a canvas?
“It was small, and I was embarrassed to have come from the innocent Midwest. And I was embarrassed to still care about family. And there were many other things. Chip’s freakishness, that drew to some extent from my own sense of freakishness. You explore the shameful things for people who… that’s what they go to fiction for. That’s why they’re reading Kafka, or Dostoevsky. But that’s a small audience.”
'There is no way to make myself not male. There is a sense there is nothing I can really do, except die – or retire'
John Updike and to some extent Philip Roth had, for decades, been writing novels with domestic settings that hadn’t stopped them being taken seriously, but Franzen couldn’t conceive of Enid and Alfred winning him the same kind of respect. They were too weird, too pitiful, too specific to his own family and his disastrous adolescence (a period Franzen revisits in his essay Then Joy Breaks Through, in which, memorably, he goes to church camp and on the way does everything he can to avoid being consigned to the car of Social Death).
“And to discover that these things that I thought were freakish parts of my history and my personality – people were saying, ‘Oh, someone’s writing about me! And this is my family.’ I thought, oh my God, I’ve been so embarrassed my whole life about my family. And here people are telling me that they recognise it. I felt deeply grateful, but I also realised that my contempt for the non-hardcore readers – the softer core readers... not contempt, but my writing them off, had been premature. In fact, there was a whole lot more people looking for a certain kind of novelistic experience than I had any idea.”
The Corrections, which was published in 2001, when Franzen was 42, sold more than three million copies. “It was simply no longer appropriate to be angry.”
Good relationships make for boring novels. For the last 13 years, Franzen has lived with Kathryn Chetkovich, a writer and editor whom he persuaded to move in with him four months after The Corrections came out, and with whom, says Franzen, “I’m never bored.” As an editor, Chetkovich mostly works with social scientists. “She helps them think better. She knows a lot of stuff. And it’s hard to get away with a specious argument in her presence. I don’t think I could live with someone that I didn’t have an intellectual friendship with. Maybe a dog.”
Against this background of domestic harmony – halfway through the interview, Franzen gets a call from the garage, informing him that Chetkovich’s long-awaited VW Golf has arrived, and he is buoyantly excited for her – the novelist revisits, in his fiction, terrible relationships of the past. For 14 years, from his early 20s onwards, he was married to another writer, Valerie Cornell. With all the caveats about autobiography in place, elements of the experience clearly inform parts of Purity. While sections of the new novel (and Franzen’s previous one, Freedom) read like an intellectual exercise, the car crash of Tom and Anabel’s marriage is straightforwardly brilliant, captivating, unbearable.
“A little bit funny?” he says, anxiously.
It struck Franzen that no one had really done “the entire slow-motion train wreck in all its brutality”. He is terrific at arguments – that terrible, slow suck into someone else’s version of reality, wherein, as Tom says, “every utterance of hers gave me multiple options for response, each of which would prompt a different utterance, to which, again, I would have multiple options in responding, and I knew how quickly I could be led eight or ten steps out on to some dangerous tree branch and what a despair-inducingly slow job it was to retrace my steps back up the branch to a neutral starting point”.
The fact that Anabel is a feminist so warped and fanatical that she forces Tom to, for example, atone for his maleness by sitting down on the toilet to pee, will be received by Franzen’s feminist critics as an aggressive act, a deliberate ridiculing of the cause, which he concedes is somewhat the case. “There’s a certain degree of glee in putting that stuff in the book. Because I know that if you are hostile, you will find ammunition. I wrote this deliriously praising celebration of Edith Wharton. People managed to find a way to make it sound like I was hating on Edith Wharton. So why not just let it all rip and: have fun with that, guys.” (Criticism of the Wharton essay rounded on Franzen’s observation that Wharton “wasn’t pretty”, something he suggested, not unreasonably, fed into her fictional disquisitions on the complicated currency of female beauty.)
“I’m not a sexist,” he says. “I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section is that he’s really trying to not be male.” His ex-wife did not try to get him to pee sitting down. But “there’s a sense that there is really nothing I can do except die – or, I suppose, retire and never write again”.
Dying wouldn’t help, I suggest: then he would be a dead white male novelist, a category even more problematic than a living one. “Yes, even worse. So I was attracted to a story of someone trying to do reparations. And trying really hard and really sincerely, and lovingly, and finally not being able to. The comedy of that.”
He has written some great female characters – Enid Lambert; Patty Berglund; in Purity, Tom’s mother Clelia, her name a nod to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse Of Parma – these hard, awkward, embarrassing women who turn out to have been heroes. Franzen’s real crime, one suspects, is not one of content, but of presentation; his propensity for feeling hard done by doesn’t play well with those who face greater barriers just to get to the start line. “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book,” tweeted the US novelist Jodi Picoult when Freedom was published in 2010. “Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” The novelist Jennifer Weiner made similar remarks, to which Franzen replied, earlier this year, that she was “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon” to promote her novels.
