Purity in a Pandemic – The End

I suppose we’re all like Pip now.

Inheriting a fortune not so much, but inheritance as a concept is what the young do. I am close to Pip’s age and I can feel the cost of what it will take to make repairs especially considering all the hell breaking loose. Coronavirus, George Floyd, climate change, income inequality, technological upheaval. It’s a laundry list that does not exclude the actual literal inheritance of wealth, which baby boomers have held onto more than later generations, and considering their unwillingness to do the dirty work and let go of some of that wealth, young people have had to foreclose their youth and wait it out. Wait for their parents to stop yelling, wait for the money to kick in, wait for housing prices to drop (if ever), wait to pay off their student loans. When Pip waits in the rain and she can hear Tom and Annabel finally have the argument they should have had years ago, it’s clear that they’ve been foregoing a conversation that needed to happen as well.

So I’ve finished the book, and I must say that I really enjoyed it. Franzen’s knack for creating high energy situations and scenes, for having all maladies strike at the same second, is a rare gift that he and some other skilled writers have. Rachel Cusk said in a Louisiana Channel interview that the highest achievement in writing, most notably fiction writing, is to remind you of a truth you already believed but didn’t quite know how to put into words. I would not apply that to Franzen. In fact, I would say that Franzen continues to show me a truth that I did not know existed at all, and for much of my life I have actively sought some ridiculous concept of “purity” in friendships and relationships when the truth of the matter is that by the very nature of entering into a relationship, you are in a sense giving consent to be hurt.

Did I like the books as much as Freedom? No. But on the other hand, I feel as though that book was written specifically with my life in the crosshairs, while Purity targeted other themes that I could playfully watch from the sidelines. Still, I certainly have opinions on the book that may say something about my personality that it could be fun to bring out on the table. Maybe my strong feelings say more about me than the book, and that could be fun exploring.

First of all my least favorite character in the book is Annabel by quite a large margin. While I thought that Pip hazarded relationships with her stand-off behavior to a harsh degree, I thought Annabel took this to its farthest reach. Using the moral high ground and counting up the damages wherever possible, she used every situation to make herself feel the victim, and became such a recluse that she might be shitting in an overflowing septic tank. I agree with Cynthia when she talks to Pip about her family. She has every right to be angry at her family for playing out a war with her caught in the middle. But does Annabel have any right to be victimized? She refused to give in on many occasions, refused to budge with anyone on her core beliefs. In another life I would have considered that honorable, but here I consider it annoying. David Whyte calls the predicament of living the Conversational Nature of Reality and I think that Annabel frequently calls off that conversation before it has even begun. Perhaps I despise Annabel so much because it confronts my personal values of being a cosmopolitan male: well-read, liked in a patrician sort of way, in a way that is harmless, and I am so disinterested in conflict that I will go along with policies of friends and family without making a case known. Annabel is polar opposite.

Andreas Wolf is one of the stranger characters in Franzen’s closet, and I do not know how to feel about him. Apparently he was criticized for this character as being unbelievable, specifically because in East Germany, being great was impossible. In fact the whole enterprise of a totalitarian state is how it deprived meritocratic ideas and forced everyone into sameness. I could see that logic, yet I can still imagine Wolf’s paradox of revealing other’s secrets and going paranoid about his own as an excellent metaphor for the age of the internet. Franzen took out the internet on his laptop so he could write in peace, and from an individual like that, I could see a little of Franzen in Annabel and Wolf. Wanting to slink away, yet also wanting to constantly be attentive to the internet’s front page desires, all of that is yet another tall order for Pip to inherit. Many of my students are like Wolf, they are constantly curating their digital selves, unaware even that their own paltry “meatspace” selves go on starving. Many of those my parent’s age unfortunately are the opposite. Either they have gone “full Annabel,” or they are using social media to make large monologues on Facebook that both show off their out-of-touchness with social media, as well as their highly unread and unempirical opinions. For something to be sick about Andreas Wolf then is for something to be sick about all of us. We crave information, and then when it hurts us we blame each other.

Franzen’s top point in Purity is that no one is pure, and no one can achieve peak purity. We all have skin in the game. Even Tom, the paragon of good decisions in this novel, tells Pip not to read whatever Wolf sent, to shred it, because “he was very sick.” It is a very obviousl wrinkle in the way that story is told. Why didn’t he reveal that he knew who Pip’s father was? Was it a way to respect Annabel’s wishes? Just because Annabel wishes it, does it make it right? Doesn’t Tom have just as much a claim on how the story is told of being a parent? Doesn’t Pip have a right to decide for herself what to do about her parents?

Here is another point about the book, which is that information is always asymmetrical. Someone is going to have a secret, while another is going to be unaware. To know is to have power, I agree with Michel Foucault, but that doesn’t make you feel any better. Pip knows she has an inheritance of one billion dollars on hand, yet when she confides in this information to Colleen, suddenly she receives gaudy attention that actually makes her feel worse. We would all like to believe that money can solve our problems, but when it comes to those who win the lottery, it’s clear that to some extent the lottery can destroy lives. I will concede that there is some logic to Annabel’s theory about money maligning deep relationships, but it was also clear that Annabel felt asymmetrical about everything else as well. She spat in her father’s face! Here’s Pip well-adjusted response:

“Pip nodded, but she was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it?”

Pip is told repeatedly that she should be angry, and she should take the money, but she can’t bring herself to do those things. She loves her mother even despite having new knowledge that effectively reveals her mother for who she really is, which is a pitiable person unable to suffer the “betrayals” of others gladly. She’s a better person than I am when talking about Annabel. That holds some promise, according to Franzen, where it isn’t until the rain comes that she is able to blot out her own personal struggles and decide for herself that she can work to make the world a better place.

A third and tertiary point concerns traditional brick-and-mortar journalism. While Freedom had a secret request from Franzen to keep cats inside, this book is pulling the same level of work as the wonderful movie Spotlight does, which is to favor longform, methodical, and rigorous journalism. Andreas Wolf’s Sunlight Project hardly reveals itself in the novel as either being a democratic institution or a sorority house with calls towards breaking shit and seeing what happens. In the movie Sicario, this is the premise for a horrific spree of chaotic chain reactions. The FBI agent played by Emily Blunt watches the CIA mess with drug cartels, break stuff, and see where an opening comes up, thereby giving them a chance to “intervene.” Is breaking shit really the solution of getting after organized crime and drug cartels? It doesn’t make us look much better than our enemies. The same holds true for Wikileaks and the Sunlight Project.

The benefits of traditional journalism is the rigor that one pays for. While The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks reeked of chasing Academy Awards, it still conveyed what Spotlight did, which is that in order to chase down the government for wrongdoings as big as the Vietnam War (or for systemic sexual harassment by catholic priests) , you need more than bloggers. You need access, and you need journalists built on upstanding values. Forcing journalists to cowtow to advertisements and clicks is not the answer. Subscriptions and paying for good journalism are. Wolf’s Sunlight Project may be icing, but news agencies are the cake.

I think that what I love most about Franzen’s fiction is that each time I was ready to discredit a character from my mind, they became such a mixture of pity, humor, and empathy, that they eventually bootstrapped their way into my brain as fully conscious beings. I am so thankful and grateful that I had the time and wherewithal to read Purity from start to finish, as I am having a hard time doing that with any fiction nowadays. Now that it is over, I am looking forward to my booktalk with my friends for our June book-of-the-month discussion. Character-heavy fiction deserves a conversation. Fiction does not congeal propaganda and unilateral understanding. In fact it does the opposite, and that is why I always find it compelling.

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