This article is an analysis of what Jonathan Franzen does in the second section of his 2015 novel Purity.
The Rosetta Stone
A year and a half ago I wrote a post explaining how David Foster Wallace’s short story/novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” was a parody of Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” in order to describe his philosophy of literature.
What I want to write here is an interpretation of Franzen’s second section of Purity that describes Franzen’s philosophy of literature.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, you probably know I subscribe to the idea of valid interpretations of literature.
If we consider any well-supported interpretation as valid, then all interpretations are valid making all interpretation meaningless. So I want to give some background context before I start in order to make my case stronger.
I really believe this was Franzen’s intent with the section.
Franzen’s Philosophy of Literature
Jonathan Franzen has been describing his philosophy for quite some time in essays and interviews (see this article for more background on this).
I’ve either become more aware of it or he has become more vocal or a shift has occurred. In any case, his views seem mostly in line with what DFW described in “Westward” which had to do with love, the relationship between writer and reader, and how to build that relationship.
As far as I can tell, he’s never actually included this philosophy in his fiction as DFW did with “Westward.” This makes it plausible that the time has come for such an undertaking.
Second Section Overview
One of the key points is the similarity in material from Barth and DFW for this section. The most common interpretation of “Lost in the Funhouse” is that the funhouse is about Ambrose’s first sexual encounter.
The second section of Purity is framed around various sexual experiences of youths be they lustful, loving, abusive, and so on. If not taken as a metaphor, the whole section comes across as strange and out of place.
The wording and detail provided seem excessive and unnecessary as backstory (presumably most readers will read it that way). As a metaphor, all these details make sense and certain bizarrely specific sentences point to the interpretation I’m going to give.
Lastly, the section is titled “Republic of Bad Taste.”
One learns in the section what this refers to, but as a primer to the section it seems to indicate that the section is about taste, bad taste, and maybe what would make good taste.
In other words, the section is a metaphor for literature itself. I understand that each piece of context is weak in and of itself, but I think taken as a whole, along with how tight this interpretation is, gives us sufficient evidence for this as an intended interpretation.
Warning: The content below contains minor spoilers. It will not cover beyond the second section, so if you are planning on reading the book, no major plot points are revealed that aren’t alluded to in the inside flap description. Also, this content is NSFW due to sexually explicit material.
For those who haven’t read the novel, we need a starting point. Here’s a synopsis of the section.
Andreas lives in Stasi controlled Germany (probably East Berlin, I can’t recall if this was specified). His father is a somewhat high ranking Stasi officer. His mother sleeps around and Andreas finds out someone else might be his father.
He writes subversive poetry which shames his parents, and he breaks off relations. He goes and lives in a church and runs sessions to help at-risk youth. He sleeps with tons of them (none underage).
Here he meets Annagret. She tells him about being abused in the past, and he falls in love with her. They carry out the murder of the abuser and then separate for years to not get caught.
Anxiety of Influence
First, there is a clear “Anxiety of Influence” dynamic established with the parents. Andreas’s mother and father exert great influence over him, yet he wants to do his own thing.
He also meets a person who claims to be his real father. Andreas tries to deny this out of embarrassment, but deep down he knows it’s true. Within this interpretation, we should read this as when someone points out influences in your writing you aren’t proud of.
The other main idea presented in the section is of what art is for. Andreas as a child drew pictures of naked women to masturbate to. This couldn’t be less subtle.
He literally creates masturbatory drawings; a way to say we all go through a youthful phase where we only create art for our own pleasure.
Most current aesthetic theory shuns this form of creation. As with DFW, the post-modernists like Barth provided useful fodder, but ultimately got it wrong.
The language games of these writers were neat but didn’t connect with people. Franzen even has his character Andreas write a poem, “Muttersprache/Mother Tongue,” which is a language game itself about influence.
Franzen’s character states this frankly as:
I’m worried there’s something wrong with me. All I want to do is masturbate.
The reply he gets suggests that we are to view this type of art as immature and all great artists eventually grow out of it:
You’re only fifteen. That’s very young to be having sex with another person.
This whole exchange makes very little sense as a defining moment of backstory, but framed in this interpretation as a metaphor for artistic creation, it comes across as necessary to drive the point home.
Andreas then tries to strike out on his own and leave his influences behind. The feeling is so strong, he wants to kill his parents.
It didn’t speak well of his sanity that he actually had to squelch the impulse to run after her and kill her with whatever came to hand.
He finally evolves into a better person when he meets Annagret. He falls in love with her as she tells him a story that he can intimately identify with.
This brings us exactly to DFW’s idea that literature is important because it teaches us we are not alone. Just as Andreas hears a story familiar to his own experiences which causes him to fall in love with the author, we are to read Purity and find traces of our own weird and terrible lives that bring us comfort and fall in love with the author.
Annagret is under the control of her abuser, and Andreas decides to free her by killing him.
This is like the author/reader relationship that DFW idealized. After the deed is done, Andreas admits his love for Annagret and she replies:
I barely even know you.
Well of course! We as readers are Andreas who have fallen in love with Franzen/Annagret who is telling the story. We may feel something, but he certainly doesn’t know us.
Realizing the Metaphor
In a moment where the metaphor goes so far that I have to wonder how anyone could overlook it, Andreas has to bury the body while it is raining outside.
This makes the ground wet, and he keeps leaving his footprints all over the muddy ground. To put it as a blunt cliché, he leaves his footprints all over the work he is doing for her.
The author/reader relationship is summarized in another line that must seem strange if the story is read as realistic, but fits perfectly into this interpretation.
He had a confusing twinned sense of her closeness and complete otherness. Together they’d killed a man, but she had her own thoughts, her own motives, so close to him and yet so separate.
This is exactly how great literature works. You feel close to the characters and author, yet you remain completely separate.