It’s been almost two decades since Jonathan Franzen confessed in print to his “despair about the American novel.” In “Perchance to Dream,” the long, almost perversely ambitious essay that appeared in the April 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Franzen explored a variety of issues: the fate of fiction in an age of distraction; the anthropology of readers and writers; the depressive tendencies of Jonathan Franzen. But the question of how Franzen might overcome his despair rested on something else, which was whether he could resolve the conflict he felt between his inclination to write aesthetically and politically challenging fiction in the mold of Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo, and his desire to “lose” himself in the intimate lives of his characters, in the manner of Jane Smiley or John Irving.

At the time, Franzen was the author of two “culturally engaged” novels that the culture had, in his opinion, politely declined to engage. The enormous popular and critical success of Franzen’s two mid-career novels The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010), which lifted their author out of relative obscurity and onto the cover of Time, has often been attributed to his having managed to write the kind of “big social novel” that had seemed on the brink of extinction. By his own admission, Franzen has fussed less over his prose style since publishing The Corrections, a decision whose consequences are evident in the long stretches of graceless writing in Freedom and his new novel, Purity. But a shortage of aesthetic gratification is a small price to pay if you believe, as do the writer’s fans, that Franzen has succeeded in combining the entertaining domestic realism of the great Victorian novelists with an accessible political commentary that captures some portion of the “agony,” as the critic Mark Greif said in regard to Freedom, of being a liberal in our time.

Franzen’s novels do communicate something agonizing about being a liberal today. But what? One clue might be found in the introduction to his essay collection How to Be Alone (2002), where Franzen contends that the Harper’s essay, far from announcing his intention to write a “big social novel,” was actually about him “abandoning” his sense of social responsibility as a novelist and “learning to write fiction for the fun and entertainment of it.” The essay, as Franzen himself admits, occasionally defies its author’s characterization of it, but his revisionist reading is nevertheless instructive when attempting to characterize what Franzen has written since. In the end, the critical swoon over The Corrections, a very good novel about an unhappy Midwestern family, and Freedom, a very bad novel about an unhappy Midwestern family, and especially the presumption that these are, in any meaningful sense, political novels, may say less about the books themselves than it does about our prevailing cultural assumptions regarding the nature of political participation.

There are contemporary novelists—for example, Norman Rush and Elena Ferrante—­who would not believe it possible to write a realistic or even “entertaining” work of fiction without engaging what Franzen, in “Perchance to Dream,” called the “bigger social picture.” It is not always clear that Franzen believes it is possible either, and his recent novels are hardly devoid of political and social commentary. But they leave little doubt as to where he stands on the relative importance of the political and the personal. Franzen’s characters, just like many of his readers, are earnest and sometimes preoccupied with their public lives, but they are consumed by their private ones. Even and perhaps especially when they become impassioned about liberal causes, politics remains oddly hypothetical to them, alternately a Garden of Eden or a haunted house, and in either case a place that they are destined, like their author, to abandon.

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Purity, like Franzen’s previous four novels, is organized around an unhappy family—actually, in this case, three unhappy families. The book’s chief protagonist is Purity Tyler, known to her friends as “Pip,” whom we first meet as a recent college graduate attempting to pay down her student debt while working in a dead-end job at a renewable-energy company in Oakland. Although the book opens by establishing Pip’s loving if complicated relationship with her mother, Anabel, who lives as a recluse in a vaguely Pynchonesque Santa Cruz, it is driven by her search for her father, whose identity has been kept from her since birth. Following what looks like a chance encounter with a German peace activist, Pip decides to leave Oakland to become an intern for the “Sunlight Project”—an online clearinghouse of secrets similar to WikiLeaks, with headquarters in the Bolivian mountains. (Hardly anything turns out to be by chance in Purity; the book is structured, like the Dickens novel from which its protagonist’s nickname has been plucked, around a series of dramatic reveals.) She tells her mother that she is going because she thinks the project’s founder, Andreas Wolf, can help her find her father.

