Saturday, 25 June 2016

Catching the Millennial Bug? Purity by Jonathan Franzen

When my birthday came round I had two matching sized presents (from different generous people) - two big hard gift wrapped blocks.  Both were the new book Purity - the latest from probably my favourite contemporary writer Jonathan Franzen - the gift givers know me well.  The novel had a weighty feel (literally) to it.  Great I thought,  an epic up there with Freedom and Corrections - fiction so strong I speculated that JF may give up on that style and just focus on new journalism (which he also does very well).  

Purity is a disappointing work.  Not terrible nor unreadable but a meandering mass.  The sharpness of tone and language is there in parts as is his understanding of  America's place  in the world yet overall it is blunted.  I think there are several major issues 

The title first of all is not an abstract concept with which to view the body of the work like “Freedom” or in Austen or Dicken’s work “Pride and Prejudice” or “Hard  Times”.  Well it is sort of but not just that as it is also the name of one of the central characters of the piece – a twenty something female college graduate although she is known universally as Pip. This nod to Great Expectations – explained in a pointless interaction in the work and indeed Victorian novels and novelists in general is an apt comparison.  For in many ways it seems that Franzen is trying to create a big old school 19th Century novel.  However unlike his previous large works (which I think could be put into this category) this seems a lot more contrived and inorganic as the themes rather than the structure of the work ape conventional Victorian novelists.

At the core of the book is a search for identity – Pip grew up alone with her mother and wants to know who her father was.     Their existence is a meagre one in almost complete isolation.  There is no mention of her father apart from one story of escaping an abusive partner and having to change her name. Tied to this comes a puzzle of missing legacies and challenging inheritance.   These devices could come straight from Thomas Hardy or George Eliot.  The problem though is that the plot becomes over powering and invades the areas which are Franzen’s considerable strengths : character development and understanding contemporary issues.  In fact at its lowest ebb (which is not maintained throughout) it becomes a little like crime fiction where the plot distracts from any other aspect of the book.  Not a whodunit but a who is Purity’s dad?  When I was most frustrated with the work I had flashbacks to the trashy 80s book Lace with its equally trashy Dynasty/Dallas style mini-series and its tag-line : “Which one of you bastards is my father….”  Not helped by the cover design of the dust sheet which looks like a glossy 80s piece of work.

This problem is exacerbated because it ostensibly is a book of big themes – notably the modern tyranny (an analogy over used and abused throughout) of the internet and social media.  Moreover how this has overflowed into a generational gap – with the coming of age of the so-called millennials who have emerged into the post credit crunch capitalist world to discover everything is broken and it’s their parent’s fault amongst other things.  In fact in a way (and if it worked properly as a novel on these terms) it could provide an explanation for the remarkable Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016 (or in a way Corbyn’s landslide Labour leader victory in the summer of 2015) the basis of which has largely been this group.  And STOP PRESS  the massive gulf between the Brexit vote where there was a landslide for remain amongst the younger generation - the plus 50s swung it for Brexit in England  These worthy and important themes are drowned out by plot but this leads to another issue: voice.  

It is always a big gamble when a male novelist adopts a female protagonist and tries to see the events through her eyes.  Although JF does not attempt a first person narrative - big chunks of the work are the perspective of Pip (unsurprising given the title of book) and a sizeable chapter from an older woman journalist Leila.    The work similar to Freedom adopts a number of perspectives throughout  - male and female, older and young. This in itself can be problematic particularly when intimate or sexual feelings are discussed.   Add to this Pip's age - she is the millennial in the work - and her approach to social media.  Potential boyfriends tell her to look at their relationship status,  key points in the work are revealed through short texts, communication through text and online chat is second nature and her identity is determined by her digital profile.  In theory this is an accurate picture of Pip and her generation but at points you can see JF  (a self -confessed opponent of social media) as someone at least 25 years older struggling with the terminology and the use of digital media like a pensioner with the screen of  a smartphone.    Thus an attempt to contrast the younger generation with the older characters (who make up the majority of the work) struggles with the lack of deftness in this area.

