If the beautiful, perfect heart in the chest of Philip Roth ever stops beating, which it shouldn’t, Jonathan Franzen will become the greatest living American novelist. When news broke yesterday that Mr. Franzen’s new novel, Purity, would be released in September of 2015, I quickly took to Instagram to congratulate the author in the comments section of his latest selfie. Being literature’s foremost proponent of social media, Mr. Franzen kindly responded to my red 100 emoji with a bashful smiley emoji of his own. Hours later, I was surprised to agree–at Mr. Franzen’s insistence–to publish an excerpt from Purity on my blog. He is, apparently, an enormous fan, and it is an honor to have his writing featured alongside my own. Now it is my great pleasure to introduce “Disenthrallment,” an excerpt from Purity by Jonathan Franzen.
As excerpted from Purity by. Jonathan Franzen
In the heart of the heart of the country, Purity “Pip” Tyler was on her knees in front of a toilet, sifting through the soggy logs of her own fecal matter, wishing she could be anywhere else, doing anything else, particularly birdwatching. Like her great grandparents, who had moved to the Midwest a century earlier in search of cheap, arable land and found themselves nearly stamped out of existence by The Depression, Pip fashioned herself an amateur ornithologist. In her earliest memories, power lines sagged into smiles beneath the many tiny weights of sparrows, backfiring trucks sent a flock of warblers winding into the sky. In her family, birdwatching was tradition. Her great grandparents, once they’d somewhat established themselves in Hoover’s America, spent weekends spying wrens in Appalachia. Her grandparents took bus tours down the Pacific Coast, searching, her own mother and father spent every summer crisscrossing New England in a Winnebago, their enormous binoculars trained on the trees. Like all children unwittingly do, she had inherited other, less enviable traits from her forbearers: a hatred for fracking, a distrust of social media, a sense of self-importance not in keeping with anything she–as a white, semi-privileged American–had “accomplished.” But birdwatching always put her at a special kind of peace, a state of sudden inner calm that no other pursuit, personal or professional, could replicate. She liked to think, as was the case with her Irritable Bowel Syndrome, that this spiritual trait had been passed down through the ages, in her blood and the blood of every Tyler before her. For reasons that would only be clear to her later, she took an enormous amount of pride, as she pinched an undigested popcorn kernel out of her own poopie, that a part of her was from another time, long before America existed as a place, a word, or an idea. Twitter is gay.
Pip was deconstructing turds per the suggestion of her handsome gastroenterologist, Dr. Ganesh Ganesan, whose cold stethoscope, when he pressed it to her uncovered belly, never failed to make her heart flutter. Like a handful of male characters in Jonathan Franzen novels, Pip had an off-putting Indian fetish, so Dr. Ganesh, with his delicate brown hands and thick accent, didn’t have to do much to become the target of Pip’s affection. As she plunged her fingers into her floating doodies, Pip wasn’t just searching for the blood in her stool Dr. Ganesan had told her to watch out for, she was pining for an opportunity to schedule another appointment at his office. Being a Jonathan Franzen character, Pip was a restauranteur by day, an environmentalist by night, and, in the early morning, a bad metaphor for American Imperialism and/or the Military Industrial Complex. (She also, from time to time, thought and said that Instagram was dumb.) Needless to say, balancing her schedule with IBS allowed Pip little time to develop a well-rounded worldview, since she had never, discounting a failed semester abroad in Berlin, visited a country outside the United States. For Pip, walking into Dr. Ganesan’s office, hearing the otherworldly sitar music coming out of its ceiling speakers, seeing the golden figurines of the Indian gods in the hallway, was a much needed vacation unto itself, a getaway from the sad fact that she never would do just that: getaway. She also liked the mints his receptionist kept on her desk. Fuck Steve Jobs.
Depressed, kneeling, gagging on the stinky poop fumes of her very own poop, Pip wondered what would happen if she dunked her head into the toilet bowl. If she were, on this forgettable Midwestern Sunday, to drown herself in the poopified waters of the toilet in her downstairs bathroom, would anyone be able to muster the emotional energy even to pretend to care? She thought not. Pip had never really been a “people person,” as if any alternative exists, so she had fallen into the uncomfortable limbo of the person who has many acquaintances but very few friends. People to whom dreams, hopes, secrets could and should be revealed, Pip didn’t have them. And into the absence formed therefrom she tossed the daylong self-defeating monologues that played in her head, like a broken jukebox, throughout the day. From the time she left for her waitressing job until she fulfilled her daily symbolism quota as a bad metaphor for American Imperialism and/or the Military Industrial Complex. Physically, mentally, Pip had been worn out by an exceptionally harsh Midwestern winter and, as if it needs to be said, the crushing sadness felt by upper middle class white people who unconsciously know, but would never consciously admit, that their lives are as meaningless as anyone else’s. How the hell does anyone listen to Beethoven and Arcade Fire at work?
Earlier in the week, before the poop foraging, Pip had come across a word whose definition she knew, but, for a discombobulating second, couldn’t place: “disenthrallment.” From college poetry, she knew the word meant to be set free, untied from one’s preconceptions or previous, immature notions of the world. Yet, in the fleeting second between when her eyes saw the word and her brain processed its meaning, Pip felt this plummeting in her gut as she felt–not knew–that “disenthrallment” had a much more sinister definition hidden within its publicized one. To her, the word was, in that moment, a synonym for death. No, it was a truer representation of the concept. For Purity “Pip” Tyler, death wasn’t a sudden plunge into nonbeing, it was the continual inability to be enthralled, and the resulting impossibility of being disenthralled. To be one kind of person then another wasn’t an option for Pip. Though it could be, if she could just somehow find what she was looking for in that gloopy soup of poop.