Conventional wisdom gives Jonathan Franzen a sense of Purity
It comes as no surprise that Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, is about the internet. In works such as Freedom (2010) and his National Book Award-winning The Corrections (2001), Franzen showed himself to be a writer dedicated to portraying how we live now. In the age of Julian Assange, Google and Twitter, what more contemporary topic could there be than the internet?
But Franzen’s interest also has a personal dimension, fuelled by a recent series of contentious online encounters, most notably attacks by female authors who accuse him of being a poster boy for white, male privilege. In response, Franzen, who has just turned 56, charged some of his critics with hit-and-run tweeting.
“I have this mysterious effect on online discourse,” he says with a weary smile. “I could comment on the weather today and someone is going to get into a towering snit online about it. The platforms actively reward irresponsible discourse.
“The kind of person who becomes a novelist is someone who takes years trying to get it right. The kind of person who tweets is someone who doesn’t care about getting it right and is willing to shoot from the hip under a space constraint that doesn’t even allow a subordinate clause. So I have a kind of parochial aversion to the discourse. I’ve said so publicly and I’ve reaped a lot of hater- esque response.”
He shakes his head, more in sadness than in anger. “I think I am shockingly parochial,” he says. “I care about the novel. People who write them, people who read them. That is who I consider my clan, my kin. I think they’re a good bunch, people who read an entire novel, as opposed to someone who only reads somebody else’s angry response to an excerpt forwarded by somebody who only read a little bit of the book.
“I think that people who give sustained attention to something let themselves have a full experience and then respond to it thoughtfully – I like that kind of person better.”
We are sitting in the lounge of Franzen’s unassuming home in the hills just outside of Santa Cruz, a picturesque coastal California city on the southern edge of Silicon Valley. A nearby window affords a breathtaking view of a deep canyon that is home to many of the birds he is famous for watching.
In person, “America’s most celebrated novelist” proves to be a likeable, relaxed man who speaks in the carefully crafted sentences of someone accustomed to being quoted. There is little sign of the sort of ego that might result from being featured on the cover of Time or very publicly refusing to have his book endorsed by Oprah. He is generous with praise for other writers, notably novelist Nell Zink, who became a literary phenomenon after being championed by him.
“She’s a nut in the best sense of the word,” he says. “She just can’t control herself in interviews and can be portrayed as a real lunatic, but The Wallcreeper is a genuinely fine book. She’s a new thing.”
The only times Franzen becomes animated during our 90 minutes together are when he spots an unexpected type of bird in the canyon, and when I ask him if he plans to see The End of the Tour, a new film about his close friend David Foster Wallace. Based on an unpublished magazine interview with the late novelist, it was made despite the opposition of his estate.
“No,” he says with simmering anger. “Nor will I. Karen Green [Wallace’s widow] is one of my best friends. I knew him, I don’t need to see an actor playing him.”
Mostly, Franzen is eager to speak about Purity, his fifth and, in many ways, most conventional novel. Spanning almost 500 pages, its plot includes a murder, a daughter’s search for her lost father, computer hacking, a misplaced nuclear weapon and a marriage so toxic it would have made John Updike blanch.
The novel’s heroine, Purity “Pip” Tyler, is a sharp-tongued, big-hearted millennial, first spotted living in a California squat. After losing her menial job, she takes an internship at the Bolivian hideaway of Andreas Wolf, a notorious hacker who promises to help Pip find her dad. But Wolf, a former dissident poet from East Germany, is slipping into acute paranoia.
It is in his world of secrets and lies that Pip discovers the truth about her past. Along the way, she becomes one of Franzen’s more memorable characters. “I was certainly not trying to portray a millennial,” Franzen explains when I ask about her genesis.
“In fact, I was more aware of ways in which Pip was not a typical millennial. I didn’t want to write an entire novel in texts. And I had no interest in exploring the terrain that Girls explores, if indeed that is exploration and not the inside of Judd Apatow’s head. I had to set it up so Pip was unusual. She did not have a computer until she was fairly old, she had no money, and she was a reader. People like that do exist.” Similar attention is lavished on Wolf, the novel’s most problematic character. Clearly inspired by Assange and Edward Snowden, he resists classification as either hero or villain. In fact, Franzen’s views on government digital surveillance prove surprisingly nuanced.