The focus on Pip seeking her father has a global dimension.  Although Pip is a debt laden graduate living in the Bay Area at a crappy telesales job (another plight of the millennial) her life in an alternative squat -type community (this part of the work lets JF make some fairly funny and accurate comments on the Occupy Movement of a few years ago)  leads her into an entanglement with a global star of the Internet - Andreas Wolf - a German in his 50s known for leaking international information through his online empire.  It turns out he has another motive for dragging Pip into his circle as becomes obvious as the overbearing plot intervenes.

Wolf  (predator - geddit?) say you mean Assange surely a charismatic man of a certain age with a dodgy past and aspect to his character.  Well no and this leads to another major problem of the work.  Explicitly Wolf is not the Australian embassy dweller as Assange is mentioned as a person in relation to Wolf.  This is poor form as the work carried out by Sunlight Project  is almost explicitly the same as Wikileaks.  Further in the lengthy piece outlining Wolf's back story growing up in East Germany - the son of leading bureaucrats in the Stalinist regime-  where he exhibits a controversial sexual interest in alienated teenagers and the development of an eventual uncontrollable narcissism.  Given these traits even though he is not Antipodean I could not get image of Assange out of my mind wherever Wolf is involved in the work.  Try it!  Franzen obviously has struggled with this in writing this hence the crowbarring in of mentions of Assange.  Apparently Daniel Craig has been pencilled in for this role in a TV adaption (the plot makes this an easier proposition to televise than Franzen's other work) - even he is going to struggle to give Wolf another face than the Australian facing investigation over sexual offences. 

As well as the Assange problem the character of Wolf has other issues.  In writing his background JF goes over the top with a Hamlet analogy.  His mother is a Professor in English Literature and leading party apparatchik as is his father.  However she is promiscuous as witnessed by a young Andreas and there are question marks about his parentage.  He is even visited by the "ghost" of his biological father twice within the works. There is also an Oedipal dimension to his relationship with his mother - a theme explored in many productions of Hamlet.   The Shakespearean quotes and metaphors are completely overdone and don't go anywhere.  They are also incongruous in a literary sense as it seems the work is meant to be like a nineteenth century novel not a Shakesperean tragedy - it just seems tapped in.  It also disappears after this part even though Wolf is involved in much of the rest of the book 

 In Wolf's past something happens (plot device) involving a young woman who is being abused by her stepfather and murder .  Wolf becomes obsessed with Annagret who in turn becomes a key figure in the work and in Pip's life eventually.  This event dominates even in an unspoken way the rest of the novel.  What is done well in this part (along with the description of East Germany which seems accurate and non accusatory) is the growth of narcissism amongst men and those who try to be leaders of anything.  Wolf becomes a dissident in Stasi-East Germany but really as an act of maternal rebellion and becomes a "leader" in 1989 really because he wants to cover up his past and hide his identity - not from any real commitment to anything.  This ego mania is very much Assange and others I could mention and have seen close up.  Franzen is perceptive in his analysis of this and this stands out from many others who buy the whole Assange myth.  But there is the problem - it is viewed again through the Assange prism not from the work as a whole.

This leads into further problems when Assange brings Pip into his world in Bolivia.  JF sets up a sexual tension between the two - which is only partly resolved.  This in itself is tricky for me given the 30 year age gap and Wolf's past.  The scenes are difficult to read in for this reason which I wonder if is deliberate on Franzen's part especially as he explores the nature of abuse with Annagret who is also younger then Wolf but not in the same dimension.  It is also problematic because of Pip's unresolved paternity - given the plot leaps is it not possible that Wolf is her father?  There is a particularly unconvincing part where Wolf admits his love for Pip - incongruous given his narcissism and his eventual end which I will not reveal.

