Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen, author of the divisive and monumental novels Freedom and The Corrections carries with him an aura of literary importance. Since the publication of The Corrections nearly fifteen years ago, his books have been heralded with the buzz of a potential contemporary classic: he writes massive, era-defining novels of dysfunctional, relatable America, and while not particularly enjoyable to read, works like Freedom and The Corrections resound with a complex familiarity and exemplify the skill of an accomplished writer.
Purity, Franzen’s latest 600 pages, is a surprising departure. The novel feels like an attempt to shed that mantle of meaningful prose and to allow Franzen, for once, to write for himself instead of his era. The book is compelling but non-essential and lacks the reflective hum of his previous work. While appearing timely, Franzen deflates that importance; he relentlessly develops contemporary concerns in Purity only to later reveal how little they matter.
Loosely addressing millennial malaise, digital oversaturation, masculinity and contemporary feminism, Purity follows Pip Tyler (nee “Purity”) and a number of tangential characters as she tries to learn about her family’s history. She is a mid-twenties college grad with six figures of student loans to pay off. She has a love-hate relationship with her mother, an unstable, cabin-living recluse with an assumed name, who works desperately to keep their mysterious past buried. Pip squats in Oakland with a lively cast of anarchists and subversives and works a miserable day job at a clean energy call center. One evening she meets a woman named Annagret who suggests she go work for Andreas Wolf, the leader of The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks type of organization that endeavors to expose corporate and political secrets.
Franzen opens Purity strongly with Pip but quickly teaches his readers to manage expectations. After an embarrassing one-night stand, the story jumps a generation earlier to Andreas Wolf in a walled Berlin, Stasi abound. We see Wolf as a sex-crazed guidance counselor, taking advantage of women, and watch as he falls in love with fifteen-year-old Annagret. She’s a victim of sexual abuse, and, fueled by a sexual charge of his own, Wolf and Annagret violently try to free her of her tormentor. Purity continues to jump around, focusing next on Leila and Tom, two reporters working for the Denver Independent newspaper. Leila has Pip as an intern, a sudden jump in plot explained by the next phase of the novel, where Pip is working in Bolivia with The Sunlight Project. Finally, Purity shifts to a narrated memoir of sorts written by Tom (a trick similar to one used in Freedom with Patty Berglund’s autobiography); his story has an intimate connection to Pip’s mother and would be revelatory if it weren’t so incongruous with the shut-in introduced in the novel’s first scenes.
Purity teems with tumescent masculinity, which is a complicated trait for a book surprisingly full of strong women. Franzen takes on a tricky argument about feminism and gender roles, but does so in a way that seems defensive, as if anticipating backlash from readers calling him out on his misogyny. All the women in Purity are compromised (often sexually) by the men in the novel, but Franzen coordinates their troubles by playing off their strengths. In Pip’s courtship with Andreas Wolf, for instance, she maintains a millennial selfishness and consistently puts her best interests ahead of his hypersexual rich-guy advances. But she eventually falters, feeling used and ruined by how close she let herself get to him.
“Why did she follow him to the bed? To be brave. To submit to the fact of the hotel room. To have her revenge on the indifferent men she’d left behind in Oakland. To do the very thing her mother had been afraid would happen…To be the person who’d come to South America and landed the famous, powerful man.”
We read that “her reasons were all in harmony” and see a confident woman in control, but when Andreas, decades her senior, “tenderly eas[es] down her jeans” it’s hard not to feel embarrassed, again, for Pip. “He seemed honestly to want her private thing,” Franzen writes. It’s crass, but also oddly obvious (an early fling describes Pip in a text as an “8+”, with a “nice face fantastic body”). Like many scenes in Purity, Franzen sets up what seems to be an upsetting and inappropriate relationship only to diffuse it with a kind of anemic logic: forget how complicated it all seems, it’s just sex between two consenting adults.
The trouble with Purity is that Franzen takes this kind of approach with all the ideas in the book: he seems to say something grandiloquent about the world’s digital omnipresence but the drama in the novel just stems from jealousy and lust. It’s as basic as two characters sleeping together, and the drama would have unfolded similarly had it happened before the digital era. Anyone inclined to ponder the ethics about Andreas Wolf’s leaks would come up with little to say: his occupation functions only to render him a powerful character. An aggressive feminist artist seems engaging at first, but Franzen makes her too mentally imbalanced to read as a thoughtful consideration. Out in Denver, Tom and Leila’s political scoop is buried underneath drama in their bedroom. It’s exhausting: so much in this novel could have meant something but is instead left undeveloped.
There’s a coda to Purity that sheds all of its 21st-century baggage. Pip works on her tennis stroke, dates a boy, and attempts to reconcile some news with her mother. It’s a sweet fifty pages and devoid of all the old-as-time drama that filled the previous five hundred pages. There’s a well-tuned purity in these last scenes, but it’s hard to reconcile all the time spent in Berlin, Bolivia, in bed and online, that led to this finale.