Much has been said about purity in recent years. Food is one area where claims to purity add retail value for those who feel that eating healthy is actually now a cultural responsibility. Purity in relation to our energy sources – that they need to be carbon neutral and simple mechanisms that tame natural forces for our use (like heat from the sun and wind from earth’s air currents) – is another way the idea of purity has become an obsession for those who can choose. One test mentioned often in Republican circles is the test to determine how closely Conservative politicians adhere to right wing orthodoxy, or, in other words, a test of purity.
All these ideas of purity and more sit behind this story. And lots of impurity sits behind this story also. Purity is the birth name of the main character who leads us into the events Franzen creates for us. What some may find difficult about this offering is the way Franzen jumps to seemingly unrelated characters and then shows us the connection when he’s ready. However it all comes together in the end and I am guessing that the story structure is very deliberate.
Purity lives in a derelict house with Dreyfuss who is one loan modification away from losing his only possession. Three other people share the space with Purity and Dreyfuss; Stephen, Marie and Ramon. Purity is a telemarketer whose main goals in life are to get out from under her student loans and to have a relationship with Stephen which she cannot have because he is married to Marie. A strange German visitor, Annagret, offers Purity – known as Pip right now – an internship with a group called The Sunlight Project, which has far more humane goals than Pip’s current employer. The Sunlight Project is headed by a man named Andreas Wolf who is considered a cult hero. Annagret has Pip complete a weird interview and tells her she is qualified for the internship.
We jump to the story of Andreas Wolf, the legendary project leader of this WikiLeaks- style operation designed to expose world actors whose motives are less than pure. Wolf grew up in East Berlin in the years before the Berlin Wall came down. Does this tough beginning justify some of the traits we find in Andreas Wolf? You must decide.
Pip (Purity) spends lots of time talking to her agoraphobic mom, Anabel, who has every other possible phobia also, but who obviously loves her daughter, although we wonder who takes care of whom in this relationship. Would Anabel have had any kind of life if she did not have Pip? Purity has never been allowed to know who her father is and in fact Anabel says he abused her and that he is dangerous. Pip still wants to find her father. We eventually hear about the romance between Pip’s mom and a man named Tom Aberant (emphasis on the Ab), a relationship which was good for a while and then devolved into spite, anger, and revenge.
There is also a connection between Tom Aberant and Andreas Wolf which I will not explain because it is at the heart of this novel and because it might spoil the book for you.
Franzen wants, perhaps, to prepare us for how very difficult it is for flawed humans to attain anything approaching purity unless it is a name you give your child – a name that she is not even allowed to use. It is a pretty good microcosm of the way the developed world rolls in these early decades of the 21st century.
Jonathan Franzen is a great storyteller. He’s the kind of writer with enough craft that we forget to even be bothered by the words on the page because there are no flaws to distract us. The story is in the foreground, the writing underlies it, but we don’t notice it. Character development is more problematic in Purity because at times Franzen almost seems to be writing separate short stories. We are yanked out of one set of characters and settings into new characters and settings with little transition. But eventually Franzen ties his new characters back to the old characters and voila, the plot thickens and unfolds almost like a mystery story which we solve with the author’s help.
Another difficulty some may find with this story is that the message does not seem unique or profound enough to justify the length and complexity of the story or even to turn this into a truly great novel. On the other hand, it is a good social commentary and it is more substantial than some of the popular novels that are its contemporaries. Perhaps time will change my take on this. Some novels require a lengthier digestive period than others. I still recommend Purity by Jonathan Franzen because, although not perfect in my estimation, it is still a good read.
By Nancy Brisson