'I didn't scream when Oprah called me. I said, "Oh, hey." And she didn't know what to do with that'
But there is also something courageous in Franzen’s willingness to step up to the fight. It takes nerve, these days, to criticise social media, as it does to piss off Oprah, as the novelist famously did in 2001. In the essay Franzen wrote after the incident, he cleared up a lot of the misconceptions, namely that he turned down Oprah when she invited him to be on her show. In fact, she disinvited Franzen after he made some equivocal remarks about being on the show during publicity and was a brat when the crew came to St Louis to film background. (“This is so bogus!” he exclaimed, when they asked him to stand in front of an old haunt and look soppy.)
“It was a tragic misunderstanding,” Franzen says. “I blame myself, because I said things that were stupid. And hurt a number of people.” There is a pause, during which one feels Franzen leaning inexorably, and rather endearingly, in a direction that can do him no good. “I also blame Oprah,” he says. “Because, from our very first conversation, it was clear we were not speaking the same language. I didn’t scream when she called me. I said, ‘Oh, hey.’ And was trying to talk like a media professional to a media professional. And she didn’t know what to do with that.”
She treated him like a competition winner?
“Oh, totally. Yes. And what is the one thing a competition winner has to do? They have to show abject gratitude. And I was, like, well, I don’t think you’d be doing this if it weren’t good for you, too. So let’s work together. And the answer was no. So I blame her, too.”
She couldn’t break persona for him?
“That’s the thing. And I think the fact that I was a white guy made that harder. And I think she was sensitive to any suggestion that I might be dissing her. And, of course, then I did diss her. But not before I’d had that experience.”
Towards the end of 2006, Franzen started to feel a certain lack in his life. He was approaching his late 40s, he was immensely successful, well remunerated and in a good relationship. The thing that he lacked was access to young people.
“I had a brief period of questioning whether I should perhaps adopt a child,” he says. “And my New Yorker editor, Henry Finder, was horrified by the notion. We were in a bar. He picked up a pair of toothpicks and made the sign of the cross and held it in front of him and said, ‘Please don’t do that.’ And then he paused and said, ‘But maybe we can rent you some young people.’”
For a year, Franzen checked in regularly with a group of new graduates from Berkeley, who were part of a semi-longitudinal study into kids who’d just graduated from college, eventually writing a piece for the New Yorker about the experience, out of which, many years later, Pip, the 20-something heroine of Purity, was born. Pip is smart, funny, awkward, all the things Franzen likes in a person. “I knew her. She was easy.”
Did hanging out with the young people nix his desire to have a baby?
“Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks. And was finally killed by Henry’s response. He made a persuasive case for why that was a bad idea. The main thing it did … one of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me. And part of what journalism is for me is spending time with people who I dislike as a class. But I became very fond of them, and what it did was it cured me of my anger at young people.”
The anger moved on to new targets, the greatest of which, of course, was the internet. There is a danger for Franzen, that an author who is not a native user of the internet will be exposed in the way in which he writes about it, and there are a few false notes in Purity; an off use of the term “going viral”, a tin-eared reference to Jeff Bezos, and the overwrought phrase “moused and clicked” to describe the activity of industrious interns at their desks.
Cannily, given how much of the storyline he is made to shoulder, the Andreas Wolf character is positioned as a pre-internet creature, born and raised in communist East Germany, with a commensurate understanding of how systems that claim to liberate human potential can actually constrain it. The apex of the book is an extraordinary rant Wolf goes on against what he calls the New Regime – coincidentally, an echo of remarks made by Assange himself in his 2012 book of essays, in which the Wikileaks founder warned that the internet could be turned into a “dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism”.
Assange was mainly talking about surveillance technologies. In Purity, Franzen’s critique is much broader. “Smart people were actually far more terrified of the New Regime than of what the regime had persuaded less-smart people to be afraid of, the NSA, the CIA,” rages Wolf in the novel. “It was straight from the totalitarian playbook, disavowing your own methods of terror by imputing them to your enemy and presenting yourself as the only defense against them – and most of the would-be Snowdens kept their mouth shut.”
Who is the Stasi, in the East German analogy?
'It becomes very hard to be creative, because you're worried about what you might be called, and whether it's fair'
“Technology itself is the Stasi. Technology is the genie out of the bottle. And the Stasi didn’t actually need to do that much. It didn’t arrest that many people. Even with all its resources, it couldn’t do that many full operations. So it counted on people censoring themselves. And controlling their own behaviour for fear of the Stasi, without their needing to lift a finger.”
