Purity by Jonathan Franzen


Title: Purity
Author:  Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Release Date: 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

With reading slumps come reviewing slumps, but here it is – finally. I’m sure you’ve been waiting anxiously.

It doesn’t happen very often that I await new releases with this much anticipation. I’m very bad at keeping up with upcoming books as I don’t read a lot of brandnew literature. But I was a huge fan of Freedom, a lesser fan of The Corrections and an overall lover of Franzen’s style of writing, so I couldn’t wait for it to be September 1st. (Ok, the local book pusher didn’t get it until the 2nd). I was all but jumping up and down at the store, wondering why no one else was standing there as giddy as I was. All the while the 4th book about Lisbeth Salander had a whole damn window display all to itself. I pointed this out to the lady behind the counter and she agreed with me that Franzen should have been more prominently displayed. Maybe he was later, I don’t know. But I digress. I’m just trying to make you understand how excited I was, to better understand how bitterly disappointed I was. At least initially.

“No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched. The problem, as Pip saw it—the essence of the handicap she lived with; the presumable cause of her inability to be effective at anything—was that she loved her mother.”

The first 100 pages took me about two weeks to get through. While the first few pages were so Franzen-esque that I was sure I was in for something wonderful, the following 95 were incredibly uninteresting. The main character Pip (real name Purity) was such a boring cliché at first; recently out of college, crippled by student debt, living in a squalid squatter house, failing at a deadend job, fatherless and with an obviously unhealthy relationship with her crazy vegetarian mother (and you know what those are like). And when finally the story jumped to another main-ish character, womanizing East German tech-rebel (Assange-type) Andreas Wolf, it went further downhill fast. Distant father, unhealthy relationship with his crazy mother. You get the point; crazy mothers all around.

But then! Yes, of course there’s a “but then”, look at the rating. But then the story jumps again, this time to a pair of journalists with different connections to Pip and Andreas (go read it for yourself). I’ve always admired Franzen’s ability to create life-like and relatable characters, so it was about time he started doing that again. This chapter/part is what begun Purity’s redemption. The characters (a couple of journalists and a college professor) and story are interesting – particularly because their appearance was sort of unexpected and it took me a while to figure out how they fit into everything. They fit pretty damn well, though.

And so it continues, the story unfolds as the focus shifts from one character to the other at different points in their lives. Just like we’ve come to expect from Franzen. Particularly the Andreas character, previously so incredibly dull, comes to life and turns out not to be so two dimensional after all (maybe…). Andreas is a very new type of character for Franzen, at least as far as I can tell. His sociopathic, megalomanical tendencies go far beyond the “normal” issues of the characters in Freedom and The Corrections, and my first impression of him was definitely way off. He’s a fairly interesting character, it turns out. Unfortunately, no such u-turn happens for the main character Pip. She remains a pathetic charicature and if that’s how Franzen sees Generation Y (I think I’m one of them) – ouch! The sense of entitlement in Pip and her contemporaries is shot down again and again. I think you can guess which job Franzen has her end up with if you think “cliché, arts/communication major”. I’ll tell you if you want me to.

“He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self […] Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable, and readable way that data did. And since a person couldn’t exist in two places at once, the more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person.”

Sure, at the core of everything is the dysfunctional family – several of them – but only because it is in these relations that a lot of the important events (and dramas) of life occur.  So there are a few similarities between Purity and Franzen’s previous novels, and some of the themes are the same, because they’re issues important to Franzen. The invironment, for instance. And mother-child relationships. But the main evil this time is the Internet. Franzen may be turning into a bit of an old curmudgeon, but for someone who hates Twitter and the like, he does a pretty spot-on description of the use of social media. The characters’ lives and selves are continually created and undone by technology. The WikiLeaks-type organization that Wolf runs paints a pretty bleak picture of the modern day “trust in technology” with their tracking, spyware and so on. The theme isn’t really a new one, but it’s still relevant.

As another reviewer pointed out, it’s funny how Franzen manages to make the Internet come more alive in this novel than character it’s named after. Oh well, it’s still a great book, while not quite reaching the level of Freedom.

It all goes slightly meta when someone claims that there are too many Jonathans in contemporary American literature. And maybe there are, but this one I wouldn’t want to go without.

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