From Wooden to Plastic by James Meek
From Wooden to Plastic is a review from The London Review of Books by established reviewer James Meek. His review is of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity.
Citing both Franzen himself and the famous Charles Dickens, Meek attempts to bridge the gap between Franzen’s other works The Corrections and Freedom and his latest novel Purity by questioning it’s relatedness to either text in terms of character, plot and form. James Meek segways into Purity in an attempt to relate it to Franzen’s former glory of The Corrections and Freedom by analysing it bit by bit and character by character to reveal a novel that is both dense in narrative and intense in character development.
Following on from The Corrections, Meek describes a “compartmentalised narrative” that is both evident in the compartmentalisation of plot and characters. Meek describes character after character. He almost reminisces about the simplicity of the nuclear family within Franzen’s earlier novels. Three characters, two of them men and one a woman are in Meek’s opinion autonomous children from any parents, like the one’s read within The Corrections and Freedom. It is almost as if Meek does not trust Franzen without the appropriate amount of parental supervision that he is used to and this kind of writing away from parental guidance has resulted in a bit of a lack of something. Meek ultimately believes that the effect of using a compartmentalised narrative, where each of these three characters narrate a chapter of the book, has resulted in a disjointed work differing in style and quality from his previous novels.
Whilst this could be seen as a fresh change, Meek doesn’t seem to appreciate Franzen’s writing style as much as he does Tom Aberant. A character within Purity Aberant is entirely fictional and entirely brilliant from Meek’s perspective. He believes the best section of Purity is the one in which Aberant writes, concluding quite abruptly that, “Franzen-as-Tom-Aberant presents himself as a better writer than Franzen-as-Franzen in the rest of the book.” Perhaps if Franzen had of written from the perspective of Aberant, Meek would have written a more positive review.
The treatment, however, of men versus women within Purity is not intentionally discussed by Meek, but there does seem to be an essence of Franzen’s own treatment of the differing genders within Meek’s writing. Whilst discussing the character of Andreas, Meek very casually claims that Andreas’ adoption of the internet is “thanks to his interest in pornography and masturbation” then leading on to him becoming the Julian Assange inspired character within the novel. This is then contrasted to Andreas subsequently working in Bolivia, “surrounded by beautiful young woman interns”, making Meek’s interpretation of Andreas as a character reek with misogyny and male importance. This is simply evidenced by the fact that Meek does not introduce the main character of Pip until the following section of the review. Making her seem secondary to that of the self-important Andreas. The character of Pip is then further likened to a man, that of Dickens’ Pip from Great Expectations, a boy nonetheless who strives to make it in the world.
Alongside Pip, who narrates the majority of Purity is a character Meek believes to be the weakest narrator. Basically she is no Tom Aberant. Leila is a journalist who Meek believes greatly disrupts Franzen’s sense of pace. Thrown off by the addition of another female character so late in the piece Meek is questioning her validity potentially whilst chanting, more Tom Aberant!
When Meeks writes of Tom once more there is a sense of rejuvenation in his writing and a sense of relief in his voice. Ah Tom’s back Meek you can breathe now. Meek states that when writing Tom, Franzen shows just how good he can be, and potentially by writing about Franzen writing about Tom, Meek wishes he was as good as they were as well. There is a weird dynamic that Meek recalls in relation to Tom and his dominating relationship with his wife Anabel in that Anabel is the dominating one and the glorious Tom is the victim. It’s an odd character development by Franzen, which is in turn supported by Meek due to the strong bias in which he feels towards this particular character.
Meek’s conclusion in relation to family reiterates that he hasn’t forgotten about The Corrections or Freedom. Meek’s wish that Franzen had written this novel better is enveloped in this idea that family solves everything, whether it works for the novel or not. Believing that recording the 21st dynamic of the family is more important than the, I would argue, highly relevant issues of immigration and assimilation ultimately means that Meek is comparing Purity too much to his previous works causing him to be stuck in a whirlpool of what if’s and if only’s. Concluding that he should’ve explored the concept of family more thoroughly makes you wonder if Meek understood the point of the novel at all. Every novelist attempts to be different to his or her last work, just like any painter, musician or even critic and it is interesting that this in itself is what Meek is most critical of. Yes Meek, Franzen could have written Purity better, there will always be imperfections, but by suggesting that he should have basically re-written The Corrections is not a useful judgment and does not deem relevant to the critical interpretation of his latest novel.
Meek ends in defeat, a kind of defeat that is almost fading into the distance, “But in Purity, he chose a different way.” It’s bittersweet and also hopeful that maybe by the next one he’ll see his ways and virtually rewrite The Corrections or in Meek’s fantasy from the entire perspective of Tom Aberant. By attempting to bridge this gap between his previous novels and Purity, Meek compares too much and ultimately cares too much. There’s only one The Corrections and it’s already been written. The same can be said to Franzen; that there’s only one Great Expectations and Dickens has already written it as well. For Meek, comparison is ultimately his downfall and it is this version of comparison in which he writes that makes it hard to want to read Franzen’s work, particularly Purity. But I do wonder what Meek is salivating about when it comes to Tom Aberant.