The second section of Purity is devoted to the story of Andreas’s unhappy childhood in Soviet-era East Berlin. He is ostensibly the son of a Communist-apparatchik father and a nymphomaniacal mother, and Andreas’s disgust with his upbringing—and some of his own actions in the course of it—is presented as inspiring his dedication to using the Internet to bring “sunlight” to the masses. Characteristically, though, we are told far more about the personal secrets Andreas wants to hide (largely having to do with the sexual appetite he has inherited from his mother) than about the political secrets he attempts to expose. Following a series of abortive attempts to seduce her, Andreas makes good on his promise to help Pip find her father—­although she doesn’t initially realize it—when he sends her back to America to spy on Tom Aberant, the editor of an independent investigative newspaper in Denver. The third unhappy family in the book is Tom’s, which is described in another lengthy flashback, culminating in the editor’s attempt to escape his childhood through an extremely unhappy marriage to Pip’s mother.

The most compelling stretch of Purity is Tom’s narration of his younger self’s relationship with Anabel. It begins with his recounting of their early days of infatuation, interrupted only by a series of short-lived, but fateful, disagreements and culminating in a marriage proposal. As Anabel’s artistic ambitions (namely a hilariously doomed “body-filming” project) founder and she takes out her frustration on her more successful husband, Tom discovers, like generations of idealistic college-age lovers before him, that the “heaven of soul-merging was a hell.” Out of pity and guilt, he remains in the relationship for years after realizing that he should leave, then finds himself powerless to resist Anabel’s invitations to continue their argument long past the marriage’s official expiration date. The debates begin over the phone and are followed by explosive meetings in person, spectacular back-and-forths of recrimination and regret, periods of estrangement, then the repetition of the cycle from the beginning. “All we ever argued about was nothing,” Tom recalls. “As if by multiplying zero content by infinite talk we could make it stop being zero.” Later, he adds:

Anabel refused to see that there was simply something broken about us, broken beyond repair and beyond assignment of blame. During our previous binge, we’d talked for nine hours nonstop, pausing only for bathroom breaks. I’d thought I’d finally succeed­ed in showing her that the only way out of our misery was to renounce each other and never communicate again; that nine-hour conversations were themselves the sickness that they were purportedly trying to cure. This was the version of us that she’d called me this morning to reject. But what was her version? Impossible to say. She was so morally sure of herself, moment by moment, that I perpetually had the feeling that we were getting somewhere; only afterward could I see that we’d been moving in a large, empty circle.

One gets a glimpse in such passages, as in the best family scenes of The Corrections or Franzen’s 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, of the kind of caustic conversational novelist that he might become—a Robert Altman or Woody Allen of literary fiction—if he were to accept his own advice in the Harper’s essay and focus on what seems to interest him most: couples and families arguing with one another. Tom’s observation about Anabel’s moral self-certainty does link his relationship with Anabel to the larger themes of the book. Yet within the narrative of Purity, the scenes between them are almost entirely self-contained—and it’s hard not to suspect that Franzen devised the entire (and often extremely creaky) machinery of the novel in order to produce them.

To the extent that Franzen has an argument to make in Purity, it is about the dangers of seeing the world as a binary opposition between purity and corruption. The present-day Tom and his current girlfriend, Leila Helou, another journalist, are meant to offer instructive counterexamples to the young Tom and Anabel. By comparison, Tom and Leila’s relationship is less idealistic but more durable, an intimate demonstration of their professional commitment to balance and proportion. “The truth is somewhere in the tension between the two sides, and that’s where the journalist is supposed to live,” says Tom—advice meant to be a critique of extremisms of all kinds, including that of Purity’s other moral absolutist, Andreas Wolf. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Leila contrasts the responsibility of the journalist with the blind zeal of what she calls “the leakers,” like Andreas or Julian Assange, who “just spew.” The leakers “have this savage naïveté,” Leila observes, “like the kid who thinks adults are hypocrites for filtering what comes out of their mouths. Filtering isn’t phoniness—it’s civilization.”

