Sunday, December 6, 2015

Purity and Impurity in Jonathan Franzen’s "Purity"

Depending on your definition of masterpiece, this novel might just be one. Pip needs love, money, and her dad’s identity—not necessarily in that order. Impurities and all, I want everyone to read it. So I won’t divulge any of its many secrets. Want the actual plot? Read this book!

It’s not perfect. In crystals, impurities alter the basic structure, adding color and fire; this describes Franzen as well. Some reviewers attack these distortions: self-indulgence, sexism, oversimplification, snobbishness, one-dimensional protagonists, and disconnected narrative threads.

There’s more. Tension can be as low as breadth is huge. The remarkable characterization occurs less from action than backstory. Lots and lots of “telling.”

Maybe. But here’s what else Purity offers:

~ Zingers.
 “Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married.”

~ Analogy.
“It’s like having one red sock in a load of white laundry. One red sock, and nothing is ever white again.”

~ Insight.
“And maybe this was what craziness was: an emergency valve to relieve the pressure of unbearable anxiety.”

~ Irony.
“Stupidity mistook itself for intelligence, whereas intelligence knew its own stupidity.”

~ The “extra” in “extraordinary”:
“Fog spilled from the heights of San Francisco like the liquid it almost was.”

~ Voice.
“The tropics were an olfactory revelation. She realized that, coming from a temperate place like the other Santa Cruz, her own Santa Cruz, she’d been like a person developing her vision in poor light. There was such a relative paucity of smells in California that the inerconnecteness of all possible smells was not apparent….How many smells the earth alone had! One kind of soil was distinctly like cloves, another like catfish; one sandy loam was like citrus and chalk, others had elements of patchouli or fresh horseradish. And was there anything a fungus couldn’t smell like in the tropics?”

In an NPR interview, Franzen describes fiction-writing as expertly as he describes everything else: “It’s like having this dream that you can go back to, kind of on demand. When it’s really going’re in a fantasy land and feeling no pain.”

You’ll need chutzpah to create that kind of “ fantasy land.” Here’s the thing about risk. Take none, and “good” is the most you’ll get. Defy “pure” convention, and you might fail; you might inspire loathing as well as adoration. Personally, I pray that Franzen keeps doing his own thing.

Tip: Too much risk is—risky. But none at all? No color or fire there.

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