The other major character (along with journalist Leila) is Tom Aberant - an old style investigative journalist and magazine editor who has had an entanglement with Wolf way back in the heady days of 1989.  His job allows for lots of comparison with the new media and the old ways/values of journalists.  Aberant hires Pip who is essentially working undercover for Assange (whoops sorry Wolf) and is still intent on finding her father.  Is it Tom?  Well another "clue" - that blooming plot again - comes from a lengthy journal/essay/unfinished memoir written by Tom which is presented in full.   This part is by far the best written section of the book outlining a difficult and tempestuous relationship between Tom and performance artist/alienated heiress Anabel growing up together from the early 80s on.  This is JF's time obviously and the ease with which he does this contrasts with his struggles over Pip's time and place.  

But even this is a problem as it is a device used almost identically in Freedom where the pivotal points of the relationships between the protagonists are revealed in Patti (the leading female character in Freedom)'s journal which is published in full as the central part of the novel.  It is an effective device but using the same approach in subsequent novels is disappointing for a writer of JF's quality.  

All comes to a head in the concluding characters and fathers are revealed, inheritances are received and Wolf's destiny comes to a predictable conclusion.   It ends with an argument between Pip's parents and her contemplating that "it had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn't sure she would". The essential millennial problem now being played out in full in post-Brexit UK.  This would be also more valid if Pip had not just inherited millions of dollars- but again this is central to plot!

There are good elements to the book - Tom's writing, the dissection of narcissism, the understanding of Occupy.  But other points there is just a hint of Franzen's skill.  When Pip is confronted by Tom about Wolf she breaks down in a very young immature way which contrasts with her general persona - this was very well written but not explored enough.  There are hints of Franzen's love of nature and wildlife but in very small patches unlike his previous work. These give a glimpse of what JF is and potentially what Purity could have been but sadly it is not these things.  A meandering and problematic disappointment and I never thought I would write that about a work of Jonathan Franzen.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

I Know You and You Cannot Sing That's Nothing: The List of the Lost by Morrissey

Oh dear....

The recent death of Bowie illustrated how he in common with many iconic stars on the avant garde side of popular culture make a concious choice on their artistic direction.  Bowie trained as a mime and idolised Warhol but although he dabbled throughout his career with acting with widely variable results music was his thing.  Though his last testament - the film to Lazarus demonstrated his lasting mime performing abilities.  Patti Smith (along with her early life companion Mapplethrope) experimented with almost every form of artistic expression before settling on performance poetry which sort of transmuted into alternative rock star with the energy of New York Punk.

I would put Morrissey in that category,  though he sent slight pamphlets out into the world in the 70s on James Dean and the New York Dolls, he emerged almost from a cocoon in the early 80s aided by Marr with a fully formed and completely thought out pop music model with him at the complete centre.  That was his world and his weapons were his lyrics.  There was no foray into acting (a cameo in Brookside off-shoot doesn't count) and no bloody awful display of paintings (Bowie, Lou Reed and Dylan have all fallen victim to that).  So why a novel?  And why now? Why, why, why?  A question you will ask yourself a lot if you ever immerse yourself in the 118 pages of the List of the Lost.

The spark  I suppose must have been the publication of his autobiography in 2013 (Interestingly something Bowie never did).  A great piece of work all round but of particular weight was the first  two hundred pages or so outlining his youth in the grim decay of 1960s/70s inner Manchester amongst the Irish community.  Powerful - it was almost a stream of consciousness output.  Perhaps this gave Moz the taste for the pen and the printed (rather than sung) word.  Perhaps a hiatus from music - although in 2014 he released an incredibly strong album followed by an almost inevitable struggle with the record company- gave him more time on his hands.  Perhaps he was asked to do it.   Whatever the reason though this is a misstep from Moz.  The novel is not his form and one of the worst things for me as a fan is that Morrissey himself didn't see it.

