Another brick of a book by Jonathan Franzen!
He seems to be steadily increasing his work pace lately, given that it has taken him about 9 years to write Freedom (2010) as a continuation of his epic portrayal of American middle class families in The Corrections (2001).
Great! The more Franzen, the better.
Or so I thought.
I started reading about young college graduate and slightly cynical and dysfunctional Pip Tyler with excitement and immediately fell in love with her vibrant character and slightly messy apporach to life. But then something strange happened. Seventy or eighty pages in, the plot began to sprawl out and focus on other characters in different timelines and places and I thought to myself: Come on, not again.
All of a sudden I kind of felt like I’d read this before in his previous two novels and didn’t feel like doing it again right now. It was as if the author had suddenly gotten stale on my literary taste buds. And I couldn’t really say why. It wasn’t that the characters weren’t interesting. Franzen writes terrific dialogue. His descriptions are apt and concise and the pace of the plot proceeds swiftly. I guess it was the moralist thing.
Here’s the thing about Jonathan Franzen: He’s a writer writer. Someone who lives and breathes art. Which is why he has some bones to pick with our present times, most prominently among these bones (if you’ve read the book already, you won’t be surprised): the Internet. Franzen strongly criticizes the shallowness and commercial superficiality of the Internet, its destruction of attention spans and its often offensive, lowest-denominator kind of humor as well as the meanness frequently lurking closely below its surface.
That’s definitely a valid point of view, but it’s only one side of the medal, and having read his previous book, which was not a novel, but a commented re-issue of a German writer’s essays, I feel like I pretty much know everything he has to say on this subject. Encountering it again in the novel, where it is a major theme, I felt a little bit exasperated, albeit maybe unfairly. The Internet and its effects are huge themes that are currently still unterrepresented in fiction (yes, I’ve read Dave Eggers, too, a modern classic!). But with Purity, I felt like for the first time I knew what critics meant when referring to Franzen as one of literary America’s major moralists.
Indeed, the author’s moral views are often injected into the narrator’s voice, which creates in the reader the feeling of being talked down to. And I don’t even feel angry about that; if there’s anyone with a right to talk down to people it might be humble Jonathan Franzen, but when reading it just kind of annoys me when I can CLEARLY make out what the writer wants me to think. Of course, every decent work takes some kind of stance, in my opinion, but it should always be a little more ambiguous than as it shows in some of this book’s passages.
Other than that, though: no beef here. Stylistically great as always, fluent and easy to read.
Oh, yeah, so what’s the book about?
Like the previous two novels, Purity introduces several characters whose lives and paths are narrowly intertwined and then jumps between them. There’s the young woman Pip, whose actual name, Purity, also serves as title and major theme of the novel. Then there’s the charismatic German Andreas Wolf, whose Sunlight Project organization mimicks Julian Assange’s Wikileaks (Btw, when was the last time we heard from those guys?) and who invites cash-stripped Pip to travel to Bolivia and take a rewarding internship at his organization. As a bonus, he promises to help her find her mysterious father, whose identity remains her mother’s closely guarded secret. This mother, although not a PoV character, casts a shadow over the entire plot. And then, there’s Tom, who runs a non-profit website for investigative journalism and for whom Pip starts working after being with the Sunlight Project.
One thing Jonathan Franzen is really good at, and excels at in his latest book, is creating themes that resonate throughout every plot element and character. In this case, it’s PURITY in all its different meanings: emotioal, moral, socio-political, techno-philosophical. Readers are constantly confronted with the concept, and I get that some might find this irritating, but I personally found it beautiful to witness and crafty. I guess that’s the thing about Jonathan Franzen: you can always view him through two lenses. I used both of them when reading Purity and in the end it was a positive experience.
Bottom Line: Immersive, articulate, aggressively opinionated, Purity continues Jonathan Franzen’s literary path. If you’ve liked the previous two novels, you’ll like this one, too.