AS I NOT ONLY LIVE in a federal prison but am also currently being held once again in a 23-hour-a-day lockdown punishment cell due to my incorrigible behavior, I haven’t been in a position to directly follow what I gather has been a very edifying net-driven controversy over Jonathan Franzen and his latest work, which really feels like another punishment in and of itself. Thankfully, though, I’ve received a couple of representative clippings in the mail, along with a copy of the book in question, Purity, which I’ve been asked to review.
Two things bear noting in the interest of full disclosure. First, this book revolves in part around the amoral antics of a character based rather closely on Julian Assange, while separately including references to Assange himself, most of them critical. I happen to have been an early and rabid partisan of Assange, and the two of us sometimes say nice things about each other in the press. Meanwhile, the criminal charges on which I’ve been imprisoned center on my fairly peripheral involvement in a 2011 raid by certain anarchist hackers of my acquaintance on the State Department-linked corporate espionage firm Stratfor, the stolen emails from which were provided to WikiLeaks. Second, and more to the point, I despise contemporary fiction almost as much as Jonathan Franzen despises women. In my view, the novel peaked with Dostoyevsky, and although I do admire, for instance, Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and Burgess’ Earthly Powers, you’ll note that the most recent of these was published almost 30 years ago. Now, I don’t doubt that some worthwhile works of “serious” fiction are still being put out now and again, but I wouldn’t know how to go about finding them, as many of our nation’s respectable outlets have apparently resorted to just hiring crazy people off the street to do their book reviews.
I have here, for instance, a copy of Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin’s recent review of Purity. This is just as well, as I needed a refresher on my Franzen lore, and Ulin opens with that very thing before promptly descending into some sort of fugue state. Naturally I was aware of the existence of The Corrections, which, Ulin reminds us, was “his masterful 2001 portrait of a Midwestern family,” but I seem to have entirely missed the more recent Freedom, “a moving meditation on marriage and friendship.” Nor was I aware that the author himself had reached the dual status of “both avatar and scapegoat.” As Ulin explains, “By now, Franzen is often regarded less as writer than as cultural signifier, emblem of white male hegemony. That this has little if anything to do with the substance of his novels is (perhaps) the point and the tragedy; when it comes to Franzen, the writing is where we go last.”
“Tragedy” may be a bit melodramatic in this instance (although it is indeed distressing to learn that the venerable old White Male Hegemony is now being fronted by Jonathan Franzen; we seem to have taken something of a plunge since Winston Churchill). After all, Ulin himself here admits that “that depth, that texture,” which is said to mark the characterization in The Corrections, “can be elusive in Purity, which is a more plotted novel, sometimes to its detriment.” And plotting, he concedes, “has never been the author’s strong suit.” Perhaps there’s a good reason why the writing is where we go last? But no — Ulin still maintains that our timely reading of this poorly plotted novel filled with low-resolution automatons is our only chance of averting tragedy, because the writing itself is just that good. As proof, he actually cites the following snippet of monologue as delivered by a character named Tom:
“Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married,” he tells us in the book’s one extended first-person sequence. “Only love, only long empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply that there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is your capacity to be hurt by her.”
That’s fierce writing, and it does what fiction is supposed to, forcing us to peel back the surfaces, to see how love can turn to desolation, how we are betrayed by what we believe. It is the most human of dilemmas, with which we must all come to terms.
Setting aside this sprinkling of third-tier lit-crit commonplaces that I blush even to reproduce, it’s unclear to me exactly what “fierce” is supposed to mean in this context, although I can tell that the term is here being misapplied since it appears to be intended as a compliment. And though the passage itself isn’t especially awful, it’s alarming to be tasked with reading a 500-page tome in which that sort of overwrought prose is supposed to make up for bad plotting and notso-hotso characterization. It’s also quite telling that Ulin manages to get his favorite passage wrong; the end of the selection actually reads, “her capacity to be hurt by you,” not “your capacity to be hurt by her,” and directly follows a key plot point that makes the distinction quite clear. But then, as the fellow said himself, the writing is where we go last. Shed we a tear for Franzen? Nay — shed we a tear for us all!