My own theory is that it is an amalgam of all three reasons and Morrissey dusted off something that had been on his shelf for a while - maybe decades - and reworked elements of it on the basis that no-one was allowed near it and it was published as seen.

The setting of 1970s middle America and the personnel of four body beautiful athletes (two Hispanic) suggest that Moz is attempting to run as far away as he can from what the expectation of broader society would be for his literary outpourings.   No gritty Northern re-work of Sillitoe or Shelagh Delaney.  No expose of the 80s music industry.   Although anyone that pays attention to Morrissey's lyrics know he spreads his net widely for subject matter - Mexican Gangs, the Kerouac/Ginsberg entourage, World Politics er Bull fighting.

The foursome are a  Champion relay team in an American Uni with the world at their feet.  Ezra is their leader and in love with Eliza - tenuous aliteration ahoy. They can do what they want without consequence or so they think.   Their encounter an almost feral hobo then and kill him (!) accidentally and all of their lives and ambitions fall apart and end - literally.  So far so sub- sub Dostoevesky but then throw in some zombie like horror scenes - a sub-plot (fairly gratuitous) about child abuse and murder and that is it.

As a sign of how poor this book is that I can summarise it in this way because that is what Moz gets Ezra to do on page 109 - to an incredulous Eliza and helpfully the reader who if they have made it that far will be wondering what the hell just happened.  A summary of the plot by one of the characters is more akin to a bad pot boiler or terrible movie script.  However it shows how tentative Morrissey is with the form of the novel.

That more than anything shocked me about the book was how unsure Morrissey is.  One thing I thought Moz knows is his voice - he has spent his life cultivating and controlling it.  But in his autobiography or in his best songs or even in a curt witty comment thrown away in an interview  he has shown that less is more.   Call it cryptic or enigmatic but Moz seemed to understand the power of suggestion or symbol rather than the sledgehammer.   Not here it doesn't.  In fact at 118 pages I would say this is overwritten and no point is left unmade. Of particular annoyance is his use of compound words to elaborate on pretty obvious ideas "their actual blood-and-guts experience"  "blue-pencilled out of history and her-story" (!) the "mega-gnarly cave dweller" and so on.  No internal edit - this is so frustrating given how well and precisely Moz uses words in other contexts

I wondered if the book was an attempt at one of those well thumbed horror paperbacks that were passed around classrooms 30 or 40 years ago - the Rats by James Herbert, Flowers in the Attic or something by Stephen King.  If it was the question Why ?  would emerge again.

The "voice" of Moz is a problem also in a way that it wasn't in his autobiography.   You could take Becket's point that all fiction is based on the author's reality but Moz's obsessions and valid political points emerge from the mouth of all the characters - in a contradictory and quite confusing way.

Eliza for example as a Young American in post -Watergate America seems to know an inordinate amount of an obscure British politician Margaret Thatcher that has just been elected to the position of leader  of Conservative party!  This however is one of the only references to any form of hinterland from the characters - they are either two (or one ) dimensional or sound like Moz.  

Fictional writers do crowbar their voices and views into their work but this is uncrafted and just reads like a refusal to let the work have its own momentum or direction.  The dialogue runs aground because of this and in some parts is just unreadable : "Your emotional permanence is all that keeps me level"...

There is a fair amount of reference to sex along with the ghosts, zombies and violence which may have been shocking if you can translate the prose at these parts.  For although Moz overwrites everything these parts are pretty impenetrable (pardon the pun).

There is no momentum in this book it shudders to a halt every couple of pages.  I ended up dragging it to the finishing line solely because it was Moz and it (despite itself) had the odd glimpse of wit and righteous anger.   But this is not Morrissey and I hope part of him realises that.  Novels are hard and many people have crashed on the rocks of writing bad ones.I would guarantee that if Moz had submitted this under a pseudonym it would not have passed Go.  At  least Moz has all the other things he has done but not novels, never novels.

No more Morrissey you have so much more to give in other forms.