Purity is a superb novel, with fascinating characters and a deeply satisfying plot. Also, because it is a novel authored by Jonathan Franzen, it is full of very strange sex. In fact, one of Purity’s greatest gifts to the culture is the bounty of new sex scenes it contributes to the already-jam-packed Franzen canon—a string of pleasureless couplings and cumbersome romps defined by that principal trait of all Franzen sex scenes, which is: improbability. Real life sex scenes do not happen this way. Men do not often pause in the heat of passion to say “the person I honestly am is a person who wants his tongue in you”; women do not often become impregnated with sperm from anal hate-sex with their ex-husbands. And yet—these scenes are crazily riveting, psychosexual nightmarescapes full of descriptions like “getting his fingers in her spirit” and “anally violated shriek”. So here is a highly subjective ranking of all the sex scenes in Purity’s 550-plus pages, arranged from most plausible (10) to least plausible (1). Spoilers for Purity below, of course.
Andreas and Annagret, Page 456
Circumstances of sex: Their first sort-of-erotic encounter, which involved a murder, did not end very sexily. But now Andreas and Annagret are finally dating, which means they can have not-illicit sex not in the vicinity of a corpse. So of course, Andreas quickly stops wanting it.
Sample quote: “She had a way of gazing solemnly into his eyes while he was on top of her, inside her, completely having her.” Then: “By and by, Annagret developed a different and much drearier idea, of total honesty in bed, with a heavy emphasis on discussion. ... Finally there was no way around it: endless discussion with a humorless twenty-three-year-old bored him.”
Most anatomically improbable description: Anatomically and emotionally, alas, this one makes a very sad kind of sense.
Plausibility ranking: (9)
Anabel and Tom, Page 323
Circumstances of sex: Now divorced and engaged in a post-marital affair, Anabel and Tom meet up for a “hike” in the New Jersey woods. Before long, Anabel has removed her shirt, and they surrender to ill-advised sex in the dirt.
Sample quote: “[My body was] like an armature of coat-hanger wire with a few key sensory parts attached to it—a lot of head, a fair amount of hands, an erection either tyrannical or absent... It wasn’t snuggly, it wasn’t nice. It was her lying down on something hard or squalid and the coat-hanger-wire contraption jumping on furiously.”
Most anatomically improbable description: “Her areolae were too big and outrageously red-red to bear looking at. It was if her skin were a cream-colored silk into which the blood from matching punctures had seeped extensively.”
Plausibility ranking: This—bleeding areolae aside—actually reads pretty convincingly like the kind of impassioned, violent sex a hateful newspaper editor might have with his mentally unstable ex-wife in the woods. (8)
Andreas and Petra, Page 84
Circumstances of sex: Andreas brings a teenaged admirer—the red-headed, inconsequential Petra—to his parents’ dacha for a nighttime rendezvous. As she takes a bath, on Andreas’s orders, a police cruiser pulls up and the cops demand that Andreas leave the house. Humiliated, he skulks back into the dacha and has self-loathing sex with poor “mewling” Petra.
Sample quote: “He ordered her to do this and that, in the dark, and it ended with her weeping and saying she hated him—a feeling he entirely reciprocated.”
Most anatomically improbable description: No anatomy described here. Andreas barely notices that Petra has a body, as he is “too angry about his humiliation to care about her pleasure.”
Plausibility ranking: (7)
Tom and Mary Ellen Stahlstrom, Page 346
Circumstances of sex: In a biography-establishing section, Tom loses his virginity to his senior-prom date Mary Ellen. It does not go well.
Sample quote: “At the crucial moment of entry, I accidentally delivered a sharp masculine poke to the very most sensitive and off-limits part of Mary Ellen.” And: “Mary Ellen’s anally violated shriek was ringing in my ears when I matriculated at Penn.”
Most anatomically improbable description: See below.
Plausibility ranking: OK, sure, except: “Sharp masculine poke.” (6)
Tom and Lucy, Page 362
Circumstances of sex: It’s Halloween, so Tom’s college friend Lucy is dressed like a squirrel. Lucy is not Tom’s first draft pick among sex partners, but she is wearing a squirrel costume, and in Tom’s words, “Who doesn’t enjoy touching fur?” Tom puts the kibosh on things before they go too far, but not before getting his mouth covered in telltale face paint.
