Review: ‘Purity’ by Jonathan Franzen

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I just finished “Purity,” and I’m not sure what to make of it.

In classic Jonathan Franzen fashion, the book is about a lot. The free flow of information. Squats in Oakland. The end of East Germany. The challenges of journalism. The sins of the parents visited on the children. Messianic personalities. Cunnilingus. Writers named Jonathan.

Then why am I left with an image of shit?

It’s funny. I’ve read “The Corrections” and “Freedom,” Franzen’s previous two novels, and though I enjoyed both of them at the time – he’s an amazing writer, capable of both propulsive storytelling and expansive digressions – I can barely remember details from either. I vaguely recall a gentrifying Minnesota neighborhood in “Freedom,” and a tangled trip to the chaotic former Communist bloc in “The Corrections.” But when it comes to lasting images, what comes to mind is a talking turd on a cruise ship, when the patriarch in “The Corrections” has a drug-fueled hallucination.

There’s shit in “Purity,” too. Sometimes it’s literal and sometimes metaphorical, but there it is: a world of shit.

Perhaps that’s Franzen’s ultimate message. That we’re always dealing with a world of shit and trying to do our best to keep our hands (and noses) clean. And, despite our best laid plans, it’s impossible.

The primary characters in “Purity” certainly try to be clean. There’s ramshackle 20-something Purity “Pip” Tyler – and I’m sure there are some “Great Expectations” parallels if I want to unpack them – who squeaks out an existence in Oakland as a low-level marketer with an environmental group. There’s Andreas Wolf, a German Julian Assange-type figure who runs a Wikileaks-type operation from the jungles of Bolivia, and there’s Tom Aberant (are there really people whose last name is “Aberant”? Google says there are 56, apparently), an independent investigative journalist and publisher based in Denver.

Though the book starts with Pip, it ends up really being about Andreas and Tom. The pair’s paths crossed when the wall came down in Berlin, and besides a shared passion for exposing truths, the two also cooperated on a crime. In the years since, Andreas has created the Sunlight Project to expose crimes and hypocrisy, and Tom has run an aggressive news operation. But both are haunted by their pasts.

In particular, they’re haunted by their mothers and their ex-spouses.

Which is what finally brought me up short with “Purity.” Has any book ever been filled with such unsympathetic women as major characters?

Andreas’ mother, a professor, is manipulative and cruel, prone to catatonic depression. Tom’s mother – originally from Germany – also falls apart easily. Andreas marries a much younger woman who idolizes him, but he soon grows bored of her. Tom marries a slightly older woman who is difficult and clingy (as well as being heir to a fortune, which she refuses). Tom’s wife even gets pregnant with his child out of spite.

You may have guessed who the child grows up to be.

I can’t figure out the point of such cardboard female figures. (Not that Tom and Andreas are heroic – Andreas, indeed, is even more troubled than his mother.) Is Franzen trying to say something about how men have mother issues? Is it an examination of mental illness in women? Is he trying to draw thematic lines between the women and the façade of purity maintained by East Germany and/or American motherhood? Is he secretly sympathetic with his very difficult characters?

Will I stop asking these questions?

He can certainly write. I kept reading Tom’s dialogues with Anabel, his broken artist wife – who will only have sex when the moon is full, who takes years to make a documentary called “A River of Meat,” who parses every sentence for offense – despite wanting to skip past them. (Andreas’ mother was a little easier, given her character is surrounded by stories of the Stasi and the fall of East Germany.)

But I leave “Purity” with a sense that Franzen missed his opportunity. As he’s done with his previous novels, he seemed to want to tie together many strands of modern life and say something big and overarching. He even lays it out a few pages before the end:

Pip nodded, but she was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it?

But that, and the many shrewd observations (he could give Tom Wolfe a run for his money) that he makes on the way there, add up to a “so what?” So what if there’s no such thing as “purity”? So what if love is hard to maintain and idealism smacks of illusion? So what if power corrupts?

(I’m not really asking.)

I have no doubt such things are true, and I don’t mind if Franzen is cynical about them. (Though not THAT cynical – he could have easily ended the book on a tragic and horrifying note, and he pulled back. Mostly.) But they make for an ultimately unsatisfying book.

Again, the man can write. But maybe he should write small next time. I’ve got enough shit to deal with.

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