Book Review – Purity by Jonathan Franzen
I am a bit late to the game here. Given the shield-tempered literary standing of Franzen (Time Magazine cover and all), Purity has been reviewed everywhere on the planet since the middle of last year. I didn’t read any of the reviews, because I loved The Corrections (Freedom less so) and wanted an unencumbered virgin experience (excuse the crossed metaphor).
This turned out to be a uncomfortably uneven book, bouncing from soaringly rendered passages and profound insights and unusual and compelling characters and glorious dialogue and a Rubik’s cube plot to sophomoric musings and embarrassing melodrama and long and lumpy explanations that insult the intelligence of the reader (there are entire pages of plodding musings about love and hate that could have been better rendered as a single line of dialogue). From the best to the worst in barely paragraphs. My friend Helen Moffet, a well known editor and author would have little patience for this – I am sure she would have cut this book in half, and retained it often brilliant core. Perhaps Franzen is too untouchable, too revered, editors would not have dared go into combat with him.
When Franzen is good, he is like no other. There were surprises in this book. It is often very funny, which has not been one of his previous calling cards. The opening chapters introduce Pip, our early protagonist, as vulnerable, hostile, complex, acerbic and fucked up a young woman as you are ever liable to meet in fiction whose sharp tongue has the reader cackling, loud and often. Why Pip (her real name is Purity, Pip is her nickname)? Was this going to be an modern Great Expectations? There were early hints but they faded. Perhaps Franzen tired of this thread.
The plot meanders cleverly away from a young Pip in San Francisco (who has fled her wildly eccentric mother to find herself and her missing father), to a flashback to another world in 1980s East Germany where an Assange-like character called Andreas Wolf commits a crime of passion that sets the stage for his notoriety and paranoia to come. And elsewhere the US, a wheelchair bound author called Charles and a love-torn journalist called Leila and the founder of an online newspaper called Tom and a dummy nuclear warhead in Texas and a Wikileaks-type operation the jungles of Bolivia and the streets of Denver, and, and.
What seems like an improbable and inscrutable plot winds it way neatly around characters and motive and ties it all into a cleverly wrapped bundle. The journey that the reader is taken on is head spinning – many locations, characters, scenes, vignettes, storylines, love affairs, emotional earthquakes. I won’t even try to understand why a reasonably minor character, about 3/4 of the way through the book, suddenly changes from 3rd to 1st person, going on to relate a throat-grabbingly brilliant description of a failed marriage.
So what was this book about? There are three characters who compete for the reader’s attention, and whose lives intersect on multiple planes – the confused and opinionated Pip, the jungle-dwelling uncoverer of global malfeasance Andreas, and the investigative online site-owner Tom. And these characters circle and feint. Around their secrets, the secrets of others, the secrets that bind and the secrets that destroy. This book is about just that. The distorting power of secrets.
But oh for the hand of a imperturbable editor. Perhaps Purity, although interesting and worth the read, might then have been a great book.