Purity in a Pandemic – Jealous Youth

Stuck in Memphis

When I was in Memphis, I held onto an apartment and taught over one summer, while my girlfriend had gone to Interlochen in Michigan, a supposedly reputable music program. She fell in love with another musician and, four days after being back with me, she moved out.

Those four days remain some of the most eerie in my life. I remember my girlfriend writing on facebook messenger from her macbook and cupping her screen closely with her body whenever I walked by to refill coffee. At night, we went to a random bar, and she told me that I was not “the one” for her, which did not quite hit as hard as I thought. I didn’t want to be “THE ONE.” I just wanted her to love me.

Because of all this, paranoia creeped in, and one night I went downstairs to see her diary on our cheap black futon.

And one of the worst decisions I have made to date was to pick up that diary and read the latest entries, where she discussed falling in love with some guy named Stephen, how she did not love me anymore, and she did not know how to break off the relationship.

I woke her up and told her I was going to stay with a friend.

When I came back the next morning, everything of hers was packed and she was leaving. I told her I read her diary and…that did not go well. Now our black futon was my black futon. Now our television was her television.

All of this happened at age 23, and I found myself suddenly alone in Memphis, very far away from home, with a now very high rent.

So it came as a shock when Pip, also age 23, read through Jason’s texts as a way to circumvent her own guilt.

Pip and Jason

For those who haven’t read Purity, the novel has Pip as this young millenial who is strapped for cash and living with many roommates. But as a way of rewarding herself with high art, Pip buys a copy of the Sunday New York Times, goes to a cafe she likes, buys a scone, and sits in the corner for hours in order to read and…be seen read. We’ve all done this, I know I have.

So anyway there’s this guy in the cafe who does the same thing. Strangely, Pip nonverbally signals to this man, and he comes over expectantly, and this young man named Jason offers the idea that they share a Times paper, rather than read on their own. After inviting Jason over, Pip then gets defensive and offers ways of keeping her own copy, like, “What if we want to read the same section?” and even when Jason offers to share or let her have a first crack at it, Pip concludes that they should go their separate ways.

Except no.

Pip invites Jason over to her house one night for what is clearly going to end up being casual sex, “rather than risk friendship.” She is starving, has Germans downstairs, and has no condom. After telling Jason to hold on while she goes to get a condom, Annegrette stops Pip to have her fill out a questionnaire for The Sunlight Project, a transparency group she works for. Pip trusts and then gets into an argument with Annegrette, putting up walls yet again that she does not have to. Returning to Jason over an hour later has him obviously upset, but in a typical young adult male way, without any of the tools to really confront that anger in anyway but toxic. Pip at first invites Jason to attack her flaws, and then proceeds to grab Jason’s phone as he is texting, revealing that he is texting to friends that Pip has a hot bod, “Like an 8+.” Rather than Pip feeling flattered for a compliment before casual sex, Pip feels maligned, and tells Jason to leave.

Knausgaard has said, (and I agree) that literature is a space where truth can take place. I felt for Pip, and I sort of felt for Jason. One of the interesting twists now that I am reading Purity as a man over the age of 25, with a brain that feels more compassionate and empathetic, is that it is so clear to me that much of the arguing and the language that Pip and Jason use for each other is toxic and unsustainable. Why is Jason on his phone during this clearly heated moment? Why did Pip signal to Jason in the cafe, only to rebuff his offer?

Before the argument upstairs, Pip and Annegrette go through a questionnaire about privacy and personal space that foreshadows the confrontation between the two. Much of the issues discussed refer to work with a likely cult of personality group like Wikileaks or, in this case, “The Sunlight Project.” Pip has an inkling to join, not because of any greater moral cause, but rather to find out more about her mother and father. In that way, I feel a sort of kinship for Pip as I did when I searched my girlfriend’s diary. But deep down, a request to see information of that sort, that desire is a weakness. Some jealousy can be powerful and redemptive, because it causes us to up our own game, and become the person that our partners saw in us when they met us those early years in the relationship.

But jealousy can also be toxic, and the refusal to allow a private life for someone breeds derision and conflict.

I looked at my girlfriend’s diary, much like Pip does, because I was young and insecure, and I did not know how to really gauge my affection in a way that was not sexual.

Also, I fell in love to escape having to make adult decisions.

Pip seems to have this problem too, where her romantic and sexual desires are used to supplant other ones. Pip clearly wants closer affection, but she lives in such a way that her own chance to have closeness is in domesticity with Stephen and Marie and their child Roman. She wants to be understood, but she does not possess the emotional scaffolding to let someone in safely, choosing instead to jab at someone’s words and publically self-criticize.

Pip needs to read some Esther Perel, as her term “erotic intelligence” may have some use here. To limit oneself to our genitalia when expressing our affection for other people is so limited. The power to flirt and tease, the ability to smile and touch. The offer of a drink and a gesture. These are just as much reality as sex, and that space created around the sex can have an alluring add-on effect for the thing itself.

That is what I see and pity in Pip in this early reading of Purity, and I am only on page 50! More to come, and I am very excited.

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