We’ll move further along in Purity in just a moment. First, I want to relay the story of what happened the first time I opened the book up after the last dispatch, in which I discussed how much truer and more knowledgeably written Jonathan Franzen’s one-paragraph description of Santa Cruz’s weather patterns rang than all 65 pages that came before it. I opened the book, flipped to my marked page, read the following chunk—
A fellow rider, a dirty girl with blond dreads, turned around and asked her, “You going up to ’Pico?”
“Just to the bottom of the road,” Pip said.
“I’d never been up there till three months ago,” the girl said. “There’s nothing else quite like it! There’s two boys there that let me sleep on their couch if I have sex with them. I don’t mind that at all. Everything’s different in ’Pico. Do you ever go up there?”
It happened that Pip had lost her virginity in Lompico. Maybe there really was nothing else quite like it.
“It sounds like you’ve got a good thing going,” she said politely.
“’Pico’s the best,” the girl agreed. “They have to truck in their water on this property, because of the elevation. They don’t have to deal with the suburban scum, which is great. They give me food and everything. There’s nothing else quite like it!”
The girl seemed perfectly contented with her life, while to Pip it seemed to be raining ashes in the bus. She forced a smile and put in her earbuds.
—and closed the book again. For a little while.
What is this? Since no one who ever lived has spoken like this, you are forced to read this dialog as comic exaggeration, even though it is deeply unfunny and registers with a sour meanness you can’t miss. What is the joke? Kids today? Three pages ago Pip was a sexual libertine squatting in a house full of men; why is this girl a complete cartoon character? What makes Pip worthy of intimate examination, while this girl doesn’t even get to speak like a plausible human being? Maybe it’s that she’s doesn’t have a name that serves to signal the author’s engagement with Charles Dickens, and thus is not of much use.
Who knows. I am beginning to doubt that Jonathan Franzen knows. I am beginning to think he does not have as much control over his instrument as I expect him to. I think he wanted to show what a zany place Lompico is—like the fog, it’s something he feels confident describing—and tripped over his dick. The couplet about Pip’s lost virginity—incoherently posing it as confirmation that the “dirty” girl’s polyamorous housing arrangement is par for Lompico’s hedonistic course—is pithy and stupid and spectacularly inept. “Suburban scum” is, or at least really feels like, an aging celebrity writerer’s blind stab at spoofing how he imagines a young bohemian might speak; it misses by a mile. The repetitions of “There’s nothing quite like it!” substitute formal cuteness for actual humor. “It seemed to be raining ashes” means nothing, because Jonathan Franzen does not know what Pip should be feeling here but knows she should be feeling something and is dodging the question. This is really, really bad writing.
In any case, a few pages later we very thankfully leave Pip in an (again, so very much not-how-people-talk) emotional argument with her mother to go spend some time in the backstory of Andreas Wolf, the Julian Assange-like head of the WikiLeaks-like Sunlight Project. We last encountered Wolf indirectly, through his emails to Pip, evidently devoting all his attention to convincing this stranger to come join him in South America; now we’re back in time, in Wolf’s years as a sort of disaffectedly dissident lothario in communist East Germany. Here Franzen is on noticeably surer footing. He spent Cold War years studying in Germany himself and brings it to life through Wolf’s perspective dishily, elbowing you gently in the side. Hey, get a load of that telling contradiction over there. I don’t know what East Germany was like at all, but Franzen’s East Germany feels lived-in and believable and I want to read more of it.
And Wolf, too, emerges as someone known and not guessed at. Probably it’d be unfair to suppose Franzen is as personally familiar with Wolf’s nihilism and grandiosity and sexual manipulations as he is with Santa Cruz’s weather—I’m not trying to call the guy a friggin’ monster, here, and Wolf nearly is one, or at least has been living as one at the point we pick up his story—but I think a solidly non-monstrous dude could extrapolate Andreas Wolf out of his own urges and self-image. Probably that’s some of why Andreas Wolf resonates, where Pip seems increasingly like a figment of incurious cruelty.
Andreas Wolf meets Annagret—who earlier in the book (though of course years later in the story’s timeline) was the earnest German anarchist recruiting Pip to join Wolf’s Sunlight project—and is stirred to feel love and empathy for someone other than his parents for the first time in his life. She’s 15 (to Wolf’s 27), being sexually abused at home, and therefore cagey, withdrawn deep into an armored version of herself. Her hardness and reticence leave very little room for Franzen’s dismal writering in her dialog with Wolf, and so I like her very much. They’ve made plans to murder her abuser, and made up their minds to do it.
I am wondering why this much more assured and self-justified book about Andreas Wolf, even if it is to tell the later story of his blossoming into an international hacker-journalist icon—even if there is to be some twist that makes Pip central to that story—needs the inferior, guessed-at Pip section at all. A theory is developing—about what happens to an anointed Great Novelist’s ego and the willingness of editors to tell him when he has assigned himself too much of the world’s story to tell—but I don’t like it, so I’m going to put it aside and keep reading. It’d be nice to be wrong.
This has been a dispatch from Purity. Pip’s interactions with her mom have devolved into a Cathy strip.
Photo via AP