Jonathan Franzen’s thrilling new novel follows a group of uncompromising characters unwilling to be tainted by the worldby Elaine Showalter / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. (Fourth Estate, £20)
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Read more: Jonathan Franzen’s feuds
“So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review you’d think it was the most common male name in America,” bitches Charles Blenheim, an embittered novelist in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Purity. Once a hot shot himself, “the heir of John Barth and Stanley Elkin,” Blenheim, a heavy drinker with long cornsilk hair who rides a Harley-Davidson (clearly based on the American novelist John Gardner, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1982), has outlived his early promise, and is fuming at the success of “Jonathan Savoir Faire”and his literary cohort of talented and ambitious wunderkind. He’s trying to write the “big book” that will “secure him his place in the modern American canon. Once upon a time,” he complains, “it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. Now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.” When Blenheim’s big phallic book does come out, it is spurned by the critics.
Charles Blenheim is a minor character in Purity, and literary rivalry is not among the novel’s central concerns. Yet this playful passage can’t be dismissed as merely a parody of the literary marketplace, or a disarming piece of self-mockery. Franzen is playing for high literary stakes and in Purity (563 pages) has written a big book, too. Linked with Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem and his close friend the late David Foster Wallace as a contender for the Great American Novelist—and cited by bestselling women novelists of his generation (particularly Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult) as a symbol of masculine critical entitlement—Franzen is no innocent bystander in the canonical debate. Unlike Weiner, Picoult and many serious contemporary novelists such as Joyce Carol Oates, who publish a book every year or so, Franzen takes his time, with lengthy gaps between novels, and a resistance to commercialism that led to his ill-advised refusal of Oprah’s book club to feature The Corrections (2001). He accepted the offer, however, for Freedom (2010).
Franzen is sometimes mocked for his writing methods, which some see as hyper-pure and pretentious—writing in a darkened room and wearing earplugs or earmuffs to shut out distracting sounds. His computer is disconnected from the internet. He…