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Garden With Courting Couples. 1887. By Vincent Van Gogh
Finished Franzen’s Purity a few days ago, and was surprised at the sudden drop off in the quality of the novel, especially when the character, Tom Aberant, narrates in the first person. It was, frankly, agonizing to get through, and I couldn’t wait for the author to get back to the story of Pip (Purity) Tyler, but that didn’t happen until nearly the end of the book.
From this reader’s point of view, the problem lay in his decision to focus on the love/hate relationship of Tom and Anabel, diving into their respective neuroses to a fault. While deep psychology wounds, torments and a character’s way of coping with them can sometimes make for a riveting story, there is such a thing as too much, for too long, without coming up for air. There is such a thing as being swamped by the neurotic, by the viciousness and cruelty of relationships, which, if there is no escape, no sense of learning from these things, no real attempt by either party to stop torturing each other, tries the patience of even the most sympathetic among us. Fish and guests and the three day rule on steroids, basically.
And the story of Andreas Wolf wasn’t much better by the end. His relationship with his mother was toxic. His relationship with Anagret was toxic. As was his ambiguous love/hate for Tom Aberant, and Tom’s for Andreas. Perhaps it’s just me getting older, but when I read novels, I want at least a few of the fictional characters I encounter to be “good company.” I want, preferably, the main characters to be people I’d enjoy being around and spend time with. Because you do, in a sense. You spend time with them, they’re company, at least for a time, and if the novel is moving, well-written, compelling, you will likely keep company with them after you put the book down for the last time. In the case of Purity, Pip, and to some degree, Leila and Jason were it for me, and Franzen chose others to focus on more.
Lastly, the sexual politics of the story seemed all too often tone-deaf as well. Franzen has taken some hits over time from some feminists for his depiction of women in his books, and I couldn’t help sensing that he was working through this in the guise of the story itself. It was as if he were carrying on a conversation, sub rosa, with those critics, both acknowledging some past errors and remaining defiant at the same time. Through his characters. Through their own battles. And this can sometimes work, but it typically requires sublimation of resentment and I think it was far too close to the surface.
Positives? Thought-provoking sections on the Internet and our loss of privacy, of the shrinking contours of private lives outside the Web, on social media, on the massive difference between public and private personas. And, as mentioned earlier, a truly beautiful section on the wilds of Bolivia, Pip’s wonder at her discoveries there. But, for me, the deep neuroses on display was too much to overcome.