‘Not all sunshine and roses’ – Purity by Jonathan Franzen

pjfWay back in 2010 when we reviewed Freedom, Franzen’s last novel, we said a number of things, as we are wont to do, including ‘Franzen’s great subject is family’. Purity confirms and underlines that point. All of the things we said last time – about how Franzen, like Martin Amis to a lesser extent, is a writer who is reviewed more than his books are, about the really quite over the top furore that surrounds all of his utterings – still stand. This time around, though, there is a greater density than previous (in our review of Freedom, for example, we made a point of matching the similarities between that book and The Corrections – in Purity, you can play the same game with characters in Purity). There is something geometric about Purity (in the same way that, say, there is something geometric about Tom McCarthy’s C): here are characters running on predestined lines to say something about the world that the author believes. A number of reviewers have mistaken this for contrivance. We don’t quite think it is contrivance: we think it is an important writer who knows himself to be an important writer writing importantly in a way that ever so slightly clouds his judgement. Purity is a book that has more in common with Franzen’s earlier novels (Strong Motion, The Twenty-Seventh City), books that Franzen himself has said he “was not fully in control of what (he) was doing“. There is a truth there that you can apply to Purity.

Purity is the name of a young woman who calls herself Pip Tyler, a name she has adopted because she so dislikes her given name, hiding it and disguising it whenever she can. The naming of Pip should send up an eye-blinding flare that connects this book to Great Expectations; the more you read of this book, the more you’ll see the links. Knowing to look before you start might lessen some of the eye-rolling later on. She lives in a grotty house in Oakland, works a low paying job, struggles with thousands of dollars worth of debt, is sort of politically active, has emotional problems and uses sex to assuage doubt of all kinds. She also has a strange relationship with her strange mother who she loves in spite of the fact that her mother has never told her anything about her father or her roots. Pip’s need to recover this information is one of the big narrative imperatives of the book. But then so is the relationship between children and their parents (specifically children and their mothers). Certain things are set up at the beginning – like a disastrous almost one night stand with a guy called Jason and the fact that one of her housemates, a guy called Dreyfuss, is struggling to hang on to the property they all reside in – that Franzen returns to at the end. Worth knowing up front.

Ok. So we’ve established the character of Pip. Now for the second major development of Purity: a German woman called Annagret wants to offer Pip an internship at the Sunlight Project, a sort of alt-WikiLeaks (although Franzen is at pains to make Sunlight distinct from WikiLeaks, often referring to it in relation to WikiLeaks, and its leader Andreas Wolf in relation to Assange). But before we get too caught up in that, we jump back in time to post-war Germany on the wrong side of the wall and we learn a lot more about Andreas Wolf himself, and his mother, and Annagret herself (who also has a mother who is somewhat lacking on the old ‘create a safe environment for your children’ front). Philip Hensher has already pointed out that the German sections of the book feel like Franzen is writing outside his comfort zone – they are certainly not as accomplished as the American sections of the book. By which we mean to say that, for this reader at least, the second section of the book dragged a bit. The second section of the book does introduce a murder, though, and this murder is also one of the major drivers of plot.

In the third section of the book, we are once more contemporary, more or less in Denver, inhabiting the head of Leila, a journalist who just so happens to have an intern called Pip Tyler (at the start of the section, she might as well be in love with Pip; by the end of the section, she can’t stand the sight of her – this is a good example of the kind of implausible journeys that Franzen has his characters navigate). Leila is on a job, investigating the temporary disappearance of a nuclear warhead, a story that came her way, quite possibly via Pip. Leila is also in a relationship with Tom, her boss ostensibly, which has given rise to a number of stories online relating to Leila’s integrity. She has a bit of a chip on her shoulder, we sense. The arc of this particular section centres on her relationship with Tom, and her idea of Tom’s relationship with the woman she thinks of as the great love of Tom’s life (who sounds like a nightmare).

By this point, we’ve met all of the major characters of Purity, and we have a number of questions (who is Pip’s dad, will the murderer be found out, who will betray whom etc). The rest of the book seeks to answer those questions, in a way that leaves no strings dangling. Again, if that kind of thing isn’t your kind of thing, the neatness of the book might rankle a bit. We hear from Pip again and chart her course from Bolivia (working – or should that be “working”, she doesn’t do much – for the Sunlight Project and becoming friendly with Andreas) to Denver, where she starts working for Tom. Then we hear from Tom (and he tells us all about the woman Leila supposes is the love of his life – again, she sounds like a NIGHTMARE – we are firmly in I Married a Communist territory here) and about his mother, Clelia, who – like all of the mothers in the book – is also a nightmare. We then pay a visit to the head of Andreas (the least successful part of the book in the opinion of this reviewer – Andreas is a cartoon) before rounding out, in the cartoon land of happy ever after, with Pip, by which time Purity has proven itself to be a little tiresome. And irksome.

Which isn’t to say there are not a lot of things to like about the book. Franzen’s on more than nodding acquaintance with self-deprecating humour (too many Jonathans in the literary scene, he has one of his characters admit); he also manages to subtly dig at the kinds of review he typically gets:

‘”Here are two things about fame,” he said. “One is that it’s very lonely. The other is that the people around you constantly project themselves on to you. This is part of why it’s so lonely. It’s as if you’re not there as a person. You’re merely an object that people project their idealism onto, or their anger, or what have you. And of course you can’t complain, can’t even talk about it, because you’re the one who wanted to be famous. If you try to talk about it anyway, some angry young woman in Oakland, California, will accuse you of self-pity.”‘

The writing (in the Andreas section, funnily enough) about the internet (a common Franzen bugbear) is taut, the cat-with-a-ball-of-wool baiting of feminists is amusing (if you will be so easily riled…) and many of the internal arcs (the relationship between Tom and Leila for instance, feels true in a Richard Yates’ ‘excoriating vision of marriage’ kind of way) are robust. The problem with the book is that too many of the experiences the characters have are similar – so you read about Pip and her mother, Andreas and his mother, Tom and his mother – and you think, I get it! Mothers! Who’d have them!? And then you read about Pip and the men she has relationships with, and Tom and Leila, and Tom and Annabel, and Andreas and Annagret and again, you think – I get it! Relationships are bad! Marriage is bad! Throw me a clearly distinct bone that is different from all these bones you keep slinging at my head! Worse than these, though, is the heavy hand that lays on the poverty butter at the start of the book knowing we are going to have a big Great Expectations wealth sandwich by the end of the book. Blurgh.

So it’s not all sunshine and roses is what we are saying. It’s not a bad book, but there is something bad in its centre, mixed in like a herb amongst its structure. The implausibility of aspects of the narrative alienates the reader, pushes them out of the narrative. And it’s not a single push, Franzen keeps pushing, pushing in a way that suggests he doesn’t quite know he’s doing it (will they swallow this? he asks himself as he writes. I reckon…). If you set this book alongside Donna Tartt’s most recent endeavour you can see how the limits of acceptability and plausibility are tricky – it works for Tartt, it doesn’t work here.

Any Cop?: If truth be told, somewhat disappointing when viewed in the round. Not a bad book, as we’ve said, just not vintage Franzen (more the kind of book that Franzen haters would expect him to write).


One comment

  1. I’m not a Franzen-hater or a Franzen-devotee. I loved The Corrections and liked aspects of Freedom. I’m yet to pick this up (despite hearing him talk earlier this year which made me feel a little more generously toward the book) – mainly because even my Franzen-devoted friends said similar things to you / that there’s something a bit off in Purity. I will get to it, I’m just waiting until I’m feeling less judgey 😉

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