BOOKS: The Day The Clown Cried



NATIONAL POST: Jonathan Franzen is the punchline to an ongoing joke. Please forgive me for being the boorish person who attempts to explain the gag. Franzen, with his noted self-seriousness, his ambivalence about modernity, his anger at the world for turning, always turning, stands in for a character type, one frequently dismissed on Twitter with the ironic (but dead serious) nouning of “old.” Franzen, at 56, is an Old. He is chagrined and scandalized by kids today, with our student debt and our start-ups, with our selfies and our Snapchat. In the media, Franzen is all too happy to publicly mourn for some other, more golden time. One where literary culture was held dear, when Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal were publicly positioned as the celebrated artists we’d look to for perspectives on the big issues of the day, instead, of say, Caitlyn Jenner and that one kid with the haircut from the British boy band that announced a hiatus earlier this week. (He’s been beating this particular horse for nearly 20 years Purity Covernow, most famously in his 1996 Harper’s magazine essay, Perchance to Dream, where he wrote, after publishing his first novel in 1988, I “had already realized the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply the fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.”) Courting celebrity by granting interviews, including a recent video interview where he admitted to the Guardian that he often worries that his face looks fat, he is perpetually at the ready to rail against its evils, nonetheless happy to perform the grumpy dog and pony trick by giving self-serious, very tweetable, cantankerous quotes. […]Perhaps it’s best to explain the joke by way of another joke. You know the one about the doctor and the depressed patient? The patient is sad, the doctor prescribes going to see a performance by a certain famous clown, and the patient reveals, in fact, he is that very clown! Franzen, you see, is the clown, except for one of the reasons this clown is sad is that he feels like the appreciation for the art of clowning is on the decline, and the cynical doctor has known he’s been treating the famous clown all along. It’s a punchline you could, theoretically, laugh at — especially if the aggrieved clown plays it straight. MORE

GRANTLAND: Probably no one alive is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, and this is frustrating because his novels are awful, excellent but awful, books you read quickly and remember ponderously, books of exhaustive craft and yet a weird, spiraling cluelessness about the data they exhaustively collate. They analyze the wave frequency but don’t hear the sound. They are full of people who talk and act exactly as you imagine such people would talk and act in real life; everyone in them is forever buying the right brand of granola bar or having believable thoughts about their mother or fantasizing in a particularly characteristic way about fucking on a hotel-room air conditioner. And yet they don’t feel like real life. They feel like real life irritably recreated from a spreadsheet, by someone who is a genius at reading spreadsheets. Whether a novel ought to feel like real life is of course a separate question. Many novels that I love don’t, but those novels aren’t trying to, and as far as I can tell, Franzen’s are. MORE

NEW YORK TIMES: In Purity, however, Franzen has toned down the all-knowingness and the irony that he used to full effect in “Freedom,” at the cost of making the sentences here less elegant and sharp, more relaxed and anodyne. The book is written in a sort of deliberate non-style that is chatty, colloquial, informative, unshowy. […] This is a novel of secrets, manipulations and lies. Like Franzen’s previous two novels, it dramatizes the uneasy and damaging relationships between parents and their offspring in white America, the strains within friendships, and the ways time and familiarity Purity Cover 2and human failings work at corroding a marriage. It also connects the private and domestic world with pressing public matters. It is, in its way, an ambitious novel, in that it deals with the way we live now, but there is also a sense of modesty at its heart as Franzen seems determined not to write chiseled sentences that draw attention to themselves. He seems content with the style of the book, whose very lack of poetry and polish seems willed and deliberate, a statement of intent. MORE

JEZEBEL: That’s the purity of the title, the yearning toward a state of cleanliness free of all kinds of sins—sins against the environment, sins of capitalism and socialism, sins against health and animals, but above all, the sins of masculinity, a man’s half-ashamed feeling that maleness itself is an attack on something less powerful, femaleness. Purity is also the name of a character who has $130,000 of student loan debt, but in this frictionless universe, she isn’t poor in the way that would keep her from being rude to her boss, or walking away from her cheap living arrangement and traveling the world. She’s not the kind of poor that would get under her fingernails or limit her options. Mostly she’s poor in the way that gets her into sexy situations. Almost everyone else in the book is rich—sexy rich—but most of them feel a bit bad about it.

There’s some heavy-handed signaling about Purity’s links to Great Expectations—the plots and themes are similar, but the souls of the two books are different. Great Expectations doesn’t have a single page, not a paragraph, that’s not both funny and sharp beyond anything else even Dickens ever wrote. Great Expectations is written like a note Dickens put on his last scrap of paper stuffed in his only bottle; every word is the most important thing he ever said. Purity is entertaining but it’s not that book, or even really trying to be. Purity doesn’t even hit the ground fully until around page 342, when the landing gear engages, jarring after all the champagne and warm nuts. I started taking more notes. Franzen isn’t likely to write another book as deeply felt as The Corrections, but Purity eventually became something interesting in a similar way. MORE