Purity in a Pandemic – Andreas Wolf’s Girl Problem

In the span of a few short pages, Andreas goes from a character boarding in a rectory and enticing young women, to condoning and being complicit in a murder plot.

This feels like new territory for Franzen. Sure, Chip travels to Europe at the tail end of the Cold War, but the growing instability is no comparison to the ugliness and paranoia of Wolf’s world. And while Walter had to suffer mountaintop removal and the death of his mistress to a car accident, neither of them are involved in moral turns we have not experienced first or second hand in the developed world.

This is different.

Andreas Wolf lives an existence I can barely reach in my imagination. A failed state, police causing fear at every turn, predatory behavior in your church next door…

Well maybe it’s not SO different.

Wolf wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be a “good” man by providing support in all kinds of ways as a young and charismatic man, but he is willing to hide his upstanding background and appear the every man to do it. He wants to help, but only young women, rationalizing that he does not chase abused girls and that helping with young men is dangerous because of their higher propensity to be informants for the government. He has sex with young women, but he’s a “giver.”

Enter Annagret. Her sister’s lover becomes her mother’s lover becomes her own abuser. This cycle of predatory men finds its way into Andreas’s life, mirroring his own foul play, but he rejects it, finding his own affection for Annagret violates his own rules. She is abused. So Wolf has a choice to make. How is he going to help Annagret escape Horst?

Possibly murder.

That’s right where I left off, incidentally. Annagret rejects the idea at first. Maybe they will run from it all and escape into West Germany or some other European country. Perhaps in the late period of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union running on fumes, with Chernobyl as the very large canary in the coal mine, they might get away with it. Instability breeds opportunity, as we will see with companies and coronavirus…

What startled me is, like I said before, how different this feels compared to Franzen’s usual plots. He always took a chance at a global perspective when he could, but here the darkness of the situation breeds a heightened and complicated story. Wolf is clearly dismissive of Horst’s actions against Annagret, despite the way his actions are linked:

“No, he’s a sick fucker. I know it because I’m a little bit sick myself. I can extrapolate.”

“You might have done the same thing he did…”

“Never. I swear to you. I’m like you, not him.”

Which is an interesting perspective to take. How can Wolf exactly claim that he is more like the victim of Annagret? Is it his own secret keeping of what family he comes from? Or is it being a victimized citizen in a predatory country, one that uses its citizens and forces them to keep secrets.

When Ayn Rand came out of the Soviet Union, she had her own distaste for communism and spun 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and published Atlas Shrugged which fully articulated her Objectivist philosophy and influenced Silicon Valley for all time.

Andreas Wolf’s backstory helps to highlight the problem of what happens when countries control large segments of information. His political turn came out of black bags and paranoia. His request for secrets has a new perspective compared to Pip’s. Pip is pursuing transparency, while Andreas is running from totalitarianism. It is in Franzen’s fiction that large themes are played out so well in so many corners of the world.

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