Is Jonathan Franzen trolling us?
The author famously detests the internet, and in his latest novel, Purity, it plays a central role to the pulpy plot: it’s the villain.
(Spoilers ahead. A lot of them.)
Franzen’s protagonist is a capital-M Millennial called Pip. (Full name: Purity. I know.) She’s recruited to work for a fictional WikiLeaks rival called the Sunlight Project. The Sunlight Project is led by a guy named Andreas Wolf. Even though Julian Assange is repeatedly mentioned as his rival, he’s a direct inspiration for the character—a conniving, cold-eyed blonde womaniser with an ego running a digital secret-leaking project. Except Wolf is from East Germany and he’s a murderer who loves to masturbate.
Pip’s recruitment to work for the Sunlight Project initially seems like a weird plot turn; she’s a caustic squatter with no special internet skills. She’s told that she is “special” because it turns out that Wolf has plans for her. Wolf only invites her to the Sunlight Project so he can eventually seduce her into spying on on a man named Tom who may expose his secrets. Pip’s not actually special in her own right. It’s a pretty good burn on Millennial entitlement, really.
Purity is Franzen’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, an attempt by an ageing white man scribbler with a string of hit novels to Write About Young People and The World Today gone awry that reads like the guy wrote it with one hand while shaking his other fist at the local youths. Like Tom Wolfe’s naive co-ed Charlotte, Pip is never believable as she’s ping-ponged between people who treat her like a pawn. Not when she repeatedly says “Criminy!” or when she beguiles an older man into eating her out but can’t bring herself to say “vagina”. Not when she takes the entire novel to stand up to her emotionally abusive mother but bitches out every one of her bosses with a weird sense of impunity for someone whose poverty is a plot point. And especially not when the culmination of her character arc is “starts dating a dude she met at a coffee shop because they both like to read the Sunday New York Times in print while drinking coffee”.
That is to say: I would call Purity an achievement, but not a success. Pip is a truly terrible character. Franzen’s sex descriptions remain horrifying. (Sample: “transforming his dinky worm into something big and hard.”) The plot is ambitious, but it’s too obviously plotted, simultaneously overstuffed and pat.
And yet. Franzen’s dyspeptic take on technology is one of the more compelling themes. It’s not an optimistic one. It’s myopic and wary, but it’s not wrong. Whether he did it to antagonise or not, Franzen’s decision to write his “internet novel” isn’t the “dinky worm” de-purifying Purity. The sections detailing Pip’s use of Facebook or the way the Sunlight interns communicate are surprisingly accurate considering they spewed from the pen of the Tweet Hater himself.
(Please imagine, for a moment, Franzen googling “encryption” and then frantically calling Jeffrey Eugenides to get him to install PGP so they could practise.)
Aside from his highly entertaining feud with Oprah, Franzen has been annoying people on the internet for years by saying shit like “Twitter is unspeakably irritating” and “Twitter stands for everything I oppose” and postulating about social media as the downfall of culture.
If you’re known as the famous writer who hates the internet and you include lines like “The problem is we trust technology” and your most vapid character goes on about how many Twitter followers someone has, it’s not just a recurring theme. It’s a provocation.
Franzen presents the internet as a hegemonic force, alternately circumscribing and driving its characters into new states of torment. There’s a prolonged section where Wolf criticises the internet. “If you substituted networks for socialism,” he thinks, “you got the Internet. Its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence.” Then he mentally derides TED talk enthusiasts for their “smarmy syrup of convenient conviction”. (One point to Franzen. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.)
Wolf’s narcissism is fed as he starts thinking of his internet persona as his truer self on his path to fame:
He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self [...] Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable, and readable way that data did. And since a person couldn’t exist in two places at once, the more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person.
Wolf uses the internet as a tool for self-aggrandisement, but he is undone by it, so fixated on how his persona will be destroyed if Tom works reveals the truth about him that he goes to absurd (plot-driving) lengths to ensure it doesn’t.
Tom is also screwed over digitally: by installing spyware on Tom’s hard drive, Wolf is able to open a Word Document that contains a sprawling, sexually explicit memoir of Tom’s relationship with Pip’s mother, Anabel. Then he emails it to Pip.
And Anabel’s attempts to shut the world out are foiled by her daughter’s entry into digital leaking and journalism. “This is a nightmare, a nightmare,” Anabel sobs when Pip tells her she’s going to work for Wolf. Of course, she’s right. Wolf also tracks Anabel using facial-recognition software.
Tom’s investigative journalist girlfriend Leila derides internet writing for its lack of person-to-person sourcing. “When I’m sitting at a computer, I’m only half alive,” Leila tells Pip. (Never mind that all of the journalism that Leila produces over the course of the novel stems from Wolf tipping her off from information he discovered by having one of his interns Facebook-friend somebody.)
Purity is a book about characters who are tortured by dirtiness, by contamination. Wolf is concerned that his righteous internet persona/project will be polluted if his homicidal past is revealed. Anabel is a screeching parody of a trust-fund social-justice warrior, who turns her back on billions and her husband because she demands an impossible moral standard.
Pip’s motivations for everything she does are not made very clear; she exists to everyone else in the book primarily as a place to project their ideas about morality. It’s odd, but Franzen somehow managed to imbue more realism and life into his depiction of the internet than his title character.