Early thoughts on Purity by Jonathan Franzen

In both Purity and A Little Princess, the meek inherit the earth. Some people might say that’s unrealistic, but note Jesus’ word choice. He said the meek would “inherit” the earth. He didn’t say anybody was planning to hand it over to them! He merely implied that after everyone else was dead, the meek would get their chance. The novel Chevengur by Andrei Platonov—a contemporary of Bulgakov’s—shows the way: it revels in the self-sacrificing heroism of humble warriors as they meekly pursue their ideals until everyone else is dead. They’re not bad people. Just armed. I hope somebody translates Chevengur into English soon.

I’m not terribly optimistic. On average I hate all books. However, I love Purity.

Sir John Lavery, The Black Poodle (detail).

Update: Bowing to publishing convention, we are going to hold this pre-review until closer to the book’s release date. In the meantime we urge you to read more Nell Zink, buy her novels The Wallcreeper and Mislaid, and preorder Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. (For more on Franzen, see the n+1 symposium on Freedom.) Thank you, as always, for reading n+1. —The Editors

Update to the update: bowing once more—this time to popular demand—we have restored Nell Zink’s review, below. —Eds.

What can I say? My most stunning realization of the past seventy-two hours has been that Jonathan Franzen borrowed the epigraph of his new novel Purity from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I’m only on page forty-six (of the 1997 Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, a paperback from Penguin Classics), but so far it’s a humorous take on how the Jews killed Jesus—Gogol with the politics of Dostoevsky. I feel I am learning things I hadn’t wanted to know about the minds of the people who raved to me about this book. What keeps me going is the title, The Master and Margarita, which promises a love story between Faust and Gretchen (short for Margarethe). I’m not terribly optimistic. On average I hate all books. However, I love Purity. It reminds me of one of my favorite books ever, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Why? Because in both Purity and A Little Princess, the meek inherit the earth. Some people might say that’s unrealistic, but note Jesus’ word choice. He said the meek would “inherit” the earth. He didn’t say anybody was planning to hand it over to them! He merely implied that after everyone else was dead, the meek would get their chance. The novel Chevengur by Andrei Platonov—a contemporary of Bulgakov’s—shows the way: it revels in the self-sacrificing heroism of humble warriors as they meekly pursue their ideals until everyone else is dead. They’re not bad people. Just armed. I hope somebody translates Chevengur into English soon. (I read it in German.)

Anyway, why am I reviewing the new Jonathan Franzen? Doesn’t he get enough publicity already? Sure! But publicity is not the same as selling books. Plenty of people think his books are no fun. And it’s true, they’re mostly dense, discomfiting portrayals of disappointing people. But Purity is fun, because the girl, Purity (“Pip”), is nice—like Goethe’s Gretchen, a.k.a. the Eternal Feminine that motivates all good acts. Goethe’s model was the Catholic cult of Mary. Scholars of religion have often remarked on her uniqueness. She’s the only deity ever (admit it, Catholics—she’s a goddess!) who demands no propitiation. She hands out goodness and mercy like candy. Pip even has an Immaculate Conception of sorts, arising from rough bareback anal. I’m serious. Pip is conceived via anal sex during which her mother feels no pleasure whatsoever. Then she’s up against Mephistopheles, who thinks destroying stuff wholesale is a shortcut to renewal. (That’s what the epigraph says: “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”) In related news, Franzen invests serious money in conservation, doing good by saving wetlands instead of letting them get wrecked. If you make him richer by buying Purity, the money won’t go straight to some other rich guy—whoever sells him his next asset upgrade—it will go to farmers who lay off insecticides and let their fields get marshy! Or you can skip the middleman, wait for the paperback, and donate straight to the American Bird Conservancy. Your call.

Pip in Purity is a good ten years older than Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, but has similar problems with student loans. Where Sara’s expat father abandons her at boarding school with unpaid bills, leaving her a full-time drudge at age 9, twentysomething Pip works at a call center and lives in a squat. Where Sara has a one-sided friendship with a rat, Pip has a one-sided crush on a married housemate. The parallels never let up! Well, maybe they do let up when Pip starts writing emails to this famous activist. Except wait! Sara proves her worth to her anonymous benefactor, the last man to see her father alive (not quite a spoiler), with an eloquent thank-you note. So yeah, basically same book.

Pip’s mother is a piece of work. Generally not helpful as a mom, but fun to read about, and very real if you remember 1980s artists and just how seriously they took everything. Nobody wanted to be shallow the way people do now, so they put all their shallowness in the art. Audiences would then stare silently for hours at black paintings and films of dripping taps. Now we all want to be airheads delighted and entertained by fun. I don’t mind. I like fun art. Purity includes elements of graphic fun the way other books include graphic sex and violence. There’s this big dog at the end, this ungainly beast that eats lemons—you get a way clearer picture of this dog than you do of the severed head of the murder victim. The reader may recall that Satan first appears to Goethe’s Faust in the form of a giant poodle.

There is much for literary critics to add, especially about Purity. I really look forward to reading some serious reviews.

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