Jonathan Franzen’s one of those hugely praised younger writers; sometimes I think his writing and ideas are superb, sometimes not; I often wonder about the wild adulation given to him (and also to Michael Chabon). But Franzen’s newest novel, Purity, although receiving a huge range of reviews, from positive to mixed to negative, is really a first rate, splendid novel–one of this year’s best–and it was a pleasure to read, as well as informative.  I am really tired of rites-of-passage novels, particularly as younger Americans are remarkably solopsistic, and of novels masking obvious political ideologies and agendas (as in Lauren Groff’s new Fates and Furies, also reviewed last month).

Franzen interweaves a number of plots utterly seamlessly; one knows from a variety of clues he leaves in the early part of the novel, that  the various characters, all of whom are solidly rendered, interesting, intelligent and realistic, will come together through the novel, and they do, fascinatingly and coherently.  I’ve read that this novel is ‘depressing’, as if that’s a legitimate complaint about a book , and assume that the writer prefers to be entertained rather than informed (I’ve heard similar complaints about the superb A Little Life, probably this year’s finest novel to date).  As Margaret Atwood observed in a recent NPR interview, a huge number of new novels are dystopian (including hers), because the society and culture in which we find ourselves today is , realistically, dystopian, too. (I’ve always believed Joyce Carol Oates to be America’s finest realist writer, not the Gothic writer she’s often made out to be).

Purity, the name of Franzen’s central character, is more or less the main narrator of the book whose title is her name (a name she hates), and we find her, as a little girl, living with a nearly destitute mother, who’s under an assumed name living in a rural area of California, working in a grocery store, with seemingly little money and no family.  Although we learn in due time that Purity’s mother is neither poor nor uneducated–she’d had a career as an increasingly respected artist in her past– her mother is determined that her daughter not know the name of her father, and that relatively simply plot device spans outward into various countries, and allows Franzen to bring in disparate (and sometimes desparate) characters who never cease to fascinate. The brilliant but mentally ill Andreas is probably the novel’s most interesting character, a former East German whose parents were high functionaries under the old East German Communist regime, and we learn how much clout they have and how easily they get son Andreas out of various scrapes–the workings of the East German STASI, the secret police, is brilliantly rendered here (very timely, I’d say, with the world’s security forces running so many countries these days and interfering in so many lives). Andreas’ relationship with his mother, from whom his mental illnesses are derived, is a Freudian dream (if you will), and Franzen doesn’t shy away from some of the base realities of The Oedipus Complex: the varied psychologies of Franzen’s characters are brilliantly rendered, and , in Andreas, we see how genius and mental illness can wrap around one another, and how the illness can enhance the genius, and vice versa: this is very sophisticated territory, more so as so much of Freudian theory has been (seemingly) discredited by the alleged helping professions.  Andreas, who has a terrible secret and a past involving a terrible crime, which he commits to ‘save’ a young teenaged East German girl from the sexual harrassment by her stepfather, never gets over the horrible crime which he commits, and which will, eventually, drive him truly mad. These events occur just as East Germany collapses, and Andreas begins a career on the internet, finding corporate and governmental leaks which he posts on his site, located in Bolivia, where our Purity, nicknamed Pip, will eventually do an internship (it really does make complete sense in the novel), thus bringing those two together, before she returns to Denver to continue her career as a journalist, where she lives with two superb journalists, who work for a hard copy investigative reporting journal.  One begins to sense the connections amongst these characters about midway through the novel, and as Franzen lets out more clues, we’re ready for them, but Andreas’ stories in and of themselves make this novel truly superb: he’s a genuinely charismatic character (who happened to meet Denver journalist Tom right after the fall of the Berlin wall, and it’s Tom with whom Pip will be leaving and for whom she works in Denver). That’s all the plot I’ll supply, for fear of giving away the great secrets yet to come. But consider Pip to be the hub of the novel, and all the other characters its spokes, so that the novel is structured via diagonals, to borrow a reference from painting. The spokes move outwards away from Pip, and back towards her, in a plot that might’ve veered out of control but never once does: Franzen is in complete control of his characters and material.

Franzen draws on a lot of contemporary politics and psychology to build this superb novel, and he uses sex scenes when they’re truly relevant, never gratuitous, and is equally comfortable with the sexuality of both genders, which we readers find more often amongst younger (affluent) writers. Pip is a truly sympathetic woman, whose friends vary from the truly poor and nearly homeless to the higher reaches of the socio-intellectual scenes in which she lives, and her–pardon, but her purity is a quality that draws people to her, and her honesty and integrity amongst the degradations of contemporary society are truly lovely to watch.  Everyone she meets is drawn to her for all the right reasons: her love, truly, does conquer all in the end–a most surprise ending from a very sophisticated contemporary writer. And the reader never feels manipulated or used; we are willingly drawn along through these various plotlines with a certain delight, in the raw intelligence of this writer and his characters. And since all of Franzen’s characters are complex and intelligent people, how he keeps them altogether in one book is in itself a triumph.

The reader is never once bored, always fascinated, and Franzen’s got his handle on so many cultural constructs of our era, of contemporary despair and anomie, as well as hope and goodness, that when you finish Purity, you’ll be amazed at all you’ve learned, and remember how redemptive great literature can be. He also has the computer itself as the backdrop of the entire novel, so that we readers must assume both its prevalence in our daily lives, as well as the frequent hacking of same to garner people’s secrets, whether personal or governmental or corporate, so that Andreas makes his living hacking and stealing and posting secrets from others’ computers.  Although Andreas is not the novel’s lead/main character,he is its most interesting, most topical, a kind of Edward Snowden from East Germany, whose appeal to women is as apparent as real; women are drawn to him ; sometimes he manipulates them (as his mother manipulated him as a boy/teenager), and sometimes he doesn’t, but his attraction to Pip represents moments of authenticity in a novel whose characters real nature is often subject to debate : contemporary identity’s fluidity is a major theme in Franzen’s Purity, and perhaps only Pip herself, so aptly named, maintains her sense of self throughout the book: that Franzen is drawn to the very idea of purity in contemporary political and social discourse remains a tribute to the very idea of redemption, which will, as in many a l9th century novel, become the novel’s ultimate denouement.  Purity is a must read for 2015.

–Daniel Brown


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