So Jonathan Franzen is doing kind of a weird thing in the early going of Purity, his latest novel. He’s not the first author to do a version of this weird thing, but the particular way he’s doing it, at least so far, made me want to write about it now, before I’ve finished the entire book.
We’re in third-person perspective, but not omniscient: Purity “Pip” Tyler is the focus and the text exclusively (so far) relays her experiences and thoughts and feelings and such—at least in the first 35 pages or so, it never steps outside her to confirm or refute her perspective or let us know what other characters are thinking or feeling. This is fine, and so far Pip mostly is an engaging literary character. She’s burdened by her cloistering relationship with her needy, difficult mother; she feels dysfunctional and ill-fit to the world around her; she wants things (the love of her married housemate; the identity of her mysterious father) that she can’t have; she assesses herself harshly along pretty much every axis; she makes bad-seeming decisions even while aware that she’ll probably regret them. Fine. So far, so good. I know people like that!
She is also, Jonathan Franzen is at pains to let us know, sexually attractive. That is another fine thing for a person to be. What’s creeping me out is the way Franzen is revealing this information to us: By having Pip, at least in the first 35 pages or so, run a gauntlet of leering men who appraise her looks and make clear that they want to fuck her. More specifically, he ricochets these men’s leering appraisals of her looks to us, off the backboard of Pip’s uncomfortable knowledge that she is being leered at and appraised by creeps.
Her boss, Igor, leers at her at work:
Igor was Gazing at her. He was a blond Russian, strokably bearded, unfairly handsome, and to Pip the only conceivable reason he hadn’t fired her was that he enjoyed thinking about fucking her, and yet she was sure that, if it ever came to that, she would end up humiliated in no time flat, because he was not only handsome but rather handsomely paid, while she was a girl with nothing but problems. She was sure that he must know this, too.
Capitalizing “gaze,” here, is no accident: Franzen is surely referencing “male gaze,” a concept from feminist critique that refers to the male heterosexual perspective assumed by default in virtually all visual art in patriarchal culture. Whatever else Franzen is doing, he’s signaling Pip’s awareness of the sexual nature of Igor’s gaze, and of the context—a workplace power imbalance inside a cultural power imbalance—in which it occurs.
Which, again: This is okay! Women get leered at by creeps, and often those creeps are their bosses, and this also is true of attractive women who are versed in feminist critique and aware of the leering and its contexts, so hey, cool. I very much doubt that the experiences of a young woman in American society could be written about honestly and in good faith without describing abundant encounters with leering men and the sense of one’s value to the world being measured in terms of sexual desirability.
Pip, as we learn on the next page, is very familiar with this:
In four of the twenty-two months she’d worked for Renewable Solutions, she’d succeeded in being only next-to-last, not last, on the whiteboard where her and her associates’ “outreach points” were tallied. Perhaps not coincidentally, four out of twenty-two was roughly the frequency with which she looked in a mirror and saw someone pretty, rather than someone who, if it had been anybody but her, might have been considered pretty but, because it was her, wasn’t. She’d definitely inherited some of her mother’s body issues, but she at least had the hard evidence of her experience with boys to back her up. Many were quite attracted to her, few ended up not thinking there’d been some error.
Okay, those last two sentences are terribly written, first of all. For chrissakes, Jon, just say what the fuck you’re saying. But the ideas come across, anyway: a) Pip has bad self-esteem, and b) she is sexually desirable to many men, at least visually, before they get to know her. Okay. Got it.
But wait. Jonathan Franzen needs you to know: Pip is smokin’. A few pages later, an impulsive sexual liaison goes awry, leading to Pip snatching the cell phone of the guy whom she’d left waiting for sex while she got sidetracked into a weird interaction with a proselytizing German anarchist in the—never mind. Point is, she grabs the guy’s cell phone and reads the text messages he’d been sending to an unnamed buddy while he waited:
Gross! Damn that Jason, who seemed smart and okay at first! It turns out that he’s a complete asshole!
This is a humiliating experience for Pip, as you imagine it would be for anyone: to find yourself being sized up like an item in a butcher-shop display case by someone to whom you’d made yourself vulnerable. This moment in the narrative reaffirms Pip’s mistrust of men, illustrates the difficulty she has in finding coping mechanisms that are not her suffocating mother—and, oh, by the way, lets us know she has very, uh, high-scoring tits. Even someone who can not see her and had to rely on second-hand descriptions of her looks—someone in your shoes, reader of Purity!—would agree that she is someone worth waiting around to fuck. In terms of her boobage.
A few pages later, we return to the workplace, and Igor the leering boss:
When her long, dispiriting afternoon of Rancho Ancho calls finally came to an end, at 6 p.m., Pip saved her call sheets, strapped on her knapsack and bike helmet, and tried to sneak past Igor’s office without being accosted.
