Purity in a Pandemic – Tom’s Origin Story

To tell the truth, I was not too thrilled with the opening of Tom’s backstory. It felt very kitschy, very Woody Allen. Two people who clearly are not good for each other have sex on a hike. The amount of dialogue between them is unending and nagging and feels like a vacuum cleaner got turned on. Tom clearly has this painfully codependent relationship with Annabel, who seems to relish in it and precipitate it.

From there we move back in time, as is typical in Franzen’s style, as Tom recounts how his parents met. Clelia is battered by her mother’s Grimm fairy tale level put downs. They are endless and help to reduce Clelia to a state where she ends up being just as her mother described her. Clelia’s mother practically willed her falling for Chuck Aberrant, Tom’s father, into being. A stereotypical American optimist, Chuck is so willing to do as he pleases in a self-actualized trek across the globe that he has no awareness of the devastation he leaves behind him. Clelia is smitten, thinking him a rich and successful man, only to realize that his thick wallet was filled with business cards and leftover trash rather than money, and that Chuck’s wealth is modestly American rather than exceptionally American.

Chuck, like Andreas, cannot help but fall for younger women.

Meanwhile, Tom has worked his way up to editor of a newspaper in college, and has just met Annabel over a feature piece that mentions her as not-likable daughter to a not-likable infamously wealthy businessman. Embittered, she confronts Tom and hopes that he will never forget the harm those words did to her. Tom apologizes, saying that he should have read it before publishing it.

There’s not really too much to say here that has not already been expressed, and better, in certain other sections of the novel. We’re still talking about expectations from the information at hand. Clelia has no idea about who Chuck really is, only that he was nice to her, thus proving her mother’s line that she would fall for anyone who said two kind words put together.

And even when Tom seems to know all the despicable things that Annabel is and is capable of, it still does not prevent him from changing his mind and leaving her, even after a divorce. In fact, once the marriage contract is up, it seems as though Tom’s sexuality and desire increased. His last name, Aberrant, is of course also a word defined as breaking off from a perceived standard. Much like Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace, character names can also be used for interesting twists or ideas. Purity has been one name here, and Aberrant is another. What information is sacred and which is profane? As we’re seeing, how people collect, transmit, and internalize information about others can lead to an innumerable amount of responses.

I don’t have enough of an understanding of this section, despite the amount of pages I’ve read today, and to have this at about 3/5 of the way through the novel, we’re entering a lull. Oftentimes Franzen’s writing, much like David Foster Wallace’s writing, has this asymptotic structure, where just when the emotional register of the plot hit its peak, we switch perspective and return to another emotional arc. While I think Wallace did this better in Infinite Jest, as I somehow spent an entire summer deeply entrenched in a non-linear story over 950,000 words long, Franzen is in my opinion sacrificing a really tight plot for…something.

What that something is I am not sure yet, and hopefully I’ll have more to say about this stylistic changeover from his previous works.

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