“There’s a fashion now for fat, hyper-intellectual, cooler-than-thou novels that are loaded with lard and siphoned of believable feeling…” This is how Mary Karr, the poet and memoirist, has described today’s novel and this is how I felt about Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity”.
I loved “The Corrections”, and I always look forward to and read the next Jonathan Franzen novel. Although I found Purity disappointing, Franzen can definitely weave a story and Purity is no exception. Its 560 pages take us from Oakland to Bolivia to Denver and back to Oakland. We meet anarchists, environmentalists, journalists, authors, politicians, information leakers and hangers on. Each character has a complex story and we learn that many of those stories are interrelated.
The book begins with an introduction to Pip Tyler, who is working in a job she hates while trying to find a way to pay her $130,000 in student loans. We very quickly learn that a core part of Pip’s personality revolves around her love for her very difficult, poverty stricken mother, who raised Pip alone. Pip describes her relationship with her mother as “tainted by moral hazard”, and we come to learn that is true in more than one way. Throughout the book Pip is pressing her mother for information about her father.
When we first meet Pip she is living in a squalid house with a disabled housemate, a schizophrenic housemate, political activists and on a temporary basis, two German peace activists. One of the German peace activists suggests that Pip go to Bolivia and work with famous East German Internet outlaw Andreas Wolf and the Sunlight Project. The Sunlight Project leaks the world’s secrets, the kind that governments, individuals and businesses would rather not disclose. Pip initially declines, reflecting that she could never leave her mother, but reconsiders after a series of events, including communicating with Wolf and a promise of assistance with finding her father. And then off to Bolivia Pip goes.
While in Bolivia and after her return, the story takes many interesting and unexpected twists and turns and we learn a lot about the characters and their interrelationships.
Franzen uses the novel as an indictment of technology and the Internet, and as a vehicle to address a variety of issues, including feminism, the relationship of men and women, and politics and power. Unfortunately, at times Franzen’s perspective on these issues feels forced and preachy. For instance, when Wolf becomes obsessed with finding his name on the Internet, he muses that “He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self.” Later, Wolf comments that the Internet is “radiant” with false light. And mixing feminist and technological issues, a character extends an alcohol induced rant “to male-dominated Silicon Valley and the way it exploited not only female freelancers, but women more generally, seducing them with new technologies for chitchat, giving them the illusion of power and advancement while maintaining control of the means of production.” At times the characters in the book feel like nothing more than vehicles to enable Franzen to espouse his views.
Although the book is extremely well written and the plot takes some interesting and clever twists and turns, Franzen’s characters are one dimensional caricatures of real people who are neither sympathetic nor relatable. When I read a novel I like to learn something from the character’s experiences. I like to feel something that the characters offer through the story that they tell. “Purity” does not provide that sort of reader satisfaction. The novel sucks you in with the promise of delivering greatness and then somehow just misses the mark.
If you are like me though, you will read Purity and everything else that Franzen writes in the hopes that this talented writer will get it right the next time.
You can reserve a copy of Purity at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/mobile/record/C__Rb11163916__SPurity__P0%2C4__Orightresult__U__X7?lang=eng&suite=mobile