You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Sex, Lies, and the Internet

Jonathan Franzen’s reckoning with his literary inheritance

Illustration by Eleftheria Alexandri

In what seems an aeon ago, and perhaps was, Lionel Trilling conducted an interesting thought experiment by trying to envision a future for fiction. Since “social class and the conflicts it produces” were now exhausted as subjects, what if novelists turned instead to the new emerging fact of our collective life, “the organization of society into ideological groups?” If you looked closely at competing ideologies and the people committed to them, you might find “nearly as full a range of passion and nearly as complex a system of manners as a society based on social class. Its promise of comedy and tragedy is enormous.” Ideology began with politics but didn’t end there. It had seeped into the hidden corners of day-to-day experience, its invisible hand guiding even the smallest, most ordinary, and most intimate transactions, usually without our knowing it. People became ideologized despite themselves, “by breathing the haunted air,” and so entered “a strange submerged life of habit and semi-habit.”

Trilling wrote that in 1948, at the dawn of the cold war, and for many years his literary prescription seemed a misfire—the fault, in all likelihood, of his own embroilment in the ideological soul-searching of his generation: the 1930s radicals who were drawn to communism but later discovered the facts of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. This disillusionment informed Trilling’s own novel about ideological conflict, The Middle of the Journey (1947), a stab toward the new fiction he had in mind. It is sensible and sensitive, but more cultural seminar than work of imagination. The “issues” it dissects—the delusions of fellow travelers, the shallowness of the modern liberal when forced to confront the depth and reach of Soviet crimes, the progressive belief in the future that rested on an almost childlike denial of death—felt bloodless and beside the point at a time when the developing story was no longer the false lure of communism but the blazing forth of the affluent society.

Yet as usual, Trilling had grasped something solid. The ideological novel was, in fact, taking shape. It just wasn’t following the precise lines he proposed. There was, for instance, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written the same year as Trilling’s essay. Though usually read as dark prophecy of a Stalinized future, it actually satirized the increasingly bureaucratized cold war state, “the managerial revolution” that had transformed the capitalist democracies as well as the socialist dictatorships, reducing the citizenry to automatons. In the next decades, from the 1950s through the 1970s, the ideological novel flourished in America too, as a kind of art-house protest literature. Its maestros were “paranoid” writers like William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip K. Dick. Their subjects included technology, information, “the mass media of communication”—as it was then called—and the manipulations they made possible and then inescapable.

These writers’ ironies reflected growing skepticism toward the official politics of the cold war. The “twilight struggle” between the virtuous U.S. and the evil USSR had come to resemble a danse macabre, each colossus the mirror image of the other: the military gigantism and doomsday weapons systems, the government-supported culture programs, the climate of “consensus” (or conformism) with its boiling inner life of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” (in Richard Hofstadter’s formulation of the “paranoid style”).

Out of all this came an extraordinarily rich literature that ranged from the dreamlike reportage in Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago to bewildering metafiction machines, such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Gaddis’s The Recognitions—noir melodramas chilled by the vocabulary of high rationality. In some places, they read like tech manuals or physics texts; in others, like arcane medieval treatises. But while you could trace the printed circuitry, you couldn’t quite see how it all connected. Then again, maybe the wires were meant to dangle loosely, a subversive thrust against the idea of the closed system in the interest of recovering a more spontaneous art.

On closer inspection, these literary Strangeloves revealed themselves to be Luddites trying to create a new humanism out of the debris of the old. This explained the creaking, cartoonish quality in much of their work, the overdetermined plots that took the place of organic stories, the surprising lapses into sentimentalism. In some ways, a Gaddis or a Pynchon seemed to have advanced very far, onto the edge of a new frontier; but in other ways, they seemed primitive. There was little room in those universes they created for delicately shaded feeling and what Proust called the “intermittencies of the heart,” or even for the small epiphanies that more conventional writers were able to achieve.

This was the world in which Jonathan Franzen grew up and that he has never wholly abandoned as a writer, even as he has tried to narrow the gap between the art novel and the old-fashioned chronicle of “the way we live now.” Each of Franzen’s novels places a naturalistic story of domestic strife and estrangement (and sexual combat) within the larger workings of a “paranoid” conspiracy: political skulduggery in The Twenty-Seventh City, mysterious earthquakes in Strong Motion, mind-numbing pharmaceuticals in The Corrections, and ecological and military malfeasance in Freedom.

