Franzen's Purity Has Dirt Stains

PURITY  (2015)
Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 563 pages
* *

Americans don't read much, but that doesn't stop them from tossing the occasional writer into the celebrity hype and buzz machine. Jonathan Franzen is the literary equivalent of a rock star. This means reviewers generally decamp in one of two tents: sycophants who praise everything he types, or iconoclasts seeking to knock Humpty Dumpty from the wall. The Guardian dubbed Purity—Franzen's first novel in five years–"brilliant," and the New Republic speculated that Franzen might be the nation's greatest living novelist. By contrast, Gawker slammed Purity as high school prose, sniffed as its "placid gutlessness," and dismissed it as a buzz-driven "piece of shit."

Few embody buzz, excrement, and overwrought as well as Gawker, but though I'm tempted to agree with Gawker's takes-one-to-know-one assessment, I'd judge Purity  neither masterpiece nor bovine exhaust. It has occasional insights, but it's mostly just mediocre. It surprises me more, though, that almost no one has picked up on the book's most-intriguing aspect, its title and Franzen's musings upon it. Most reviewers stop with the observation that Purity is the given name of the book's central character, 23-year-old "Pip" Tyler. They miss that every character suffers from existential crises resulting from the pull between purity and grime. These are expressed in ways such as: morality versus desire, character versus celebrity, principle versus pragmatism, prudence versus urgency, and fidelity versus lust.

Our titular character Pip/Purity is the cog of the novel. She's a 23-year-old recent college grad living with a band of misfits in Oakland, and stuck in a revolving door of dead-end jobs that won't make a dent in her college debt. She has good intentions and tries to care for her housemates, a few of which are scarred physically or psychologically, but she also suffers from Millennial self-absorption and doesn't understand why she can't sleep with anyone she wishes, or why somebody won't just give her $130,000 to pay off her student debt. It sure won't be her mother, Anabel Laird, a recluse in the Santa Cruz Mountains who lives like a cross between an ageing hippie and a survivalist. Pip can't even get her mother to stop calling her "Pussycat," tell her who her father is, or reveal a single detail of her life before she had Pip. The out-of-sort Pip is thus intrigued when another housemate, Annagret, an oddball German-born eco activist, recruits her for The Sunshine Project. This, we discover, is a Bolivia-based Wikileaks-like organization run by an East German ex-pat, Andreas Wolf. Like Julian Assange, Wolf is famous, infamous, and wanted; hence the Bolivian address. (We know Andreas is like Assange because Franzen constantly makes that very analogy!)    

All of the major characters' stories overlap. We first meet Andreas in East Berlin two years before the Wall came down, where he's torn between his earnestness as a street angel/church youth counselor for troubled teens, and his libidinous desire to bed them. Annagret, though, is special and he helps her in a way that put both in danger. Before Andreas makes his way to the West, he enlists the aid of a visiting American journalist, Tom Aberant, the one person other than Annagret who knows Andreas' dark secret. Decades later, Andreas has assumed the mantle of a social justice crusader and uses his Svengali-like magnetism to draw idealists to his Web projects. Will Pip also fall to his charms?

Purity leaves opens itself to charges of packing way too many implausible coincidences into one story. Tom reappears–along with an absurd and superfluous back-story involving his father–and with a life partner named Leila, whose purity is compromised by her simultaneous roles as Tom's colleague/lover and her live-in status as the caregiver for a paraplegic husband she was on the verge of leaving before his accident. Through even more bizarre circumstances, all of the characters are connected through Pip. Gawker's overwrought tag has merit, especially in Franzen's deus ex machina approach to resolving dilemmas. 

Add overlong to the book's problems. Must we equate being a "weighty" writer with the quantity of pages churned out? Purity could lose half its bulk and be no worse for it. The central premise is a compelling one. How does one maintain integrity in a world whose stronger currents run the other way? We don't, however, need another long book on this theme–Donna Tartt already wrote and collected a Pulitzer for it. Her Goldfinch also had characters less whiny than Pip, more deliciously Machiavellian than Andreas, more convincingly bohemian than Anabel, more conflicted than anyone in Purity, and with considerably more trust in the readers to connect the dots. I didn't hate this book, but as purity goes, it's more beige than white.
Rob Weir



