🚰 A Friend Who'll Tease Is Better...
The Crime: Purity
The Guilty Party: Jonathan Franzen
Overview: Ostensibly a re-imagining of Great Expectations, Purity tells the story of Purity "Pip" Tyler, only instead of actually telling that story it kind of wanders around that story for 700 overwrought pages.
Why I Hate It...
I don't know who the target audience for this one is, but it sure ain't me. There are so many levels on which this book just didn't work.
Where to start. Let's start with character.
Purity doesn't have characters. It has named assemblages that were hastily constructed at the literary quirk factory. I never found myself sympathizing with them or caring about their journeys, and it's a good thing too, because so much of those journeys happens off-camera. With the exception of Andreas. We get to see all of his oddities up close and personal, that is until he is dismissed away as being mentally ill. The protagonist, Purity, goes from being a complete train-wreck to a totally normal and well-adjusted human, but we don't witness any of that transition. We just cut to a year and a half later and all of the important parts of her arc have happened. Then there's the general conflict between what the characters say about themselves and what they actually do. Purity talks about reacting against her name by trying to be impure, except her actions don't really demonstrate this at all. Is it supposed to be an ironic tension? Because I just found it cloying.
And I suppose we have to talk about the, ahem, broad treatment of women. All of the female characters in this book are either tragic sex-kittens, tragic maternal figures, or both. Usually both. None of them felt like something approaching a real person with goals or desires. Purity (the character) kind of came into her own a little at the end, but by that point I simply didn't care. You really have to hook me in the first five-hundred pages. The most interesting female was Anabel, who seemed like a rather extreme version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. But she was also toxic to be around, even as a reader, and the sections that focused on her were the most painful to plough through. On the whole, I was put off by the depictions of femininity here. And also feminism. The feminists in this book felt very straw-man-ish. To say nothing of the treatment of mental illness
The plot was plodding and thoroughly uninteresting. I kept waiting for it to come together and mean something. But, rather than story, we had hundreds of pages of highly detailed character sketches punctuated with random factoids that have literally nothing to do with the plot. It was important, apparently, that we get to know about the physics of keeping a house warm. It felt like intellectual masturbation, but it was, I suppose, a nice reprieve from the parts of the book that were about actual masturbation. Related, there were some not-subtle-at-all winks to the audience, such as when a failed writer character complains about the "plague of literary Jonathans." I listened to the audiobook, and I have never wanted so badly to wish I had a physical book just so I could throw it across the room. It may be the douchiest thing I have ever read that wasn't self-published.
And speaking of this plague of literary Jonathans, for someone who is a literary giant, Franzen's prose gets awfully clunky at times. There were some nice metaphors--I remember a delightful description of the curve of a woman's hip being the shape of a snow drift in the wind. Most were less elegant. The "wooden spoon" was a recurring theme in one section, but it never seemed to amount to anything or convey any meaning. And there were some first-rate head-scratchers. Why, for instance, do the East Germans all talk to each other in English? I'm not misinterpreting here--they're not speaking in German that is rendered in English for the benefit of the reader. And we know this because they quote Hamlet and have misunderstandings about English idioms! Why? Why that decision?
Also, and I realize this isn't necessarily Franzen's fault, but that cover is terrible.
All in all it's a meandering mess that reeks of a successful man with no one to tell him "maybe don't". But hey, I learned that death-row inmates have execution erections, so I guess it wasn't a total loss.
Tune in next week for Joker, a bad movie championed by bad people.
In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.