“It’s important to make a distinction between professional leakers and people who are just glorified sources,” he says. “It’s not like Snowden is going into business transmitting leaks. He happened to have a large cache of documents and he found Glenn Greenwald. I don’t think he’s a villain, Snowden, by any means.”
Franzen does, nevertheless, have his doubts.
“There is a streak in me that is suspicious when someone is lionised,” he says. “Although you can make a case for what he did, you can also understand Obama’s response, which is: ‘We’re not doing this to get our kicks, we’re doing this because the American public has asked us to protect them from foreign terrorist attacks.’
“I personally don’t care if the NSA [National Security Agency] knows that on this date I sent this email to that address. I also trust that our institutions are rugged enough that if they were being abused for non-national-security purposes, soon enough it would come out and there would be a huge stink.
“What struck me,” he continues, “was the contrast between the culture of abject self-disclosure that is thriving on the internet along with the culture of benign spying and surveillance for the purposes of marketing, and no one seems to care about that. I thought, you really don’t care that Google has a complete record of everything you have ever searched for in the past eight years? You care more about the fact that the NSA for 90 days holds nine tiny data points about some Jonathan Franzen communication you made? To make the NSA out as the villain in this case and Silicon Valley as the White Knight riding to everyone’s rescue, that does kind of annoy me.”
This contrarian scepticism echoes throughout Purity, nowhere more so than when Wolf compares the apparatchiks of the East German security state with those of the internet: “The privileges available in the Republic had been paltry, a telephone, a flat with some air and light, the all- important permission to travel, but perhaps no paltrier than having x number of followers on Twitter, a much-liked Facebook profile, and occasional four- minute spot on CNBC.”
When I ask Franzen about this extreme comparison, he is quick to point out that these views belong to his character, not him. If nothing else, they illustrate Franzen’s long-standing fascination with the DDR, stemming from his time as a student in West Berlin in 1981.
“It was the first thing I had with this book,” he says. “I was already trying to do something with it in the early 1990s, the idea of a dissident poet from East Germany. They had the most exhaustively complete system of totalitarian rule ever seen outside Eastern Asia – the North Koreans have outdone even the East Germans. Several things came together. German thoroughness and love of bureaucracy and love of order, and also the guilt that communist Germany had. They did it really more thoroughly than Russia did. Russia was sloppy.”
I ask whether the novel’s other main male character, Tom Aberant, a journalist haunted by a sense of white, male privilege, is Franzen’s way of acknowledging that his online critics might have a point.
“The fact remains that there are advantages to being male and there are advantages to being white and there are advantages to having had parents who sent me to a good college,” he concedes. “I’m a Democrat, which means that I’m part of the half of the country that believes success is not merely a matter of hard work and determination. There’s a discomfort that comes with privilege. And there’s been a discomfort for me that comes with success and with the level of attention that my books have got. Remaining in that state of discomfort is a way to try to keep myself honest in my personal life and not become all Republican and think ‘I guess I am a genius’ or ‘I guess I did work harder than everyone else’.”
Talk then turns to another potential source of discomfort – HBO’s decision to drop its planned TV adaptation of Franzen’s novel The Corrections, which was scheduled to feature a stellar cast that included Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal. But he is philosophical about the cancellation.
“I ended up writing an entire season, the early ones with Noah Baumbach [the director] and the later ones all by myself,” he says. “But there was no real showrunner. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the showrunner. I had not studied television until too late in the process. I wasn’t watching all five seasons of Friday Night Lights until shortly before the pilot was shot. If I had simply done that a year earlier, I would have known we were doing the backstory wrong.”
Is he bothered that it was never made? “Some things were very hard to let go, but when it was not picked up I tried to do a cartwheel in my backyard. I could see getting stuck in this for four years.”
As for the future, Franzen seems wearied by the thought of producing yet another huge, epoch- embracing novel.
“It’s age,” he says when I ask him about his biggest current challenge. “There was a real physical cost to writing this book. My hair is much whiter now than it was two years ago. I was drinking too much; I was on nicotine for the whole book, homemade dip. Many days I was saying ‘come on, blood vessels, keep the oxygen coming to the brain. Come on, dopamine levels’.”
I leave the interview in little doubt that Franzen will continue to find the oxygen and dopamine he needs to keep writing big novels.
After all, even if the usual sources of inspiration run dry, there will always be some reckless blogger to push him even deeper into his discomfort zone.
• This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. Purity is out tomorrow. Read The Review this Saturday for Tod Wodicka’s take on Jonathan Franzen’s fifth novel