Saturday, 17 September 2016

Purity by Jonathan Franzen



I just don't know what to do about Jonathan Franzen. I've read three of his novels, and there is a lot to enjoy there - he's good at turning a phrase, at creating absurd characters with absurd obsessions. On the other hand, his characters are so over the top it gets more than a little ridiculous. The drama level is turned up to 11, and most of the characters are busily creating their own angst.

There are a few problems here. I feel that if he's going for absurdism, this is mostly fine, although I would still have some quibbles. If he's going for any semblance of realism, it's a big big fail. Everyone operates in the key of shrill, nerves and emotions strung out on a level that would be exhausting to sustain - and it's not that I don't believe one character might be that way, but to believe all of them are?

Also, going back to Freedom and comparing the two, Franzen's also got a habit of painting left-wing strawmen and then showing how ridiculous they are. Of course they are - you've made them ridiculous. You've gone to the extremiest extreme, but don't seem to realize it. Of course there are people who take ideologies to absurd places - we see them all the time. But to then paint them as somehow representative? You can't have it both ways.

This works least well when it comes to feminism. There is one female character, Anabel, who is a feminist straw-woman par excellence. She's the one who resents that her husband can pee sitting up, and so makes him sit down. She's the one who farts around on a project filming her own body, and resents it when her husband tries something creative himself or is successful. Completely unable of coping with the world, she makes impossible, insane demands of everyone around her.

Now, it's fairly clear she's mentally unstable, so there's an easy out for Franzen where he can say that she's not supposed to be representative. The problem comes when you being to realize that the extreme and extraordinarily male-focused feminism she exhibits is more or less presented as a symptom of her mental illness. We end up having that association subtly assisted by other less extreme female characters - when they are feeling least secure and rational, that's when they start to turn to their feminism to help them figure out how the men around them are wrong.

Or, as Kate Beaton puts it, Straw Feminists in the Closet. There's something that I don't think Franzen quite gets about feminism in general, and certainly that none of his feminist characters do. Feminism...isn't all about the mens. What are we, Freud? What comes across in this book is an insane penis envy, and all of the feminism we see is focused on men and how horrible they are and men trying to feel horrible about their maleness to appease the feminists in their lives.

Newsflash: systems of gender interact, and part of that will include men, but how about the radical idea that feminism might not be all about guys? Maybe, just maybe feminism is primarily about women. And how we'd like control over our own reproduction, equality of opportunity and compensation, not to be raped, and the list goes on. But see? That's about what women want. When we talk about feminism, can we do it in such a way that doesn't make it all about men? Sorry, Franzen, as a guy, you don't get to make yourself the centre of feminism.

And then there's of course all the rest of the extreme left wing views, which are pointed out as ridiculous, but again, these characters are so extreme that it's hard to put them anywhere near reality. Of course, there are people like that in real life, but although they're loud and noisy, they're not the majority. Of anything.

Which is why it's disappointing. Franzen can certainly write, and I'm always amused by his books, but they become more irritating the more I think about them. At this point, if he wants extreme caricatures, I wish he'd just embrace that wholeheartedly and go for more of the absurd than trying to find the profound and missing not only the mark, but the entire target.

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