Oct 12, 2015 Books
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Metro.
Purity, Jonathan Franzen. (HarperCollins, $36.99)
Mislaid, Nell Zink (HarperCollins, $29.99)
The problem with sex, laments Purity Tyler in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, is that it is “a tasty fish with many small bones”. Children being one of those small bones, especially children who, like Purity herself or like Mireille in Nell Zink’s Mislaid, have sprung from unstable, if not downright toxic, adult chemistry.
“Mislaid” is indeed the best word to describe the two girls, both in the sense of “misbegotten” (a despair-fuelled, post-divorce coupling in Purity’s case, and a confused gay/lesbian stab at normality in Mireille’s), and in the sense of “lost” (for both girls are taken by their mothers into hiding and after penurious childhoods re-establish contact with their respective fathers).
The thematic parallels between the novels are intriguing in light of the relationship between their authors. Nell Zink, languishing in obscurity somewhere in Germany, sparked up an email correspondence with Franzen, who was so smitten he convinced HarperCollins to publish Mislaid in short order. But a less than complimentary review of Purity by Zink on the website n+1 suggests she believes she did the better job with the material (the review was quickly removed, and then re-posted). If literary fallouts and bitchiness are your thing, this is one to watch.
Franzen’s is definitely the larger canvas, and Purity, the fatherless, penniless ingénue, has to vie for attention with larger slabs of narrative: a murder in communist East Berlin, a womanising Snowden-style leaker operating out of the Bolivian jungle, an heiress who repudiates her family’s tainted fortune, and a pair of investigative journalists on the trail of missing nuclear weapons. All rather John le Carré, all reflecting upon the concept of “purity”, but sadly much less fun than Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, with their wry humour and excruciating dissections of modern human failings.
By contrast, the first half of Mislaid is jaw-droppingly good. Stillwater College, the “lesbian” liberal arts college where butchy Peggy and faggoty Lee form an unlikely marriage, spawn two children and make each other wretched, is a setting worthy of a Wes Anderson movie, — incipient oddball-ness in full-saturation colour.
The pair are funny, gifted, tragic figures making an entirely wrong-headed decision — to intertwine their lives and bring children into their doomed marriage.
Sick of her life with Lee, Peggy drives the family car into a lake, flees with her daughter, changes their names and identities, including (recalling the recent case of Rachel Dolezal, a US “black” activist who was unmasked as white) registering themselves as African American, a trope everyone seems to buy rather too easily. They settle into an abandoned shack, where their lives are becalmed — and sadly the novel, too.
Fast-forward 15 years and the narrative torch has passed to Mireille, the daughter, renamed Karen, and her child-savant — and genuinely black — boyfriend.
What follows is a contrived reunion with her long-lost father and brother that aspires to Jacobean comedy but lands squarely in the métier of daytime reality TV.
But they snuff the torch out with a combination of fumbling sex and dreary precociousness. (Can we please be done with smart-arse adolescents who can quote Joyce’s Ulysses and Nietzsche’s more obscure works? Can kids please be kids?)
What follows is a contrived reunion with her long-lost father and brother that aspires to Jacobean comedy — with a threat of incest and a courtroom reveal — but lands squarely in the métier of daytime reality TV.
Mislaid is still well worth the price of admission, but it is maddeningly reminiscent — to seize a timely comparison — of those Rugby World Cup semifinals when the All Blacks play the best first half of rugby in living memory, only to fold up the tent in the second half.