One cannot help but hear, in Leila’s rueful acknowledgment that “The interesting people are always immoderate,” an echo of Franzen’s own discomfort with the praise heaped on his friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace—who, Franzen alleged in The New Yorker after Wallace’s death, had connected with his readership by laying bare the “extremes of his own…dehumanizing moralism” and exposing his “childlike purity.” The implication that Wallace wrote precisely the wrong kind of novels for his American audience can be justified, in Franzen’s view, by the notion that the contemporary novel finds its purpose not in satiating our craving for moral absolutism, but in pushing back against the powerful cultural forces that idealize it. Experimental art like Wallace’s, Franzen indicates, may be one of these forces, but he gives two others special attention in his new novel. The first is a political calculus that rewards ideological purity and self-righteousness over empathy and problem-solving; the second is a reliance on digital forms of communication (e.g., Twitter and blogs) that inspire a juvenile flight from context and complexity.

Franzen’s complaints about these phenomena are unlikely to strike many of his readers as new, nor does Purity, notwithstanding a remarkably labored comparison between the Internet and totalitarianism (“If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet”—really?), offer a particu­larly convincing examination of them. And it is Franzen, for all his anguish over the “terrors of technocracy,” who appears to endorse the deterministic idea that our fate hangs on our choice of social media. The conventionality of his arguments does not, however, render them ineffectual; judging from the early reviews of Purity, moreover, Franzen’s concerns about what the critic Sam Tanenhaus calls the “false idolatry of the digital age” can hardly be dismissed as eccentric. And he is successful, I think, in compelling the reader to appreciate the virtues of Tom and Leila’s unsexy moderation, as set against the more initially appealing charisma of Andreas and Anabel.

At the same time, it’s worth asking whether Purity provides any more inspiring picture—beyond Tom and Leila’s vague embrace of “truth”—of what a mature liberal’s engagement with political life might look like. This is a question that could be asked of Franzen’s fiction more generally, given how often his novels depict characters whose embrace of progressive causes proves to be nothing more than a passing phase. Late in Purity, when Pip’s Aunt Cynthia tries to outrage her with stories of “the worldwide abdication of responsibility for climate change, the disappointments of Obama,” Pip reports that she “did and didn’t share her [aunt’s] anger”; she is on her way to finding a good boyfriend, and with him the realization that, whatever she chose to do with her life, she “could never alter the world’s shitty course.” For readers familiar with Franzen’s earlier work, this moment of wisdom recalls Walter Berglund’s acknowledgment of his personal and political limitations at the end of Freedom, as well as the puncturing of Louis Holland’s balloon of bitterness in the closing pages of Strong Motion (1992), Franzen’s second novel. This wisdom consists in accepting that society will resist our most ardent attempts to reform it, and that, moreover, our mania to change the world is likely the product of issues that lie closer to home.

Franzen is not the first novelist to remind readers that the causes they choose to embrace as adults are watermarked by their biographies in more ways than they will ever know. We do not simply inherit our political beliefs from our parents, nor do we arrive at them after a disinterested accounting of pros and cons, as explainer websites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight would have it. But Franzen returns, again and again, to one particular story about the relationship between individual growth and political participation; according to this story, the achievement of maturity is accompanied by a withdrawal from the political to the personal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story shares much in common with the one Franzen has grown accustomed to telling about himself.

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Heretofore related in bits and scraps in Franzen’s essays and speeches, the major strands of that story have been woven together by Philip Weinstein in his new critical biography, Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage. It begins with a clever but callow student at Swarthmore College, obsessed with Thomas ­Pynchon, enraged by the degradation of the environment, and desperate to be the next consequential American novelist. In 1982, this ambitious young writer meets an equally self-serious coed (although she initially rejects his advances, the writer finally breaks through—according to a speech quoted by Weinstein—during a “deep, passionate conversation about an essay of Susan Sontag’s”); the two begin dating and, after graduating, set out to achieve literary immortality. By the late 1980s, however, both the young male writer’s career and his marriage reach a stalemate. His two politically ambitious novels have failed to shatter America’s thoughtless monoculture, while his marriage, built initially on the couple’s talent for “deploring other people,” has turned in on itself. Here, from The Discomfort Zone, is how Franzen remembers his life circa 1989:

[W]e could no longer stand to be together for more than a few weeks, could no longer stand to see each other so unhappy…. We reacted to minor fights at breakfast by lying facedown on the floor of our respective rooms for hours at a time, waiting for acknowledgment of our pain. I wrote poisonous jeremiads to family members who I felt had slighted my wife, she presented me with handwritten 
fifteen- and twenty-page analyses of our condition; I was putting away a bottle of Maalox every week. It was clear to me that something was terribly wrong. And what was wrong, I decided, was modern industrialized society’s assault on the environment.