Franzen’s new novel, Purity, extends the experiment. Its subject, put most simply, is the false idolatry of the digital age, its pretense of truth-telling and revelation, its ideological “purity” that reduces to monomania and fanaticism. But in telling this story, Franzen looks continually backward, to literature itself, especially Dickens and Shakespeare (in places combining the two), but also to Joseph Conrad and Saul Bellow. Franzen elegantly explains the differences between fusion and fission chain reactions but ends the lesson with a meditation on the fragile architecture of the nuclear family.

The opening pages of Purity give a bleakly satirical picture of aimlessness in the smudged afterglow of the Occupy protests of 2011–2012. The protagonist, named Purity but, in a pointed reference to Dickens’s Great Expectations, called Pip, is very much a figment of our moment, with its atomized groups, or subgroups, each with its own creed. A recent college graduate, she lives in an Oakland group house with a mélange of damaged cases: squatters, mental and physical defectives, would-be radicals. These include the older Occupy organizer Pip lusts for—unwisely, since his wife is on the premises, too—and a narcissistic German couple on a vacation tour of American slums.

Fresh-faced and relatively wholesome, Pip might seem out of place among these misfits, but she isn’t really. She’s a “girl with nothing but problems,” a self-acknowledged “mess,” with $130,000 in student debt and a vague tropism toward left-wing causes. “Pip wanted to do good, if only for lack of better ambitions,” Franzen writes, in one of many pitch-perfect mots. But Pip grasps the comedy if not yet the tragedy in her submerged life of habit and semi-habit. She knows her faute de mieux gestures—the anti-nuke study group she belongs to, her earnest scavengings and dumpster-diving, and, still worse, her job cold-calling clients for a dubious “energy” company—are as futile and compromised as the world she idly wishes were a better place. She is conditioned to expect ridicule:

Out in the lobby, her three female outreach associates were putting on running shoes for their Monday after-work female-bonding jogging thing. They were in their thirties and forties, with husbands and in two cases children, and it required no superpowers to divine what they thought of Pip: she was the complainer, the underperformer, the entitled Young Person. … the person with no baby pictures in her cubicle. …

She tried to think of something uncomplaining to say. “Do any of you happen to have a good recipe for a vegan cake with whole-grain flour and not too much sugar?”

The women stared at her.

“I know: right?” she asked.

The dopey job titles, the sardonic “and in two cases children,” the neutered “person” with her barren cubicle: It is all casually exact and appears to come at Pip’s expense, except what seems Franzen’s mimicry is also Pip’s, as she inwardly mocks her elders. Pip’s “I know: right?” is millennial-speak, but it easily translates into “I know what you’re thinking.” The blurring is partly owed to the calculated misdirections of the free indirect style, but it also captures what may be the most disorienting change of our time, the steady erosion of generational differences as we collectively indulge our deluded hope of eternal young adulthood or early middle age. This is a novel in which parents often act like children, and children become their parents’ keepers.

Pip and Estella from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.

Pip is the winsome upstart so common in nineteenth-century fiction, updated to suit our moment. She’s sexually experienced, conversant in all the current dogmas, but otherwise as lost and alone as her namesake. There are other adjustments, too, revisions of Dickens’s great novel that add weight and substance to this ingenious and idiosyncratic homage. Franzen’s Pip is neither an orphan nor an innocent, but is nearly so, since her mother, a chronic if not quite clinical depressive, has raised her among the redwoods in a bubble of New Age rusticity, while also withholding crucial facts, such as where Pip was born, who her father is, and her mother’s true name. Pip’s mother conceals this information behind a wall of nondisclosure that not even Google can breach. It frustrates Pip all the more because she suspects that her father, assuming he’s alive and she can locate him, could pay down some of her debt.

In the space of some 70 pages, Franzen, with his otherworldly feel for female characters (if a male reviewer is allowed to say that), has created the simulacrum of a hero in a Bildungsroman, the provincial who sallies forth into the greater world to “gain experience,” in the antique phrase, with its suggestion of bankable profit. Her given name, Purity, suggests she might be susceptible to influences greater, or older, than those found only in searchable databases as she seeks, in the most literal way, to discover her identity—to find out who she really is.

