Purity is very probably worth re-reading

Franzen Jonathan PurityI initially became a fan of Jonathan Franzen before The Corrections was out in paperback. After disappointment in Freedom, however, I hadn’t been in much of a rush to read Purity. It was a terrible nonreview—inane clickbait that made no reference to a single line from a single Franzen novel—that finally pushed me to do so.

It is the usual Franzen fare. Its frequently described as simply “domestic fiction,” but I see Franzen’s work more along the lines of Sam Tanenhaus’s “naturalistic story of domestic strife and estrangement (and sexual combat) within the larger workings of a ‘paranoid’ conspiracy.” Caleb Crain in The Atlantic emphasizes the relationships more, and how they are all engineered to drive one character or another toward what is called in The Twenty-Seventh City “the State,” that is, one of paranoia.

Most of the relationships in Purity are permanent. Not “lasting”—permanent. Some of these are romantic; others are parental. Motherhood in particular plays a prominent role in the novel.

The novel opens with a conversation between the title character and her mother. This dialogue seems to be most frequently discussed in the context of judging Pip’s line about “moral hazard” cute-funny or annoying-unfunny, but that small joke is actually just the first time the novel takes up the issue of loving someone who harms you because you have no other option psychologically.

Pip’s mother cannot stop loving her, no matter what Pip does: as her mother, she is simply stuck. And Pip has the same problem. Another character has it even worse: Andreas feels constantly manipulated by his mother, and lays out the problem several times, including at the beginning of the first section he narrates:

An accident of brain development stacked the deck against children: the mother had three or four years to fuck with your head before your hippocampus began recording lasting memories. You’d been talking to your mom ever since you were one year old and listening to her for even longer, but you couldn’t remember a single word of what you or she had said before your hippocampus kicked into gear. Your consciousness opened its little eyes for the first time and discovered that you were headlong in love with your mom.

Andreas stayed in love with his mom, no matter what she did, no matter how much he would have preferred to hate her—or be indifferent. His love is deep and physical and there can be no escape from it but death.

Pip doesn’t feel so oppressed by the situation, and late in the novel, when a newfound relative suggests to her that she should be angry with her mother for effectively abusing her, she mostly shrugs the idea away. There’s no question of her even really punishing her mother for anything, let alone ending their relationship.

Tom Aberant has another such relationship with his mother. He spends several years neglecting her—which basically amounts to treating her like an average person, about whom he’s not as crazy as he is about his new bride—but there’s no question he’ll be with her at the end of her life. And she, in her turn, even returns at that time to her childhood home, which she ran away from some 50 years before.

The nuclear family, a favorite of Franzen, is center stage in Purity, and certainly the many passages about nuclear disarmament—probably Pip’s only real “issue” politically—are a comment on it. “Fusion chain reactions were natural, the source of a sun’s energy, but fissile chain reactions weren’t,” muses Leila in the section she narrates. And, like parental-filial relationships, marital ones are also nearly impossible to destroy in Purity.

Take Anabel and Tom. They can’t even manage to extricate themselves after a divorce, and spend the rest of their lives obsessed with each other and their past together. Her existence follows him everywhere. In East Berlin, Tom “abandons” Andreas Wolf to return to his already highly problematic wife. Leila will always know that he loves Anabel more somehow. Leila, of course, herself will never leave her husband Charles (though he did leave his first wife, for her).

There is one prominent example of something different: the “New Testament relationship” of Leila and Tom.

Her life with Tom was strange and ill-defined and permanently temporary but therefore all the more a life of true love, because it was freely chosen every day, every hour. It reminded her of a distinction she’d learned as a child in Sunday school. Their marriages had been Old Testament, hers a matter of honoring her covenant with Charles, Tom’s a matter of fearing Anabel’s wrath and judgment. In the New Testament, the only things that mattered were love and free will.

Tom and Leila seem to be the ones to be admired; they are admired very much by Pip. She sees a healthy relationship and inserts herself as their surrogate daughter. But their lifestyle has its downsides. Tom and Leila do not have a perfect life, where they agree on everything like magic, so that constant choosing is, well, real:

She was remembering the old desolation and feeling it again now, the conviction that love was impossible, that however deeply they buried their conflict it would never go away. The problem with a life freely chosen every day, a New Testament life, was that it could end at any moment.

That’s not something most of Purity‘s characters have to face. Whether Leila is better off for it actually seems unclear to me. Sure, Pip admires her and Tom—but isn’t Pip kind of a dope in a lot of ways? The purity-obsessed Anabel may go on about Pip’s wonderful moral sense, but there’s clearly an element of maternal blindness to it just because Pip’s moral sense is anything but pure—should we side with her on this? After all, Leila is insecure even if it does all work out.

Most telling, to my mind, is Pip’s exchange with Cynthia, Tom’s older half-sister who tells Pip that she should be angry with her parents for not revealing themselves—especially with her mother, who kept the secret for much longer and who, effectively, had Pip as part of a long-term revenge plan against her ex. But Pip isn’t interested in holding her mother accountable for choosing to bring her up in such a self-serving way; she is instead happy to have been used.

Her mother had needed to give love and receive it. This was why she’d had Pip. Was that so monstrous? Wasn’t it more like miraculously resourceful?

The final scene was one of the most curious for me. Pip and her boyfriend are in a car outside the shack where a horrific argument is going on between Tom and Anabel.

The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously. Jason sighed and took her hand. She held it tightly. It had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn’t sure she would. Only when the skies opened again, the rain from the immense dark western ocean pounding on the car roof, the sound of love drowning out the other sound, did she believe that she might.

For now, at least, Pip and Jason are in a New Testament relationship—but will that last? Is it, in fact, the New Testament relationship that will overcome Tom and Anabel’s hideously permanent one? Or is it just sex winning out over screaming at each other? Or is it, perhaps, the choice to be a mother, however fraught that is, redeeming the “broken world” “bequeathed” to Pip by her own parents (that one seems like a stretch)?

I have never been quite sure what I think Franzen is getting at, other than saying “it’s really complicated.” But Purity was impressive enough, and effective enough, that I’m starting to think he’s worth re-reading. Maybe from the beginning.

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