Caroloyn Chute and the Other Maine in Treat Us Like Dogs

Carolyn Chute
Grove Press, 671 pages
* * *

Most visitors to Maine wax rhapsodic over postcard cute towns like Ogunquit, Wiscasset, and Camden, or indulge in retail therapy in Kittery or Freeport. The nose-in-the-air set eschews the hoi polloi for the obscene wealth enclaves of Kennebunkport or Northeast Harbor. Neither group drives more than a few miles inland, though both wonder how Maine ended up with a nut-job like Paul LePage as governor. They've never seen Carolyn Chute's Maine–the postindustrial hopelessness of towns like Lewiston, the lumber mills of Bangor and Lincoln that Global Capital deems "noncompetitive," the empty quadrants that bear only township numbers, or Canadian border whistle stops like Calais that redefine the word dire.  

Chute lives in the "other" Maine. Though she's a renowned author, she and her illiterate second husband live on the poverty line, make do with an outhouse, belong to a militia group, and live among folks who think the Tea Party is a bunch of prissy suburbanites whose ideas of survivalism comes from bad reality TV shows. Not that she's seen such a show; Chute doesn't have a TV, phone, or computer. She also knows that the American class struggle isn't between the haute and petite bourgeoisie, and her view of those who disparage the other Maine is summed by the title of her latest novel.

It's also the book's simmering theme. Chute sets her novels in the semi-fictional town of Egypt, Maine. This one revolves loosely around bearish 39-year-old Gordon St. Onge, known as "The Prophet" to those living in The Settlement. What is The Settlement? Call it where free thinkers-meet-the-frontier. There are loads of women bearing the last name of St. Onge and lots of home-schooled kids, many of whom look like Gordon. Is Gordon a Northeast David Koresh, a pre-reform Mormon, a randy satyr, or just an unorthodox backwoodsman who rails against Peak Oil and Corporate America? Does he even run The Settlement, or is it Claire, the rotund, older Indian woman who was once Gordon's only legal wife? Most of Gordon's neighbors are also poor as church mice; they mostly see him as a little off, but an affable guy who operates sawmills, helps out, and takes in troubled kids who don't spell very well, but know more about the science of solar and wind power than most engineers.

Everything about The Settlement and Gordon is off the grid by polite society's standards, including a manifesto declaring itself "no wing" on the left/right scale. Residents are pro-democracy and anti-government, pro-equality but anti-feminist, pro-gun but anti-NRA, live in poverty yet eat heartily, are self-sufficient but don't isolate themselves, hate banks but watch the cash flow carefully, and hate most technology but in the name of environmentalism. They are serious about freedom–the only non-negotiable rule is no TVs or computers.

In other words, they scare the hell out of "respectable" Mainers for whom any whiff of anarchy means there must be must be something sinister going on. Soon allegations swirl that The Settlement harbors everything from incest and child abuse to Satanism and gun stockpiling. This puts reporter Ivy Morelli, a quirky but spoiled Millennial, on the investigative trail. Will Ivy expose the evils lurking in the woods or succumb to Gordon's magnetism? Her efforts to reveal the "truth" put me in mind of the bungled Island Pond, Vermont religious commune scandal from the 1970s. There are parallels, but much more is afoot in Chute's novel.

Treat us Like Dogs is a sprawling, sometimes clunky novel filled with unusual characters, including several personified forces and objects. How would Television, History, or Mammon speak if they were people? Chute imagines it. There are lots of "secret agents" in the book as well, including a six-year-old black girl and the mysterious "Grays," that might be aliens, or a self-aware collective unconscious, or something akin to Emerson's Over-Soul. A particularly compelling character is 15-year-old Bree Vandermast, a wildly inventive red-tressed artist with an attractive body and a deformed face. Another is feminist professor Catherine, who also orbits around Gordon and makes us wonder if she is the snake in the Garden. And, yes, there are militias.

Chute wisely set the novel in 1999-2000, just before the crooked fall election and 9/11 confirmed a lot of what Gordon said about the world. Treat Us Like Dogs has so many characters that even Chute claims not to know how many. This makes for a parade of intrigue, but a tougher editor would have demanded better flow. (There are parts that probably made more sense in Chute's head than on the page.) Yet this book is unlike anything else you'll read and its fascinations more than compensate for its frustrations. A final thing: the New York Review of Books called its humor "propulsive." Oh dear! There are funny passages, but the humor is black, not haw! haw! (The reference is to Ivy's cloying laugh.) Only a tourist who has never been ten miles from the coast would call it "propulsive."  