Purity is less fluent than Franzen’s previous two novels, The Corrections and Freedom, and in places lacks their propulsive power, in part because it is organized more elaborately. It is structured as a scrambled sequence of novellas. Pip’s history, as Franzen peels away the layers, intersects with other histories, eventually colliding with that of the novel’s demiurge: Andreas Wolf, a German ringmaster of a global vehicle of internet research, the Sunlight Project.

Andreas, like Julian Assange (mentioned repeatedly in the novel), has become famous for exposing official wrongdoing in the name of “honesty, truth, transparency, freedom”—those shibboleths of the digital age. Also like Assange, Andreas is charismatic and egomaniacal, with a cultish following. Women swoon to his stated ideology of “militant feminism,” though it is rooted in a long secret history of sexual predation dating back to his early years as a dissident in pre-1989 Berlin. (The words “prey” and “preying,” with their punning suggestion of worship or idolatry, recur in Purity.) Andreas is a fugitive, hiding out in Bolivia. Pip is half-drawn, half-lured to his compound by the promise of his great engine of digital disclosure, that it might lead her to her father. Pip’s utility to him—and the effort he makes to bring her to Bolivia, when he has his pick of beautiful young “researchers”—is the mystery that keeps us reading.

We need this engine, since Purity includes long digressions and delays of just the kind Dickens specialized in—the kind that open the way for additional stories and characters and also give the novelist room to play encyclopedist of current faiths and fads. Like Dickens, Franzen, is a collector of cultural specimens and typologies (his birding across several continents is the most famous instance). Purity is, among other things, a compendium of rabid “purities”: environmentalism and anti-nuke activism, high-tech entrepreneurialism, 1980s-style feminism, complete with its earnest attempts to redress “structural gender imbalance” via the careful dabbing of toilet seats and equal-opportunity orgasms.

But topic A in Purity is journalism, and its war against Andreas and Assange-like hacking and leaking. Old-media purists will delight in Franzen’s plea for traditional news gathering, with its respect for complex lines of chronology and causation and its civic mission. Pip’s search for her identity leads her to two of Andreas’s adversaries, a pair of boomer journalists who live in Denver and become Pip’s teachers and surrogate parents. They instruct her in the ethic of responsible reporting—of working sources to get “the story” right, of seeking out new leads and fresh lines of inquiry, of placing information in context. This is a novel in which journalists nostalgically remember Watergate and how Woodward and Bernstein unraveled the one tentacular conspiracy that really did happen.

Franzen is the most intelligent novelist of my generation, and this shows when he allows his prodigious imagination to flow into the crevices of his invented world and give it the texture of lived experience. (It is less evident when he portentously thinks aloud: “Betrayal and death, those are bad signs, aren’t they?”) Franzen’s intelligence also shows in his signature eco-romantic prose, at once lush and distilled—an attraction in his superb travel essays. In Purity it conveys a moral judgment about the costs of urban life. The several American cities—Oakland, Denver, Philadelphia—fade into drab sameness, while the Bolivian tropics, when Pip at last gets there, are fragrant with complex smells (“two scents at once, distinct like layers of cooler and warmer water in a lake”), pulse with sounds, and grow ripe with the colors of exotic “Dr. Seuss birds, huge guans that clambered in fruit trees, tinamous that tiptoed in the shadows.” These pages are brilliant.

Franzen’s intellect appears, too, in his command of his material: His technical mastery has been great for some time, but in Purity his confidence seems more assured—in those moments when the pieces of the different narratives crisply interlock, but also in his psychological portraiture. If Pip is a plausible heroine, Andreas is not altogether human, and all the more memorable for it. He seems to exist on a plane beyond mere narcissism, verging on authentic self-adoration, as he keeps score of his teenage conquests and calculatedly zeroes in on Pip. His deterioration in Bolivia recalls that of another fictional monster, Conrad’s power-maddened Kurtz, nursing his sick vision in the company of “savages” and “brutes.” In this case, the acolytes are Pip’s glamorous young colleagues, “Danish and British and Ethiopian, Italian and Chilean and Manhattanite,” every last one besotted with Andreas and his celebrity. Andreas’s well-publicized affair with a movie actress further excites them since it magnifies his star power. In Great Expectations, the elixir is money. In Purity, it is fame.