Jonathan Franzen has a real gift for getting people into a tizzy. This time, the fracas was occasioned by a September 13th essay he wrote for the Guardian (“What’s Wrong With the Modern World”) excoriating our “media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment” and lauding the early-twentieth-century Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, whose essays Franzen reveres, as a prophet for our own times. Though the essay’s specific criticisms are so familiar as to be unremarkable—he writes that Salman Rushdie “ought to have known better” than to “succumb” to Twitter, and rages against Amazon’s depredations of the book trade and the various hegemonies of Apple—in the few days since its publication, the author has been accused of irrelevance and cane-shaking, his sex life and his digestion have been impugned, and Rushdie told him to “enjoy [his] ivory tower”; he’s been called “an old windbag,” “a whingeing miseryguts,” and a “Chardonnay bore,” and has been generally dragged through the digital mud.
The whole thing struck me as eminently silly in the first place, since the most pointed of Franzen’s claims in the essay are so obviously true, or, at the very least, worthy of serious consideration. What on earth are people so furious with him about? Can it be his description of America in 2013?
[A] weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear.
Or perhaps his decoction of American politics?
Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction.
Pretty much! Or this?
We spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem.
Yes, alas! Or possibly this?
Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.
Hells to the yeah! As we say in the Twitterverse.
Franzen is a nostalgist, and he wants to preserve the traditional values and practices of the book world at all costs, and can therefore come off sounding pompous about “high culture.” Plus, he is, as he admits in the essay, a little off when he characterizes certain matters of contemporary coolness; he doesn’t seem to know, for example, that every hipster kid halfway worthy of the name is in Berlin right now, not Paris. Nor are his belabored Apple/Windows analogies too persuasive. And I say this as a fellow-hater who agrees entirely with Franzen about the odiousness of those Apple commercials featuring Justin Long (“a personified Mac … of such insufferable smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison”). But comparing Windows Vista to Vienna before the First World War is something of a stretch. One could wish for Franzen to forget all about what is hip, unless he can do more than affect to care about it. The whole idea of “coolness” appears to annoy rather than really interest him.
These little infelicities shrink to nothing beside the incontrovertibility and importance of Franzen’s principal arguments. In fact, they are kind of endearingly weird. I feel the same way about the author’s novels, especially “Freedom” and “The Corrections,” which combined represent an achievement so great, of such an order of magnitude above the common run of contemporary fiction, that their defects are merely little points of interest to mix in with the admiration, like a pleasing dusting of freckles on a beautiful face. To be more specific: Franzen is the only American novelist of my generation (that I know of) who writes with absolute clarity, conviction, and meaning about the world I live in every day. I believe that’s what fascinates people the most about his work. He may be a dork, but he’s absolutely and preëminently and kind of magnificently our dork.
How come everyone got so sore, then? I believe part of the answer is that Franzen’s critics, cool kids almost to a man, from Mic Wright in the Telegraph to Dustin Kurtz at Melville House, were hit in a tender spot by this essay. Because what Franzen is railing against is not mere tech obsession but, rather, the intellectual and spiritual poverty, the weakness and the obedience, of soi-disant “creatives” who buy what they’re told rather than rage against the machine, who are too infatuated with their wonderful little toys even to look up from them while the world burns. Very few of us aren’t at least a little guilty of that. Or a lot guilty.
Even though Franzen is one of the world’s most famous and most talented writers, his genius consists in part of an uncompromising, austere, four-eyed skepticism about his own hype. He knows himself to be utterly, terminally square. And the cool kids, called out for their own vapidity and cowardice, can smell that kind of healthy self-doubt from about a mile off. He’s a very easy target.
Finally, I believe that Franzen gets into these scraps because his detractors haven’t the slightest fear that he will reply. He won’t: he has no Twitter handle, no Tumblr, no online persona at all. In stark contrast to writers like William Gibson or Margaret Atwood, whom no one would dream of attacking with this kind of vehemence on Twitter, he just doesn’t hang out with his fans on the Internet, and however much he may tell us that he doesn’t think we are hoi polloi, that that’s not why he doesn’t hang around with us, this is really how it seems.
Franzen is, in short, a prose stylist with the most profound gifts, a superfine essayist and that rarissima of aves, a great novelist. What he is not is an Internet expert. He is a non-expert who, furthermore, doesn’t much care for the Internet! Little wonder that the multitudes who can best him in this area piled on.
So what I think is that Franzen really ought to just come online and talk with everybody. Let some of us have it, too, if he thinks we deserve it. If he believes that Americans could be doing a better job politically, or as artists or intellectuals or students or teachers, the Internet is the place for making that case now. Yes, there are many bad things about the Internet, but serious criticism is alive and well there. Or here, rather. There are thousands upon thousands of passionate constituencies online—political, social, literary—many of them eager for the participation of as many principled, serious artists as care to come out and talk. Come on in, Mr. Franzen! The water’s fine.
Maria Bustillos is a writer living in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to Page-Turner.
Photograph by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty