Purity in a Pandemic – An Introduction

I first read Jonathan Franzen in senior year of college while lodged up in my girlfriend’s apartment. Never did I imagine when I picked up The Corrections in a three-story used bookstore (colored purple and reimagined from an old opera house) that I would be settling into one of the great literary romances of my life.

The Corrections was brilliant. As a young twenty-something, I was entranced: his hold on contemporary geopolitics and the angst that comes from not being understood by strangers and, worse, by close relatives, was the soothing balm I had no idea I needed. The younger brother Chip was a hack writer who found a way to avoid work and destitution by flying to Europe. It was the sort of adventure I needed too, despite its horrible implications. I was about to graduate with a teacher degree, unaware if I even wanted to teach, and so I made the next rational decision: move with my girlfriend to hear her practice violin six hours a day in an apartment two states over while writing the next Great American Novel.

Two years later I was one girlfriend short and I was still holding onto books.

Franzen, like Updike, is the sort of intellectual mentor I never had growing up in the South. They can write it all, as far as I am aware. Novels and essays. Each moment feels like an evening conversation. I visualize myself finishing expensive alcohol in a low ball glass, for Updike after a particularly hot summer day golfing, for Franzen after going birding. I needed the chance to speak and listen to an older gentleman.

Hitler supposedly said that literature was poor at propaganda for its method of atomizing power. It demands to be analyzed, and that takes patience and rigor, something that fascists are not interested in. That holds importance to me. So instead of trusting the powers of school and church, I trusted in books. When Franzen was a child, so did he. All we are then are longform pen pals.

Now I am thirty, and after reading all of what Franzen has provided, with The Corrections, Freedom, How to Be Alone, Farther Away, The End of the End of the Earth, I am now ready for the next summer season with Purity, his novel from…2015! Jesus Christ. Franzen how I have missed you, I am so sorry. So long ago!

Can you imagine a world before Trump? Before coronavirus?

Being thirty, Franzen’s pessimism and love for birds is like the fanaticism that a good friend tolerates in order to receive the thirty second nugget of genius. What was gospel to myself as an edgier young man brings understanding and compassion now. Each essay collection promises his painful diatribe about the environment, and I cannot say I blame him. But with his most recent writing, I cannot but feel for what is growing to be his performance in an empty theater. But I am still here, watching the drunken karaoke. I even adore his nerve-wracked TED talk about the environment. “I root for team literature” he said in a Louisiana Channel interview, after reminding the interviewer that he “called Twitter stupid.”

So while Franzen has softer edges, he is still the vigilante he claims to be, and I have no doubt his fangs were bared for Purity.

I most enjoy reading Updike and Franzen in summer, for it is in the summers of my life that I was able to drink in literature. Suddenly there were no longer any worksheets to do for school, and the permutations of Lego creations had all run out. On the way back from a mission trip to Costa Rica in middle school, I grabbed a hammock seat, and my father helped me put it up in my room. That is when things got really serious. Hours were spent spinning in circles, losing track of time as the southern Texas summer heat rose into the second floor room and I kept sweating it out, both on the page and off.

Summer is the era of swimming pools and red and white striped umbrellas and the cheek just underneath one-piece bathing suits and cellulite skin gone sunburned, of hot dogs and hamburgers (now vegetarian for me) with the best Jewish mustard. It is the time of my grandfather with his pockmarked belly wading in the blue chlorinated water. To return to the longread, and one by Franzen, after so long is to find myself clearly begging for the past in a time when the present has been bereft of any loving counsel from the leaders of our world.

The last time I read Franzen’s fiction, with Freedom, was with my wife. I was effectively rewriting history, as I had read it before with that girlfriend the first time. The second time was better, with the wisdom of Walter’s plight now clear to me. Mountain removal, a rebellious son, a disillusioned wife pining for the David Foster Wallace stand-in of Richard, as Patty was reading War and Peace in a country cabin, trying to figure her life out. Here we both are Patty, socially distancing.

This new novel, reading Pip’s backstory, feels like I passed the age of Franzen’s typical family turnout. She is the amalgamation of millenial problems: from a single parent, with anxiety and depression as a mainstay, student debt, a wage stagnant position, and more roommates than she can take a swing at. Casual sex and close friendship are economic transactions. Already Franzen has given one of the most poignant descriptions of our now destroyed generation: “a mess of debts and duties.”

But just as magically as before, Franzen creates a story out of Pip’s unconditionally loving mother, who is painfully attentive and annoying as a hypochondriac. He does the thing The Affair does, which is to push the anxiety of the characters up to eleven, and just as soon as Pip is rejecting the possibly sexual advances of her boss, she is maneuvering the fun for a casual sexual adventure with “Jason” and getting swamped in logistical proceedings with a beautiful German named Annegrette over a questionnaire to join “The Sunlight Project,” whose leader, Andreas Wolff, appears to be a Julian Assange replacement.

And it all comes back. The simultaneous longing to be incredibly important in America while finding oneself totally ordinary. The realization that the millions of choices made got me here, and if I had simply slept less and read more, I might have gotten a position at a…better public school. By reading Pip’s plight, I am ostensibly saying goodbye to my twenties. Now, in 2020, I am performing the pomp and circumstance for myself. What better way than literature to do it? So much of the world tells us, in byte-sized internet posts, what to do with our day.

Literature tells us how to be.

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