Sample quote: “Sex with a squirrel who had exciting breasts beneath her little-kid pajamas was not without its appeal.”
Most anatomically improbable description: “She brought my hands up to her breasts, which were lolling free under the pajamas, and declared, ‘I’m the little squirrel that love to fuck!’”
Plausibility ranking: Depends on the squirrel, I guess, but this dialogue just sounds like a cut-and-paste job from alt.sex.furry to me. (5)
Pip and Andreas, Page 276
Circumstances of sex: In this case, it’s almost-sex. Andreas invites Pip to meet him in a swanky hotel in Santa Cruz. They begin in the lobby bar, move to a local churrasquería to split a bottle of wine, and eventually end up in Pip’s hotel room, where Andreas vigorously seduces Pip and she rejects him—but is highly aroused by his efforts.
Sample quote: “The person I honestly am is a person who wants his tongue in you.” Also: “It was really this knowledge, more than the negocitos he was expertly transacting with this mouth, that caused her to come with such violent alacrity.” Followed by: “I don’t think I’ve ever come so fast or so hard. It was like, wowee-zowee.”
Most anatomically improbable description: “He seemed honestly to want her private thing.”
Plausibility ranking: Highly disturbing and sort-of credible, based on Andreas’s well-documented powers of seduction, until the “wowee-zowee.” (4)
Pip and Andreas, Page 287
Circumstances of sex: They return to the same hotel in Santa Cruz, and attempt sex once again. But Pip once again experiences mid-foreplay misgivings, and calls it off.
Sample quote: “Take off your fucking clothes.”
Most anatomically improbable description: “When she was finally fully naked, he dropped to his knees and pressed his face to her crotch. ‘You shaved for me,’ he murmured gratefully.”
Plausibility ranking: Though Andreas has been known to do far weirder sex things: (3)
Leila and Charles. Page 188
Circumstances of sex: In the good old days, before Charles’ car accident left him paralyzed and limited their marital dalliances to charity hand jobs, Leila and her novelist husband used to quite enjoy touching and being touched by each other. Here, Franzen shows us that.
Sample quote: “It was as if he were a big cat and she, with her slightness, her littleness, the mouse on which he compulsively pounced.”
Most anatomically improbable description: “Even when they weren’t having sex, he was forever poking and probing her, getting his fingers in her spirit, leaving nothing unsaid.”
Plausibility ranking: No thanks! (2)
Tom and Anabel, Page 373
Circumstances of sex: After much build-up and many thwarted attempts, Tom and Anabel finally sleep together for the first time. Anabel can only have orgasms once a month, during a full moon, so they make sure to really nail the timing on this one.
Sample quote: “If I remember anything from the moment at all, it’s the dreamlike sensation of walking into a room where two figures had been for my entire life, two figures who knew each other well … These figures were the things so graphically down there, my dick and Anabel’s cunt.”
Most anatomically improbable description: “What I do remember clearly is what a full moon did for Anabel, how she came and came.”
Plausibility ranking: I’m not a doctor, but this seems unlikely. (1)
Tom and Anabel, Page 435
Circumstances of sex: In what is surely the most devastating sex scene in Purity, Tom and Anabel unite for one last, heartbreaking tryst after Tom tells Anabel that he has decided to accept money from her reviled father. Specifically, one last, heartbreaking tryst involving butt sex.
Sample quote: “I’m going to fuck you in the ass.” Also: “I looked at her breasts and hated their beauty so intensely that I squeezed a nipple and twisted it hard.” Furthermore: “I wasn’t raping Anabel, but I might as well have been.”
Most anatomically improbable description: “I did it, and not once but three times before I escaped from the house the next morning.” Three “not-rape-but-might-as-well-be” rounds of anal sex seems extreme, even for this relationship.
Plausibility ranking: This depressing anal sex is the sex that gets Anabel pregnant with Pip. Which means: Some of the semen from Anabel’s butt somehow makes its way to her vagina, and from this she has a baby. (-1)