Rob Weir



Circling the Sun McLain's Latest Triumph

Paula McLain
Ballantine Books
* * * *

Do women have to die to be considered heroines? I’ve long wondered why there’s been such intense fascination over Amelia Earhart, when Beryl Markham (1902-1986) remains a relative unknown whose remarkable autobiography was decades out of print when it was republished in 1983. She appeared only as a composite character in Isak Dinesen’s 1937 autobiography Out of Africa (and in the 1985 film), though Beryl and Karen Blixen (Dinesen is a nom de plume) were friends in life, as well as rivals for the affections of Denys Finch Hatton. Markham made history in 1936, the year before Earhart’s doomed flight, by becoming the first aviatrix to cross the Atlantic solo from east to west. If that doesn’t sound like such a big deal to you, consider that her plane had to carry all its fuel with it, and the working tank had to drain completely before allowing fuel from the auxiliary storage to flow into it. Still not impressed? Markham also had to turn off the engine while doing all of this, lest a spark blow up the plane. This meant the aircraft went into free fall, and Markham had seconds to restart the engine or she would have met Earhart's fate.

Paula McLain finds Markham a compelling subject for a novel, and I couldn’t agree more. McLain–who earlier dazzled with The Paris Wife–begins and ends her novel in the sky, but she focuses more on Beryl’s African youth. What a fascinating tale it is–one that makes Markham a thoroughly modern woman long before it was fashionable or safe to be one. Along the way she took the word “no” as a personal challenge and smashed every gender expectation her society threw at her.  For Beryl the words “Well behaved women seldom make history” wasn’t a slogan; it was her de facto mantra. This made her a “difficult” person by respectable standards. She was a tomboy who married three times and kept her vows in none of those attachments; count King George V’s son as among her probable lovers. Finch Hatton was definitely in that company, but he bedded just about every available woman in British East Africa.

McLain presents British East Africa (today’s Kenya) as the liberating antidote to the stultifying British society into which Beryl was born. She was the daughter of a horse trainer, Charles Baldwin Clutterback, and a mother so English that when the family moved to Kenya (when Beryl was just four), she spent little time in locating a lover with whom she could flee back to England. This was probably all for the best for Beryl, who grew up with dreams on becoming a Kipsigis warrior. Beryl’s long friendship with an African local is among McLain’s subplots.  Because her father provided love but little structure, Beryl became something of a wild colt who adapted to whatever came her way, including repeated cycles of wealth and poverty. Quite logically, the wild colt followed her father’s footsteps into what was then the exclusive male domain of training prize racehorses and was so good at it that British aristocrats like Lord Delamere were willing to act as patrons, social convention be damned. In McLain’s book, Delamere acts as a more effective second father figure–another very interesting relationship. But the dynamics between Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen, and Beryl make for the book’s most complex triad. Both women bedded the free-spirited Finch Hatton, but given that Blixen was 17 years Beryl’s senior, she sometimes acted as a surrogate older sister, almost as if she were the superego between two out-of-control ids.

McLain excels at probing the interiors of complex people placed in unusual situations. We soon understand the attraction between Finch Hatton and (still gangly) Beryl–they are among the few Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa who were at home amidst the wildness rather than dreaming of sedate domestication in England or Denmark. McLain is equally adroit at making Africa come alive–with all of its horrors and beauties. Beryl’s world was one in which you could rid yourself of an unwanted governess by putting a dead black mamba in her room; it was also one of knowing what to do when thrown from a horse within venom-spitting distance of a coiled cobra, or having a clear head when attacked by a lion. If this doesn’t sound like a place you’d ever wish to be, read McLain’s gorgeous description of staring into the Great Rift Valley before closing your mind.

This is a fascinating treatment of a remarkable–and, yes, pigheaded–young woman that take us just until she is 28 and floating in the clouds. Once you read about Markham’s formative years, her flight will seem like the most logical thing in the world for her to do. Amelia Earhart crashed; Beryl Markham soared.

Rob Weir