An Evening with Jonathan Franzen: Intelligence Squared, 30 September 2015
At the end of last month, Intelligence Squared (the world’s “premier forum for debate and discussion”) hosted an evening of Franzen in discussion with Sarah Churchwell at The Royal Geographical Society for the launch of his latest novel: Purity. Two Americans discussing America in a room of ex-pat Americans. Plus two British people feeling very underdressed and obliged to ask each other questions like “What is Stevia?” [The answer turned out to be a sweetener; we were not missing out].
Once we managed to shoulder past the American academic habit of using longer words than necessary – like supererogatory – and they had each brought up their credentials frequently enough to feel well established, appreciated and legitimate, we were all delighted to get on with it.
Before reading from his latest novel, Purity, Franzen claimed it is a hard book to read from, but rose above this to deliver three entertaining passages in an appropriately wry tone. It was best when he dropped the voices and let his words do the job, as he has created a very entertaining story.
The protagonist Pip and her mother talk on the phone. The latter is a recluse living in the California hills, bleating: “you have no idea how much I envy you your cubicle” as she blenches at the visibility of the human form. Pip wishes to be in the world, but is stuck in a non-job hampered by student loans, and feels she cannot get much further without knowing who her father is. It is the only taboo topic between them, and so they dance around hypochondria and passive aggressive commentary: “No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched”.
Next, down to Amarillo, Texas, where Leila the investigative journalist looks into a missing nuclear weapon. A listener so sympathetic she receives Christmas Cards from the Unabomber ten years after she wrote a piece on him that he felt painted him in a more favourable light than most. Leila is interviewing a woman about her ex-boyfriend, who showed her a B16 thermonuclear warhead, before asking her to strip and climb on so they could have sex on it. The payoff for this part of the narrative came from her initially playing for time by saying she didn’t want to get radiation poisoning.
Franzen avoided his Denver and Bolivia sections to provide his final reading: a first person narrative in early ‘90s New York. A recently divorced couple fight over the phone until he agrees to cross state lines so they can continue dysfunctionally sleeping with one another. At this point Franzen was at his most engaging, and rapid dialogue is hard to read well aloud.
As we entered the discussion section of the evening, Churchwell opened by saying Purity was a continuation of themes introduced first in The Corrections [published a week before 9/11] and then in Freedom – such as the corporatisation of America. The internet, and associated questions of privacy drive Purity. Not only was it unclear where a question lurked within this statement, but writers (as discussed in a recent piece on the Man Booker) do tend to pursue themes that hound them. This is hardly a revelation. Regardless, Franzen was deft with these questions that were more like earnest statements of intent.
This was not the case in the recent FT interview, where he came across as precious and evasive – almost keen to stoke the concept of him being the second most loathed man in America (Kanye West has top billing). He did not help himself with comments such as:
“I am literally, in terms of my income, a 1 per center, yes,”, “I spend my time connected to the poverty that’s fundamental to mankind, because I’m a fiction writer.”, and “I’m a poor person who has money.”
He claims that he tells the truth, and he claims people do not like him as they do not like the truth. Rachel Kushner’s review is a classic example barely even touching on the novel’s content, cosily referring to the author as “Jon” while colouring in Franzen’s snobbery and mean spiritedness.
Returning to the podium, Franzen’s decision to name his protagonist Pip inevitably raised a question regarding his interest in 19th century literature. As we moved from Dickens to Trollope and How We Live Now, questions surrounding writing about the moment as it happens were parried by Franzen requesting who ‘we’ are now, as Dickens was able to have a much clearer idea of who ‘we’ were. This was explored in the last two novels and he struggled with it when writing the third before coming to a different understanding of who ‘we’ are: a community of readers and writers. This seemed to be rather stating the obvious and until he explained that he still aims to write for the imagined audience of 5000 that were present when he crafted The Corrections.
He cited anxiety and all kinds of shame stemming from digital communication as big drivers: he writes about these and “what the world is doing to me”. When asked about shame, he stressed the ironic nature of Purity as a title, and said his duty as a writer as he sees it is to ironize. The novel’s epigraph is Goethe’s Mephistopheles (Franzen called him Mephisto) introducing himself to Faust. Franzen explained: “He’s still a villain and because the universe is so big, some of the bad things cannot help but have good outcomes”. This applies to the internet – good coming out of bad – and specifically the character of Andreas Wolf, an Assange like figure. Assange is referred to several times in the novel in contrast to Wolf. When Churchwell asked: “How much emphasis do you want to put on their differences?” Franzen’s eventual response was “Quite a bit”. Like Assange, Andreas Wolf craves fame, but unlike him does not want to be seen as a hero. He resembles a compulsive lab rat with a like button.
Purity is surprisingly enjoyable to read – perhaps because Franzen’s pained tones do not pervade his narrative in the same way as when he is interviewed. The novel is an amusing sprawl through 80s East Germany, Bolivia and (as ever) a modern America that readers in the UK will never be part of but we somehow find compelling to read all about. There is no doubting his skill as a storyteller, and fortunately there is little risk for most of us in finding ourselves engaged in conversation with him.