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In ‘Purity,’ Jonathan Franzen dismantles the deception of idealism

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight: a new addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    Not many writers these days stir attention like acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen. Today marks the release of his latest novel, "Purity."

    Jeffrey Brown paid him a visit to talk about it.

    JONATHAN FRANZEN, Author, "Purity": That is the curlew again. But it's — this is — in the summer, they just get these amazing rust pink colors. The rest of the year, they go real kind of gray and camouflage.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The long-billed curlew, the Least sandpiper, the Heermann's gull.

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    There's one back — from the back that is still in its breeding plumage

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Everywhere you look, there are birds here at the Moss Landing Wildlife Area on the California coast, oddly enough, in the shadow of a power plant.

    And Jonathan Franzen, a dedicated, even obsessed bird-watcher knows them all.

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    Actually, I think that's a jaeger.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's a pastime, Franzen says, that repays patience and a keen eye for the unexpected, much like the work he's best known for, writing novels.

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    A great birder will spend some time looking at what everyone else is looking at, but then you will see him or her start to look around where everyone is not looking. And that, I definitely recognize from my own practice of fiction.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Franzen lives in the seaside town of Santa Cruz, but was raised in a rather different setting, in the suburbs of Saint Louis.

    He gained critical attention from his first two novels, but not many readers. That changed with the 2001 publication of "The Corrections," a sprawling novel about a dysfunctional Midwestern family which won the National Book Award and established him as one of the nation's best-known writers. When his next novel, "Freedom," arrived in 2010, "TIME" magazine greeted it with a cover story proclaiming Franzen the great American novelist.

    Now comes "Purity," a book, he says, about youthful idealism.

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    I think one of the great subjects of fiction is self-deception. And I think idealism, because it is paid very little attention to the way the world really works, is inherently self-deceiving. And I'm not casting stones without blame. I was a very, very angry idealistic young person myself, so I know whereof I speak.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Purity" unfolds on an even larger canvas than Franzen's previous books, with multiple connected characters moving through time and geography, from a poor neighborhood in contemporary Oakland to the last days of East Germany, from the Bolivian hideout of a Julian Assange-type figure to a Denver investigative media startup.

    Purity is the name of a lead character, a young woman, but it's also a theme.

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    Whether it's the Tea Party or Silicon Valley or the terrorists, there's something in the air with this obsession with purity, ideological purity, political purity, moral purity, linguistic purity.

    And so I thought, there's probably something there. It gradually dawned on me that I had chosen to write a book about secrets, because I think there is a lot of anxiety right now, somewhat formless anxiety that a lot of people are feeling about what it would mean to be in a society where secrets were impossible, what that would do to the sense of self, what it would do to intimacy to have no secrets.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    These are big things.

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And these are big subjects in our world today, sort of framed onto some characters that you make up.

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    Yes.

    You know, my territory is big shames and big anxieties. So, rather than trying to bring the news the way the NewsHour does, I am writing about characters, but I'm paying attention to what I'm ashamed of, what other people seem to be ashamed of, and what we're all anxious about.

    And that's a way that some of the larger stuff starts filtering in.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Franzen does love to mix it up, though, on the tennis court, as I found, and in strongly argued essays, and in often very heated public disputes.

    Among much else, he famously questioned whether he wanted to be on Oprah Winfrey's Book Club list when she selected "The Corrections," wondering aloud if it was beneath him.

    He's taken numerous opportunities to blast social media, like Twitter, and, by name, fellow prominent writers who use it. He recently took after environmentalists for focusing too much on vague battles over climate change, rather than winnable ones such as, say, saving birds.

    And perhaps most persistently, he's been criticized for his portrayals of women characters and as a white male who gets outsized attention while others are ignored. And he hasn't hesitated to fight back.

    Why are you such a lighting rod in all these disputes?

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    Well, I do have strong opinions.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    And I think strong opinions, plus visibility, plus a certain understandable resentment of my privileges, equals a lot of attention.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you like putting yourself out there?

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    Right. Well, I'm trying to explore ideas. You don't like what I'm saying? Argue with me. And that can be done in a loving spirit. That is, in fact, how you come to new understandings.

    The problem now is, a lot of the — a lot of the lightning doesn't take the form of considered argument to my considered argument. It takes the form of kind of, nyah, nyah, nyah, one-liners about, I'm an annoying person.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Birds, on the other hand, and some excessively cute otters, ignore Jonathan Franzen, and that's just fine with him.

    Is there a kind of wackiness to all this?

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    Of course. It's a completely silly pursuit.

    I mean, it's a big game. I was just so driven by ambitions in my 20s and 30s. It's no coincidence that I started watching birds after the success of "The Corrections," because for the first time in my life, I felt like I was allowed to take a week off and do nothing but something that gave me pleasure.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Oh, really? So this is very much tied to a kind of relaxing of ambition in a sense?

  • JONATHAN FRANZEN:

    Oh, yes.

    Well, then, of course, being who I am, I became ambitious about trying to see every species of bird that breeds in North America.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The novel "Purity" comes out today to huge pre-publication sales and attention.

    From Moss Landing south of Santa Cruz, California, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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