The tone of this recollection is characteristic of how the “mature” Franzen, a personage who emerged in the Harper’s essay and has since developed in various autobiographical writings, would come to treat his benighted younger self. The young Franzen, implies the mature one, was quick to every kind of rage. He was selfish, solipsistic, and juvenile: Just look at him lying there on that floor like a baby, waiting for a woman to take pity on him. But instead of assuming responsibility for the mess he’d made of his personal life, the young Franzen projected his rage onto all sorts of people, places, and things, including “Boston, Boston drivers, the people at the lab where I worked, the computer at the lab, my family, [my wife’s] family, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, the minimalist fiction writers then in vogue, and men who divorced their wives,” as he himself was about to do. According to the mature Franzen, even the young Franzen’s rage about corporate America’s assault on the environment—one of the main subjects of Strong Motion—was a by-product of his peevish immaturity and his sense that the world owed him some special dispensation.

But the young Franzen was not fated to remain forever young. Sometime in the mid-’90s, this “angry and theory-minded” man was able to escape his marriage and his rage, and ultimately to write The Corrections, the novel that would make him famous (and also, thanks to Oprah, infamous). In the biography, Weinstein largely accepts and reproduces Franzen’s portrait of himself as a man who has lived his 20s twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time through his literary reproductions of them as farce. The death of Franzen’s marriage, Weinstein argues, allowed for the birth of a new and considerably less angry man, a “comic genius” capable of teasing from his earlier life a sort of “Schulzian comedy” (after Charles Schulz, whose Peanuts comic strips Franzen loved as a child). Franzen, says Weinstein, had found the “humor…to accept what [he] cannot change,” a discovery that would be central to the lessons of The Corrections and Freedom. This conforms precisely to the self-diagnosis Franzen offers in his latest nonfiction book, The Kraus Project (2013), where he admits that the apocalypse he had seen evidence of on every street corner during his bitter 20s was simply an “element of the privileged person’s anger at the world for disappointing him.” There is still some rage in Franzen’s later novels, Weinstein admits, but it belongs to his characters as opposed to the author; and it is always the product of the “refusal to accept the messiness not just of the world we inhabit, but also of our fault-ridden selves.”

The appeal of such a mythology is obvious: We would all like to grow up. Yet it is a truism of social life that the person lecturing you about having become an adult will often remain a howling infant in disguise. A conspicuous feature of Franzen’s writing since The Corrections—and something Weinstein notices but makes little of—consists in the bizarre combination of the comic spirit with the rageful one, as if the mature Franzen has not so much supplanted the younger one as attempted, publicly and mostly unsuccessfully, to suffocate him. In The Kraus Project, the author’s seemingly considered evaluations of his angry younger self contend awkwardly with blatant examples of his current angry self; he now sees his youthful rage against newspaper book reviewers as misplaced, he confesses at one point, just a page before launching into complementary diatribes about Internet bloggers and the apocalyptic evil signified by Amazon. (Jeff Bezos “may not be the Antichrist,” Franzen generously concedes, “but he surely looks like one of the Four Horsemen.”) Likewise, in Freedom and Purity, Franzen declares the virtues of a sobriety that his characters mostly lack; instead, they direct their indignation at one supposed villain after another until they realize, as we are told, the futility of their desire to improve either themselves or the world—and with that, the story ends.

Tom and Leila in Purity may represent Franzen’s best attempt to characterize an engagement with political problems that is not entirely reducible to the desire to escape personal dilemmas. But neither in his fiction nor in Franzen’s personal narrative do we find an example of how the political might positively inform, or transform, the personal, or of how the personal and the political might exist in productive tension. What we find instead are cautionary tales about characters who carom from one extreme to the other, and whose idealism is revealed to have stemmed from unresolved issues in their childhoods or past relationships. The unhappy family, that is, lies not only at the heart of Franzen’s novels, but also at the heart of his politics. “The personal is political” seems to mean to him not, as it has for generations of feminists and other activists, that personal decisions and relationships are suffused by politics, but rather something like its opposite: that the political is often a projection of, and always a constant threat to, the people and things that really matter to us.

