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Jonathan Franzen: Purity

Jonathan Franzen, maybe more than any other novelist, is one of those writers who seem to attract the full gamut of literary reactions – from being considered the Great American Novelist to being considered totally overrated.
He has annoyed Oprah, being damned for sexism when he won an award over various women writers (which was not, of course, his fault) as well as generally accused of being sexist, and accused of various other crimes from extreme intellectual dishonesty to being “an old windbag,” “a whingeing miseryguts,” and a “Chardonnay bore”. He has damned Twitter and even condemned birds, which, of course, has brought forth considerable negative response. Perhaps he was responsible for World War II and the rise of ISIS as well.

Frankly, I do not care what the literati and glitterati think of him. I do, however, think it is good that a writer takes part in intellectual debates about what is going on in his country and the world. However, as this is a book review, it is the books I should be concentrating on and I shall.

I have had mixed views on all his books (well, the three novels I have read of his before this one). My view has been that he is not a bad writer but by no means the Great American Novelist some (and maybe Franzen himself) consider him to be. His books always elicit lots of response and, partially because of that, and partially because I am curious to see where he is going, I always feel that I should read them. This one has had the usual reviews, some saying it is great and some being less enthusiastic. As with his other ones, I am in the middle ground. It is certainly a book well worth reading. It is certainly not the Great American Novel. It covers a range of ideas, as we have come to expect from Franzen – another reason for my reading it, as I do enjoy novels that do cover a range of ideas. However, as with his other novels, it tends to drift all over the place.

The focus of the novel is Pip Tyler. She uses the name Pip (yes, Franzen cannot resist the Great Expectations jokes) but is really called Purity. She is the only child of a demanding mother, Penelope. Her mother had left Pip’s father, as he was allegedly abusive, and changed her name and her daughter’s name. Because of what she sees as the considerable risk that the father may well contest this abduction, she refuses to divulge to anyone, including Pip, the real identity of herself and her daughter, as well as who the father is. Pip has diligently tried to track her father down on the Internet as well as going through all her mother’s papers, but to no avail. Mother and daughter are very close but this is the one major bone of contention. Pip was brought up in a trailer, in genteel poverty. Her mother is a checkout clerk at the New Leaf Community Market. At the start of the novel Pip has $130,000 worth of student debt, which she has no way of paying. She is working for a company called Renewable Solutions, which is mainly in the business of promoting renewable energy but, in fact, sells decidedly dubious renewable energy products. Pip is not very good at it and seems to keep her job, only because Igor, the Russian boss, appears to like her.

Pip lives in a sort of commune. She is in love with the married Stephen, who does not return her love, even when his wife leaves him. She meets Annagret at the commune, a German woman who has contacts with the Sunlight Project, a project run by a man, Andreas Wolf, who is East German in origin. Wolf and his project are something of a Julian Assange/Wikileaks, though Wolf’s baggage is different from Assange’s and Wolf and Assange apparently do not get on. Wolf is apparently an ardent feminist. Annagret tries to persuade Pip to join the Sunlight Project. This will require moving to Bolivia but will be paid. Pip is reluctant, not least because it would mean abandoning both Stephen and her mother.

At this point we start to jump around. We learn of Wolf’s earlier life in East Germany. His father was a senior government official, though allegedly unusually honest, while his mother was a university lecturer. Wolf did not fit in as a young man and got into trouble. He also killed a man. From there we jump to Denver. Pip goes to work for a non-profit investigative journalism organisation in Denver and we learn a lot – almost an entire book’s worth – about his previous life.

Of course, all of these things link together in a reasonably predictable way. While the plot is certainly good (if not great), the structure of the novel is one we might expect, namely jumping around, backwards and forwards, with gaps being filled in at opportune moments. The key figure is Pip who is interesting, to us, presumably, but also to the other characters, in that she is direct and honest and does not suffer fools or, in particular, hypocrites, gladly (and has no hesitation in saying so). She is loveably quirky. I have no doubt Franzen will be or already has been attacked in that she is all too often seen as subordinate to the men, even though at least two fall in love with her. Indeed, it is the two men – Andreas Wolf and Tom Aberant (sic), the head of the investigative journalism organisation – who, despite their many faults and failings, seem to be always in charge and always calling the shots. Of course, were this any other writer, I would probably not be mentioning this but Franzen has been damned for his sexism and has responded by stating that, naturally, he writes from a male perspective.

Despite the ramblings, particularly with Aberant’s back story, which occurs in the second half of the book, and takes far too long (presumably Franzen is too important to be properly edited), I did very much enjoy this book, as Franzen tells a good story and raises a host of interesting ideas. It is not, by any means, the Great American Novel but it is a Good American Novel. Others will have very different views of it.

Publishing history

First published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2015