English needs a word for the loneliness you feel when no one else hears what sounds to you like the loudest noise in the room. It happens when your personal receiver is set to a frequency no one else seems to be aware of; it’s like being gaslighted, except that no one is doing it to you on purpose. Henry James didn’t come up with such a word, but he did perfectly describe the phenomenon. Near the end of The Golden Bowl his heroine, Maggie Verver, watches her husband’s abandoned lover, Charlotte, welcome a group of guests to the family estate:
[Charlotte’s] voice, high and clear and a little hard…rang for some minutes through the place, everyone as quiet to listen as if it had been a church ablaze with tapers and she were taking her part in some hymn of praise….The high voice went on; its quaver was doubtless for conscious ears only, but there were verily thirty seconds when it sounded, for [Maggie], like the shriek of a soul in pain.
I was caught somewhere between tears and astonished laughter as I watched Franzen’s remorseless, unsparing, ardent, heartbroken, and heartbreaking portrait of the author of Infinite Jest take shape.
Maggie Verver, c’est moi, I thought as I read and reread Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, each time hearing new reverberations of its cry of pain (and rage, and disgust, and love) at the death of David Foster Wallace. The first time I encountered its antihero, Andreas Wolf, I was caught somewhere between tears and astonished laughter as I watched Franzen’s remorseless, unsparing, ardent, heartbroken, and heartbreaking portrait of the author of Infinite Jest take shape. Afterward, when I turned to Purity’s published reviews to share with others this sad and striking aspect of the novel’s achievement, I was baffled then distressed. Not one of them mentions it. What is going on?
One unpleasant possibility is that my ears are not so much James-ishly “conscious” as just paranoid and a little crackpot. If no one else hears it, is a sound really there? But, as Bertie Wooster, a Wallace favorite, would put it, consider the known facts: David Foster Wallace was a close friend of Jonathan Franzen’s. Wallace’s magnum opus is called Infinite Jest, a phrase from Hamlet. One of its protagonists, Hal Incandenza, is an avatar of the young Wallace himself (tennis champ, prodigious polymath, increasingly drug-dependent). He is also a version of the Danish prince, living in the family keep with his adulterous mother and uncle, emotionally frozen after the death of his father, who shows up late in the novel as a ghost. Like Hamlet, like Hal, Andreas Wolf is stiflingly bound to his adulterous mother (a Shakespeare expert!) and ambivalent about avenging a civilly disappeared father, whom Andreas calls “the ghost.” Andreas’s internal monologue is saturated with actual lines from Hamlet:
How the royal Danish poisoner and his lying queen had wanted their son out of the castle! He felt himself to be the rose and fair expectancy of the state, its product and its antic antithesis, and so his first responsibility was to not budge from Berlin.
Moreover, “Tom Aberrant,” Andreas’s wary, true, betrayed, and cherished friend is Franzen’s own long-simmered self-portrait,* and when grace finally does arrive for the characters of Purity it takes the forms any reader of Wallace could predict: tennis balls and a big, sloppy dog. Spend enough time looking at it, and the Hamlet-David Wallace-Hal Incandenza-Andreas Wolf-Tom Aberrant-Jonathan Franzen matrix of interconnections gets dizzying. I’ve barely scratched the surface here (and I have the spreadsheet to prove it. Crackpot, remember?). By the time Andreas describes the GDR as a republic of “Infinite Sadness,” a phrase taken directly from Franzen’s own eulogy for Wallace, the novel seems to be daring the reader not to connect the dots.
All these textual crossings, however, are in a sense beside the point. Purity is not the elegy I feel it to be because Franzen can play skillfully allusive in-games. What makes Purity’s invocation of Wallace so moving is Franzen’s mingled ferocity and tenderness—his absolute refusal to flinch—in imagining Andreas’ volatility, charisma, and violence—which are also Wallace’s. Andreas is mad (“as an adult, [David] was never entirely not crazy,” Franzen has written); he is sexually compulsive (“Sometimes I feel like I was put on this earth only to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible,” Wallace wrote to Franzen, who gave the line to Katz in Freedom and the practice to Andreas in Purity’s first half); and he is ineluctably self-destructive (Andreas harbors “the Killer,” a death-force he rightly suspects has had him, Andreas, as its real object all along). Above all, Andreas is a guilt-ridden keeper of secrets, an actual murderer and frequent liar to the people he loves most, who becomes world-famous and beloved as a revealer of truths and an icon of moral “purity.” Leaving aside the murder, can we think of anyone in the real world who knowingly cultivated and suffered from such contradictions? Can Franzen?
[David’s] suicide took him away…and made the person into a very public legend . . . [We who knew him] knew that he was more lovable—funnier, sillier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies—than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him.
Even the “immoderate” love Franzen felt for Wallace couldn’t bridge what separated them, and no work of art can change a moment of what happened. But songs of mourning don’t try to change what happened; they change the people left behind in the wreckage.
In the end (the terrible, infuriating end) Wallace was alone and went where no one could accompany him. Even the “immoderate” love Franzen felt for Wallace couldn’t bridge what separated them, and no work of art can change a moment of what happened. But songs of mourning don’t try to change what happened; they change the people left behind in the wreckage. That includes Franzen, as it includes all of us who care about Wallace’s writing and have to accept that there will be no more of it. All that is left for us is to keep listening, as closely as we can bear, to the voice in which it goes on speaking. It helps that so many others hear it too. And it helps beyond reason when an artist of Franzen’s gifts tunes our conscious ears so exquisitely that we can feel, just for a moment, that we are with the lost beloved “in the instant before it was over and pure nothing,” joining our voices in what we hope sounded to him as he fell like “all the human voices in the world.” Wallace will not get a more piercing memorial; we should all be so loved.
*Don’t take my word for this; go read pp.134-5 of Farther Away.
Heather Cass White is the editor of New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore (FSG 2017) and Professor of English at the University of Alabama. She bows to no one in her Franzenophilia.
Illustration by Na Kim.