* * *

To some portion of Franzen’s audience, such a picture of the relationship between the personal and the political will be unrecognizable. Only relatively recently in human history has it been suggested—the idea is often traced back to Hobbes, though it was most memorably articulated by Mill—that the individual ought to enjoy some protected private or personal sphere, free from the interference of government or society. One of the public services performed by a book like Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son about the “visceral experience” of being black in America, or a play like Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s epic about the LGBTQ community during the height of the AIDS epidemic, is to document the experience of those Americans for whom the right to be left alone remains largely a rumor. For such populations, politics is not a noisy room that can be entered into or retreated from depending on one’s mood; it is a fixture of their condition, penetrating transparently into the most intimate aspects of daily life.

The point is not to discredit Franzen’s picture, only to gauge its scope. It is true, I think, that the kind of liberal, white, relatively well-off Westerners who populate Franzen’s novels are haunted by the idea that their political decisions, including the decision to participate in politics at all, are discretionary. Some of the appeal, and the success, of identity politics over the last 40 years can probably be attributed to its presentation of a set of commitments that appear necessary and personally urgent to the people making them, in contrast to the felt impersonality of the customary issues—such as corporate corruption, environmental conservation, and open government (characters in Franzen’s novels have been committed to all three)—so often adopted by urban liberal elites. These elites, among whom I count myself, can choose to fight for the environment on Monday, against wealth inequality on Wednesday, and for nuclear nonproliferation on Friday, but we are generally justified in suspecting that none of it will make much difference to the quality of our weekends. This is, in the first place, as has often been pointed out, a considerable privilege. Franzen’s novels attest to the ways in which it can also become a source of guilt, ambivalence, paralysis, or apathy.

Franzen’s most incisive observation regarding the political habits of this demographic is that to take up a cause hesitantly or impersonally is not necessarily to take it up judiciously. More often than not, his work shows the opposite: Political devotion descends on his characters like a fever. But the temperature of the fever never signals anything about the depth of their commitment; rather, it testifies to the tenacity of the personal problems they are are striving to avoid. And the fever eventually always breaks. When Walter, in Freedom, becomes obsessed first with strip-mining and later with population control, the reader is ready long before he is for Walter to calm down and return to his troubled suburban marriage. The same can be said for Andreas in Purity, whom Leila describes as “a man so full of his own dirty secrets that he sees the entire world as dirty secrets.” Andreas is both more and less self-aware than Walter: more because he is able to recognize that his political project is essentially selfish (“I’m not doing this job because I still believe in it,” he tells Pip. “It’s all about me now”), and less because, despite this recognition, he fails to see any but the most tragic options for freeing himself from it.

“The more I wrote novels, the less I trusted my own righteousness,” writes Franzen in The Kraus Project. This idea—that novels have a role to play in unsettling our self-certainties, whether personal or political—­has always been a foundational one for the Franzen project. Surely, some novels may do that, and some readers may benefit from the lesson that there is another side to every story. By showing how one’s ideas come to grief in the crucible of everyday experience, Franzen’s brand of realist fiction can facilitate a humility often missing from the rants of cable-news anchors, op-ed columnists, and Twitter crusaders. But what if, for the portion of Franzen’s readers that most resemble his characters, the struggle is not in the first place with self-certainty, but rather with how to take committed action in its absence?

There is such a thing as political purism, and it can be the result of our pathological projection onto the world of issues we have failed to resolve in our personal lives. There is also such a thing, I hope, as political conviction: the passionate dedication to a cause bigger than one’s messy self or one’s unhappy family, undertaken in full appreciation of that cause’s complexity and potential futility, and of the fact that nothing can guarantee one’s righteousness in pursuing it. Weinstein says the key to the mature Franzen’s success has been his capacity to accept what he cannot change. But the problem for liberals today is surely that none of us can know, ahead of time, what it is possible for us to change. For those lucky enough to get to choose our battles, the Franzenesque ricochet between engagement and withdrawal, rage and apathy, is familiar enough. The truly agonizing part, though, begins at just the point where he has always left off.