The Saving Power of Pure Enjoyment

Someday, I’ll write up the absolutely Havelian-level absurdist theater that’s constituted my reality over these past two weeks, complete with random firings of a miscalibrated cuckoo clock, grown men marching through the halls singing nursery rhymes, and my workplace going up in (at this point only metaphorical) flames.* But for now, let’s concentrate on one good thing to have emerged out of this Thanksgiving farce: namely, my completion of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.

I’m not sure the man will ever top The Corrections, but this latest tome of his was a fantastic examination of the motives that may drive so many do-gooders, celebrated or un-. I’m wondering if it rang such clear bells for me due to the simple fact of my having been put through the wringer over the past few years by people ostensibly impassioned about the fight for social justice, but who turn out to be just as hypocritical and conflicted as the rest of us. But Franzen is such an astute analyst of human relationships, cultural and social trends, and the people involved in them, that I’m left once again with the conviction that this guy is somehow able to verbalize my own experiences, and the forces that surround and shape them, better than I ever could.

A large chunk of that expression involves the yearning and awkwardness of romantic situations, or even of the deep desire for friendship and the miscommunication that ensues when people mistakenly believe they’re not desirable or good enough for the object of their affections. If you’ve read Franzen before, this will be a given (as will his fantastic ability to write believable female characters). But let’s check out another theme particular to this book– very generally, the Internet age– and look, for example, at his former East German dissident character’s description of our now-networked reality, which I really need to quote in its mostly full length:

The apparatchiks, too, were an eternal type. The tone of the new ones, in their TED Talks, in PowerPointed product launches, in testimony to parliaments and congresses, in utopianly titled books, was a smarmy syrup of convenient conviction and personal surrender that he remembered well from the [German Democratic] Republic… [whose] privileges… 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 the occasional four-minute spot on CNBC… Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory over the class enemy was assured… Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete… The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.**

Yeah. Although lengthy, the book is a quick read; I blew through its 560-plus pages in under a week, even while having to attend a conference and socialize in chaotic situations for days thereafter. And so very basically, since my level of weariness is approaching its breaking point, my review of Purity can be condensed into the following: Thanks for doing it again, Mr. Franzen. You managed to suck me in with great storytelling, and to help me retain my sanity in doing so.


* And I really should make the following a separate post as well, but I may be on the verge of sleeping for the rest of the weekend, so I’ll provide a quick train catch-up while I’m on a roll. Early-morning trains are anything but a pretty picture, a fact I was reminded of while trying to get to the airport a few days ago. Lo, out of the chilly darkness, a drunken homeless man barged into our subdued carriage, wielding a bottle of gin in one hand and eight dollars in the other, the latter of which he counted three or four times before tumping over on his side. That repositioning in turn pulled his jeans to his knees and blew his hospital gown up over his naked nether regions, making it all the more convenient for him to then lodge his bottle of Gordon’s in between the cheeks of his posterior. Good times, and we hadn’t even reached six in the morning.

** Jonathan Franzen, Purity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2015: 448-9.


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