If there was ever a time to break off from Purity, this was it.
The section, titled Moonglow Dairy, offers a rich tapestry for why the reader might hate these characters in total. Pip’s open hostility to everyone around her is not lost on the other interns at the Sunlight Project, and on Andreas Wolf, who finds himself falling for the brutal honesty hard. He is old enough to be her father, which further cements our belief that he has a problem left unsettled from his younger days. Pip does not know whether to succumb to the demands of a father figure, or to address sexual passion in a way, again, that foregoes intimacy. She goes to Denver and knowingly agrees to plant spyware on computers which could ruin the rigorous work by Tom and Leila done over months, perhaps years. Tom advises Pip to continue looking for her father, despite the fact that he himself is the father, and to come clean now would be honorable. Instead he sits on it, while Pip’s mother is hyperventilating, wondering just why exactly she chose to go to this particular independent news agency, and she sits on the paternal information as well, allowing Pip’s paranoia to inflate.
Everything mixes together in such the wrong way.
There are watershed moments like this in many good shows, books, and movies, and the threshold for when to enjoy the morality experiment or step away from allowing oneself to be changed can vary. For the shows, it was Mad Men and now perhaps Succession. For books, one can see Sally Rooney’s Normal People follow a couple of tosspots. While in some comedies like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, we might laugh open-faced at such idiotic behavior, for the most part, when a person says, “I just didn’t like any of the characters,” we know what they’re trying to suggest.
Forget whether this is an accurate judgment of the social contract, ask yourself whether this is an arguable critique?
If anyone has had to succumb to the derision of readers for morality, it’s Michel Houellebecq. The French author has more recently been on the receiving end of hatred for writing characters who partake in sexual promiscuities (…it is French literature after all…) but also of using risky writing and behavior to make social or political jabs. When I read Submission, I actually felt the attacks to be genuinely novel when going after the Left, in which tolerance to religion allows polygamy to far younger women to become commonplace as an Islamist politician takes office. The same author writing Serotonin? Though I haven’t finished it…not so much.
So I suppose the next step to take would be, “Are the characters doing anything off-putting to critique a political or social norm in order to call into question the way we live our lives, and does that have value?”
For Franzen, I would say sure! I would say of course.
The issue again is perfect information or transparency. If Pip had gotten the information that her father was Tom Aberrant long ago, would she have gone halfway around the world and been seduced by a father figure character? Why didn’t Pip’s mother explain to her who her father was? I suppose as we read we’ll have to adjust our own decisionmaking based on the information we too receive.
Why did Tom not take the opportunity to tell his daughter when they had the chance? He is so willing to condemn Pip on hiding in plain sight, yet Tom takes the high road when really he has no place to do so.
I do have to critique Franzen now, because I felt as if this section felt particularly fast considering just how much happens between the characters. Purity is the shortest of Franzen’s recent novels, at 563 pages, while Freedom was just longer at 576, and The Corrections was a tour de force at 653. I would say that most readers of Franzen find him with the best footing when he has more words to work with. No one would contradict that Denise’s sections in The Corrections were some of the best that he’s ever written for characters, ever. And yet it took a long time for Denise to fall for both partners. Here, Pip and Andreas’s relationship falls into place rapidly. Yes, Bolivia is paradise for some. Yes, Pip sees Andreas the way the rest of the young women at the Sunlight Project do. And I can understand having Pip fall for an older man so quickly says something else about her character. But it does sacrifice the robustness of the plot, if that makes sense.
The next section finally allows us to see into Tom’s backstory, which will be fascinating to see. How exactly did Tom and Annabel meet? How did Pip get conceived? And what keeps Tom from being transparent?
Is Andreas Wolf right? Are secrets that we keep to ourselves, little privacies, the cornerstones of personality? If that is the case, and if we read with judgmental eyes, many characters that we read in fiction would be null and void, because their secrets have a reason for being taboo. Unless you are the holder of a heroic secret like Jean Valjean and you have remade yourself from when you were a thief, secrets have reasons for staying such.
But having private thoughts, and prioritizing loneliness, allows the cultivation of an inner being that can be magnetizing to others? Is this not also the foundation of what we claim is personality?
The erotic is filled with the love and passion for the forbidden. Rather than stifle this, to play with eroticism and to cultivate it is an intelligence of the highest order of well-adjusted couples. Do we not want a hint of mystery in our partners to stir ever higher tiers of romance?
In conclusion, for a reader to say that they do not like a character is to reveal a secret of themselves. Far more interesting than the character they do not like is the space between reader and character, because interrogating why a person does not like a character gives the chance for revelation.