Andreas’s complexity is embedded in his history. Born in Berlin in 1960, just before the Wall was built, he was raised in the Soviet era, and his father was an important party figure, who “had the most creative job in the Republic,” Franzen neatly writes, as the chief state economist, “responsible for the wholesale massaging of data.” This required continual black magic with budgets and currency—all for the purpose of countering Western propaganda. Andreas’s father also had ties to the Stasi, the fearsome intelligence agency, which Franzen depicts as a first draft of today’s culture of surveillance. The dissidents of yesteryear, some of them secretly compromised, are poised to superintend the corruptions of the new post-Communist world, as the internet—with its data-collecting, its bottomless cisterns of “intelligence,” its computer spyware—duplicates the “totalitarianism” of old. “In technology we trust,” one character mordantly says, a post-Communist gloss, perhaps, on Milan Kundera’s “our only immortality is in the police files.”

Set on their course, Pip and Andreas, will circle each other, trading roles as predator and prey, seducer and seduced, while Franzen brazenly multiplies the allusions—in one scene combining Great Expectations with Hamlet—and sustains a dialogue between past and present, between art and science, between truth and fact.

Reporting was imitation life,” Franzen writes, “imitation expertise, imitation worldliness, imitation intimacy; mastering a subject only to forget it, befriending people only to drop them.” It is equally true of novelists, at least for those interested in ideas and history.

No novelist of the moment, save Don DeLillo, has inhaled the haunted air of contemporary ideology as deeply as Franzen and sifted through so many of its particles. The truth is that the stockpile of bruising ideologies of Trilling’s time have dissipated almost 70 years later into the rogue proliferation of micro-ideologies, each seeking its own dominion over a different inch of our lives. The twenty-first century is not, after all, the nineteenth. Dickens’s Pip went to London in search of knowledge (experience plus wisdom). The best we can hope for now is simply to know, to strip away falsehood and bad data. Innocence has given way to “purity,” with its fanaticism and “moral absolutism.” It has become self-corrupting. Among much else, “purity” is the real-life name of a brand of mineral water.

Franzen has been recording these changes for a startlingly long time now. “All political platforms were identical in their inadequacy, their inability to alter the cosmic order,” he wrote in The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, when he was 29. “Americans seeking purity wisely left the toxic wastes and consumer complaints and labor unrest and bankruptcies to other nations, or to the remnants of the original merchant caste. … The new generation had renounced the world in return for simplicity and self-sufficiency.” A year later, communism wilted, history “ended,” and the slow march to globalization began. Next came the internet and its version of truth, “radiant” with “false light,” as Franzen writes in Purity. It promises to free us even as we become its prisoners, like the willing “captive minds” of the Soviet era, not simply accepting official dogma but needing to believe in it. Franzen may well now be the best American novelist. He has certainly become our most public one, not because he commands Oprah’s interest and is a sovereign presence on the best-seller list—though neither should be discounted—but because, like the great novelists of the past, he convinces us that his vision unmasks the world in which we actually live.

The multiple, layered narratives of Purity move forward and backward in time, and for long stretches we all but forget Franzen’s implicit promise to write a new Great Expectations. Doing so requires the novelist not just to modernize or revise the original novel but to remake us as readers. We need to be as primed for discovery and revelation in 2015 as Dickens’s readers were in 1860. Franzen accomplishes this through the absorbing turns in his story, or stories, which he pursues with unruffled patience. Like the novels of Dickens and his contemporaries (Thackeray and Trollope, for two), Franzen’s feel less like tended gardens than like giant organisms, with the author himself functioning as a benign but disinterested god, intervening now and then to remind us who’s in charge.

When we read, in a climactic passage in Purity, of Pip’s “strange gratitude and redoubled guilt … [Andreas had] given her the thing she’d most wanted, the answer to her question,” we receive it not as bathos but as beautiful resolution, just as we do in Great Expectations. We marvel, too, that gratitude and guilt are the same emotions that overcome the original Pip at the decisive moment in his quest. A good writer will make an effort to purge his prose of clichés. But it takes genius to reanimate them in all their original power and meaning.