The Critical Fate of the Major Novel

9780374239213I read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity in one sitting: It came in the mail, I opened it up, and despite frequent breaks and every intention of doing something else with my time, I ended up finishing the novel before the next day broke.

This isn’t a ringing endorsement of Purity as a book. It is, I would say, an interesting mess. It has a huge plot in which everyone ends up connected to everyone else, but when the pieces come together, it’s not exciting—just over-determined. Franzen has continued his commitment to “transparent access” (i.e. uninteresting prose). The result is a certain predictability and a sentence-by-sentence flatness.

The Franzen news cycle has, by this point, come and gone, at least until Franzen himself gives another press interview and (inevitably) says something a little ill-considered (or at least easily misrepresented). But it reminded me of the cycle of coverage that surrounded another “big” novel this year—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There, too, the coverage ended up being linked to Ishiguro’s biography and to a remark he made in an interview about concerns that the book would be viewed as “fantasy.”

And, much like Purity, The Buried Giant was not a book that lent itself to an easy “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” It, too, was an interesting mess. It attempted a lot of things and failed at some of them. The best reviews were those that set aside the task of delivering some sort of definitive verdict to consider the novel as a complex whole. And this has been the case, too, with Purity. (For good reviews in the sense I mean, I would recommend Lydia Kiesling at the Millions and Elaine Blair at Harper’s, along with James Meek at the London Review of Books.)

An “interesting mess”–type book is a challenge for a reviewer because, as a category, it resists the somewhat more headline-friendly declaration that the novel is the “best yet,” the “worst yet,“ the “most challenging yet,” or the “most disappointing yet.”  Or you can sidestep this kind of difficulty in order to talk about the author. Or you can simply make your declaration anyway.

You can even do both of these things, as Brian Phillips does in a review titled “The Franzen of It All: ‘Purity’ and the Great American Novelist,” a review that begins with the statement “probably no one alive is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen” and immediately follows it up with “this is frustrating because his novels are awful.” Or you could say that Purity itself reveals some basic immaturity in Franzen’s character (as the Daily Beast does), or you could call it an anti-feminist tract (as the LA Review of Books does).

It’s all about “Franzen,” what he thinks, his fame, and what his “issues” are (with feminism, with technology, with modernity, with literature, and so on). Eventually you end up with the headline (from the Gawker Review of Books) “Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Is an Irrelevant Piece of Shit.” Was it trying to be relevant? Is that a useful way to judge a book? No, but as the review makes clear in its first sentence, a “worthless” novel comes from a “worthless” writer; it’s Franzen who is irrelevant here. Franzen who, because he has been declared “important,” must now be examined to see if he earned that particular attribution of importance.

The Italian novelist who writes under the pseudonym “Elena Ferrante” explained her determination to remain anonymous to the Paris Review this spring; she wanted, she said, to prevent herself from being read into her work:

It has become natural to think of the author as a particular individual who exists, inevitably, outside the text—so that if we want to know more about what we’re reading we should address that individual, or find out everything about his more or less banal life.

Yet as Rohan Maitzen has pointed out, Ferrante’s choice to absent herself by disguising her identity has led readers only to make greater and greater assumptions about the kind of person she must be to write the books she writes. Her books are sometimes placed alongside the hyperconfessional works of her contemporary, Karl Ove Knausgaard, even though Ferrante, by design, confesses nothing.

Novels are not themselves interesting—or at least, that is the implication here. They permit of consumption but little else. They are interesting for what they say about their authors, or interesting for what they say about your taste. They are the best or the worst, and only worth discussing in those extremes. Why read or write about a novel that is not by the greatest novelist alive? That is not a piece of stealth sociology? That is not an anti-feminist tract?

In an upside-down sort of way, this kind of criticism reminds me of the industry dedicated to proving that Jane Austen was a game theorist or a philosopher or a political theorist or a mathematician or a military general or a Scientologist or a you-name-it. Just as the greatest success Austen can achieve, to some, is to escape the orbit of the novelist, so the greatest success Franzen can achieve is to become the subject of conversation instead of his own books.

To that end, perhaps it is best to give Austen the last word. “I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances,” she wrote in Northanger Abbey. A novel, after all, is “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

B. D. McClay is associate editor of the Hedgehog Review.

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