WHEN I FINALLY DID get around to going to the writing last, I was relieved to find that Purity isn’t a terrible book or even a very bad one. There is some clever use of language once in a while, yet Franzen resists the temptation to dip into the self-conscious attempts at “literary” phrasing that mark so much of his competition (our friend Ulin mentions that Franzen penned a 1996 Harper’s essay on the state of fiction, inevitably titled “Perchance to Dream”; one might be better served in reading a piece The Atlantic ran a few years later, “A Reader’s Manifesto,” in which someone named B. R. Myers points out that a great portion of modern prose styling is conceptually fraudulent garbage). Characters will sometimes think clever thoughts or even say them out loud, but not so often that this becomes unseemly. Now and again we are even presented with snippets of real insight. One can see how Franzen could have written a much better book 15 years ago.
But one can also see how that book might have been a fluke. In Purity, marriages fail one after another in excruciating 50-page flashbacks. No one is particularly likable or even unlikable, though a few do manage to be insufferable. Toward the end we’re treated to one great character, the cynical plutocrat dad of one of the dastardly feminists, but then he disappears from view and promptly dies. The megalomaniacal information activist is admirably complex, but as a megalomaniacal information activist myself, I found him unconvincing. The one murder that serves to kick off the plot is perpetuated against an otherwise minor off-screen character rather than one of the several main characters whom the reader might have much preferred to see murdered. Franzen is also rather hard on the ladies, whereas everyone would have been better served had he instead been harder on himself and maybe put out a better book.
It’s worth reiterating, though, that this sort of subject matter is not my cup of tea to begin with, and I certainly don’t want anyone to refrain from reading a novel that might interest them simply because I said mean things about it. If you’re up for a “moving meditation on marriage and friendship,” then you should probably read Freedom over and over again until your eyes bleed. If divorce and infidelity and guilt and trial separation is your thing, then you’d better get your ass over to the nearest book store and pick up a copy of Purity. You need not worry about what I think. But if you’re curious anyway, what I think is that I hate you.
JUST KIDDING. Ah, but there is indeed a major plot element interwoven into Purity that should be of interest to someone like me — that of Franzen’s ersatz Assange, Andreas Wolf, and his leak-driven Sunshine Project. Let me put it this way. I was interested enough in WikiLeaks, state transparency, and emergent opposition networks to do five years in prison over such things, but I wasn’t interested enough that I would have voluntarily plowed through 500 pages of badly plotted failed-marriage razzmatazz by an author who’s long past his expiration date simply in order to learn what the Great King of the Honkies thinks about all this.
There are big ideas here, but none worth having, much less writing down. One big idea seems to be that Julian Assange has blood on his hands. Not even the Pentagon makes this charge anymore, but it’s nonetheless raised almost in passing in an Oakland anarchist squat, of all places, by a transient Occupy activist, of all people, who proclaims: “But Wiki was dirty — people died because of Wiki,” an assertion that goes unchallenged. To be sure, this is a bit character talking, rather than one of a handful of main characters whom we can be certain are speaking for Franzen when they start denouncing the Internet or women, but again, it sounds about as natural coming from a slum-dwelling anarcho-what-have-you as a declaration to the effect that the Multinational Imperialist State of Amerikkka must be brought to its knees by a re-energized Situationist International movement would sound coming from Mike Rogers. This, then, is the author speaking.