“Pip, a word with you, please,” came Igor’s voice.
She shuffled back so he could see her from his desk. His Gaze glanced down past her breasts, which at this point might as well have had giant eights stenciled on them, and settled on her legs. She would have sworn they were like an unfinished sudoku to Igor. He wore exactly that frown of preoccupied problem-solving.
What follows is an interaction in which Igor very much seems to be on the verge of offering professional advancement in exchange for sex.
Now shit is getting weird. It’s getting weird, right? We already know that Pip is good-looking; we already know that men leer at her and want to fuck her; and we already know Igor, in particular, feels no shame about just straight up staring at the parts of her body that give him boners. We’ve been given an indication that this is no small part of why Pip still has a job. We’re only 35 pages into the book and we know all this stuff very well! The only new information communicated by that detail about the specific resting-point of this iteration of Igor’s Gaze is that Pip has nice legs.
Listen. There’s nothing newly squicky about a heterosexual male author writing a sexually attractive female character and then finding ways of communicating her attractiveness that make you quite sure he’s describing someone he’d like to fuck. (Hell, just as an example, I’m not sure bien pensant liberal nice-guy author Stephen King has ever written a novel in which he didn’t do that.) The device Franzen is using to do it, though—relaying appraisals of his character’s desirability indirectly, through her own humiliating repeat experience of being subjected to these leering appraisals against her will—strikes me as really creepy. You’re left, or I’m left, anyway, with the very clear feeling that Franzen wants to capture and comment on the general leer at women’s bodies that is an inescapable part of our society, but that he also can’t resist the gross male-writer self-indulgence of making his female character someone that he, himself, would like to leer at.
Which is to say, he is leering at a creation of his own who is aware of the leering and made uncomfortable by it, but who is multiply prevented from fending it off by her personal insecurity and professional weakness and the conditions of American culture and the fact that the author doing the leering is her literal creator and can do as he pleases. (And whom, incidentally, Franzen has chosen to give the habit of reacting to acute insecurity with sexual heedlessness. Hmm.) And he is leering via male characters he knows—he is working to demonstrate he knows—are gross pigs, because of their leering.
Apart from the, yeesh, gross sexual-political weirdness of this, it might be bad writing. The dissonance—Pip, whose breasts and legs are totally bonerworthy, is beset on all sides by dickheaded men leering at her body parts—between the narration’s intimate focus on Pip’s inner life and the repeated reminders that she is a hot young internet single have had the effect, so far, of making me acutely aware that I am reading a work of fiction written by aging heterosexual dude Jonathan Franzen. It has caused me to, quite without choosing, parse the language for other traces of Franzen’s indulging of his own tastes and desires. It has made Jonathan Franzen, and not Pip Tyler, the main character of Purity so far.
Which brings us, of course, right back to sexual politics (which I’m going to say is a fair critical lens through which to evaluate the early parts of Purity, since Franzen has chosen to place sexual power imbalances so centrally right out of the gate): Here we have a Major American Literary Event Book focused intently on the inner workings of a woman, and like 1/20th of the way through it the main thing I’m made to think about is what this fictional woman tells me about the man who created her. I’m made to find Pip dehumanized by ... oh god ... the male gaze.
Maybe this is deliberate! Jonathan Franzen is much smarter and exponentially more learned than I am, and if you haven’t figured it out by reading this blog post, he also is much the better writer of the two of us, too. This would hardly be the first literary novel of the 21st century to circle back around itself, crawl up its own ass, and make a meta-commentary on Major Themes via, like, making you think about the role of the author or whatever. I am always wary of this kind of thing, both because I have a chip on my shoulder about people who went to college and became educated enough for multidimensional thought but also because in many cases it strikes me as a kind of waterproofing against criticism—No, man, what you perceive as flaws were incorporated deliberately for the sake of making an honest commentary about the inescapability of authorial privilege and perspective-as-prison and the nature of art, man, and that makes them good!—and criticizing things is a thing I like doing, so I prefer not to be told that my criticism, itself, is some kind of meta-commentary of its own. Particularly because the only meta-commentary my criticism can make concerns faults in the American education system. I do not want to be the main character of this blog post, is what I am saying. Too late.
So I am telling myself—in the manner of a common reader intimidated by the task of figuring out how to evaluate a Major American Literary Event Book and therefore feeding out slack like a guilt-stricken dad throwing allowance money around so the kids will keep their yaps shut about the milkshakes they had for lunch—that I must keep my eyes open to discern the point when Franzen’s creepy indirect leering-via-leering at the tits and thighs of his main character reveals itself as part of what Purity is About. Maybe that will happen! I haven’t decided whether I hope it will or not.
This has been a dispatch from Purity. A lot of the Pip’s-relationship-with-her-mom stuff has been really good.
Defacings of a work of literatyoor by my wife