Purity in a Pandemic – Leila’s Calculated Choices

It’s hard to ignore typing this quote in the time of coronavirus:

“‘It’s like the flu viruses coming out of China–pigs, people, and birds all living under one roof.'”

A little too close to home with that pronouncement fully five years early, eh Franzen?

The next section, titled “Too Much Information” is Franzen as we know him. We have Leila, Charles, Tom Aberrant, and Pip in what looks like a post-Sunlight Project tan. Leila is with Charles who is a failed novelist (in the critical world), and Tom left Anabel, who was a struggling artist of her own. Leila wants to be with Tom and have a child, but Tom does not want one out of obligation to what he believes to be a world of dying habitability to humans.

Tom at first is only willing to date Leila for ten months, citing a calculation that otherwise leads the women in his life to lose five years rather than this short amount of time. Leila reasons that he is “trading up” rather than “down” because she is 41, and not some young thing that typically writers trade their wives for later on. “It’s calculated, and I know, because I’ve made that calculation myself.”

So far, our new section deals with the logic of loving calculations pretty heavily. Phyllisha Babcock laments that she cannot help loving the awful person who she is with now, as she is interviewed by Leila. Or at Leila is trying to interview her.

“‘I’m kind of nuts about him, actually,’ Phyllisha says. “‘Part of me doesn’t even mind the prisoner part.'”

How or why we find ourselves tethered to the people we love may be totally out of our control, but when we make decisions, we retroactively defend them with justifications that may make sense to us and can seem like insanity to, well, everyone else. Theo condemns his own heart in Donna Tartt’s book The Goldfinch by suggesting, “What happens when one is possessed of a heart that cannot be trusted?”

For a long time, I considered Theo an aberrant, locked in by the absurdity in his own life. An explosion in a museum, his mother dead, a famous painting in his possession, as he is carried in a Dickensian adventure across the United States. But now I see that we are all Theo, shamelessly clinging to the power of art as we make horrific decisions for our lives that render us closer to flames that we know hurt, but the light is too appealing to turn away from.

According to Jonathan Haidt’s book I’ve been reading, we all find ways to justify our decisions after the fact. We all have a White House Press Secretary in our bodies, making concessions for new loves, returns to old loves, affairs, divorces, painful breakups and even painless ones. In Purity, Leila wants to leave Charles specifically because he is a failed writer, which does not bode well for her appearance as an artist’s wife. I have just gotten to the part where he has now been paralyzed due to a drunk driving accident, and I physically rolled my eyes whenever she went back to him, to supplant his self-pity. I was firmly on Leila’s side, and it made me wonder whether I had any right to do that, or if Leila had successfully thrown the wool over my eyes with Tom’s handsome escape so eloquently told.

Of course we know a little about Tom Aberrant already, as he was the last person we saw with Andreas Wolf in East Germany. Tom is starting his own nonprofit. Connecting the dots between sections is some of the most fun in a Franzen novel, and I cannot wait to see how everyone got to where they did.

Leila was investigating at the beginning of this section a nuclear bomb gone missing, which is a scary thought. If you think this is close to rare or impossible, I would encourage you to check out at least the beginning of The Precipice by Toby Ord, which examines the threats to humanity in the future. We got dramatically closer to nuclear annihilation during the Cold War than any of us care to admit, and Ord explains some anecdotes of accidents, loss of communication, and some submarines faced with making decisions separated by hundreds of feet of water as well as the social contract. It’s harrowing stuff.

Well, where to put this on the spectrum of Franzen’s previously explored themes? I think so far in “Too Much Information” the title says so much. There’s a term for older couples with troubled pasts coming together to form a “new” relationship: I have baggage.

When we refer to baggage, we are talking about the events in our life that have either explicitly or implicitly caused personality changes that we either haven’t dealt with or refuse to. These changes the speaker automatically claims to be a net negative. This can sometimes turn out to be perfectly true: we have a romantic expectation of having this new person all to ourselves, and older parents in mental decline, or rebellious teenage children, or politically ignorant siblings end up getting in the way.

But what would you rather have? Do you really want to go back to being young? To having an incredible body, sure, but also have so little experience that you have no idea how to use it? Do you really want to go back to those early dates where all you had to talk about was the weather?

As you can see, I hated being young, and part of the joy for me of getting older is the delicious articulate nature of conversations and experience on the body. I am amazed at how intense a conversation, how rich the present experience is to someone who has more to say. Or more to listen to.

But of course we have all thresholds people cross. We all have lines. And wondering where that starts and ends is all part of growing into ourselves.

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