Not content to present discredited five-year-old anti-Assange Department of Defense talking points as if they were accepted facts even among Assange’s own ideological constituents, Franzen has, again, also created this Andreas Wolf figure, unmistakably modeled on Assange — he’s even escaped to a friendly South American country, as the real Assange is trying to do, and like Assange, he’s in the habit of deploying a rather striking female emissary on secret missions around the world. And naturally, Franzen has made Wolf a near-sociopathic fraud, murderer, and cover-up artist who also has weird sexual hang-ups (although it’s worth noting that most everyone in Purity has weird sexual hang-ups; one young lady can only achieve climax during a full moon, but then you know how feminists are). What’s particularly interesting is the sort of cluttered presence of both the model of the real figure and the real figure himself, whereas generally a writer will content himself with one of the two. Do the inhabitants of this fictional world ever get suspicious, I wonder, concluding as they must that one of the two global celebrity leakers is clearly an unfair literary depiction of the other? Do they also notice that all of their mothers are psychotic and that their marriages tend to slowly collapse in the course of long, grueling flashbacks, and do they conclude that they’re living in a Jonathan Franzen novel? This raises all manner of ethical questions that I will leave to others.
Rather than any measured objections to online activism as currently practiced or the social networking culture, we’re treated instead to a moving meditation on how the Internet is a totalitarian system comparable to East Germany under the Stasi or the Soviets under Stalin. The gurus of the information technology field — the “New Regime,” as Franzen calls them — are very much the natural heirs to the politburo. Oh, there are a few differences here and there, of course: “But Stalin himself hadn’t needed to take so many risks, because terror worked better. Although to a man, the new revolutionaries all claimed to worship risk-taking — a relative term in my case, since the risk in question was of losing some venture capitalist’s money, or worse of wasting a few parentally funded years, rather than, say, the risk of being shot or hanged — the most successful of them had instead followed Stalin’s example.”
So, at least in the sense that these wacky Internet people lack the moral authority conferred upon the Bolsheviks by virtue of risk, this, uh, otherwise useful comparison between the start-up crowd and the Stalinists does perhaps break down a little. But! But! It gathers new strength insomuch that “the most successful of them” often have recourse to terror, in this case the “terrors of technocracy,” which consist of “the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.” So, there you go.
JUST A PAGE LATER, Franzen inexplicably switches gears and decides that the terrors of technology instead consist of “the algorithms that Facebook used to monetize its users’ privacy and Twitter to manipulate memes that were supposedly self-generating. But smart people were actually far more terrified of the New Regime than of what the regime had persuaded less-smart people to be afraid of, the NSA, the CIA — it was straight from the totalitarian playbook, disavowing your own methods of terror by imputing them to your enemy and presenting yourself as the only defense against them.” Setting aside the demonstrably false and frankly bizarre claim that recent concerns over the intelligence community’s unprecedented capabilities stem merely from some sort of clever gambit by tech firm CEOs who must resort to falsely “imputing” such things rather than, say, from documented and ongoing revelations about those agencies, it’s hard to see how Franzen can actually believe that the misuse of personal information by powerful corporations should logically preclude “smart people” from also fearing the NSA, as their “less-smart” counterparts have been “persuaded” to do. It’s likewise difficult to see how Franzen can be entirely unaware of the contention that’s been put forth over and over again by many of the very people who have made sacrifices to bring these matters to attention — that we are concerned with the combination of state and corporate power exercised in secret, drawing upon advanced and little-known information technology, wielded in such a way as to narrow further and further the potential for truly private life while also contaminating the very information flow that a citizenry requires if it is to survive above the level of a subject population, defended by an opaque protocol of deception and retaliation, and aided and abetted by a dysfunctional establishment culture that was unequipped to even discover the problem without a great deal of help from outside that establishment, which has nonetheless studiously refrained from learning any lessons from all of this.
There’s an old joke which holds that in heaven, the cooks are French, the cops are English, and the engineers are German; whereas in hell, the cooks are English, the cops are German, and the engineers are French. We live in a sort of silly cultural hell where the columns are composed by Thomas Friedman, the novels are written by Jonathan Franzen, the debate is framed by CNN, and the fact-checking is done by no one. Franzen’s nightmare — a new regime of technology and information activists that will challenge the senile culture of which he is so perfectly representative — is exactly what is needed.
“Let him who is not come to logic be plagued with continuous and everlasting filth.”
—John of Salisbury