Jonathan Franzen likes big books. Each one of his critically acclaimed works are weighty door-stoppers but their tangible size in no way matches the scale of what lies within.
Those who have already read The Corrections and Freedom will know how Franzen novels work: interrogative writing on State power, injustice and secrecy is his trademark. In prior novels, Franzen has tackled the recession, warmongering and the corruptions of the Bush administration. Purity engages with the death of privacy, the responsibilities of information handling and the anxieties of the online world. Much more than your standard socio-political genre novels, his sharp-eyed, satirical observations on domesticity and familial relationships simultaneously deliver the wide shot panoramas that have earned him the accolade of ‘The Great American Novelist’ from Time Magazine.
The novel opens with one of Franzen’s quintessential dysfunctional family conversations. Purity Tyler is making a telephone call to her reclusive mother, which slides effortlessly into the pointless, passive-aggressive arguments that Franzen arguably captures best. Purity hates her name and abbreviates it to Pip inviting the comparisons to Dickens’ Great Expectations that many critics have noted. Indeed parallels can be drawn between Pip’s mother, a skeletal, paranoid heiress, and the erratic Miss Havisham, and the plot, which takes us through a twisting journey to discover the undisclosed identity of Pip’s true parentage, is a familiar one.
Living in a squat in Oakland with a group of Occupy activists, Pip humiliates herself by making a pass at Stephen, the father figure of the household. Mortified by rejection, she then runs away on a quest to find the real missing man in her life, and unearth the identity of her absent father. As advised by a friend, Pip embarks on an internship with the famous WikiLeaks-esque hacktivists ‘The Sunlight Project’ with the hope of accessing their databanks to obtain the information she desperately needs to find. Heading up the project is Andreas Wolf, a charismatic, sexually-deviant, paranoid, internet guru, and upon meeting him the story starts on a series of unlikely coincidences. The explanation and resolution of these offer some of the pleasures and satisfactions of a good detective novel. However Purity is primarily about people and, for all its similarities to his previous work, this is where the novel moves very slightly in a new direction for Franzen.
The protagonists’ efforts to understand their identities and come to terms with their private lives is told in seven sections using competing perspectives which move back and forth in time. Depicting characters so seamlessly from the outside and the inside is a technique Franzen has mastered in previous novels, it adds a layered depth to the characterisation which reads very naturally. However, his writing style this time feels far less precise. He still offers enormously intelligent prose but its intelligence is worn lightly and conversationally. The effect of this perceived casualness is a new-found ease in eavesdropping on the characters thoughts. The Corrections and Freedom also had highly-realised characters with complex motives at their centre, but those books opened their gaze outward to try to capture the ideas and zeitgeist of the times and the characters remained more or less consistent throughout the book. Purity delves inwardly into the characters psyches, breaking down their motives with such an acute level of perception and self-awareness, it’s an almost hyper-real experience to read. This is by far the least self-conscious yet most intimate novel Franzen has produced to date.
Purity is a keenly observant book about contemporary life as we know it, but alongside the meta-irony and the magisterial sweep Franzen has managed to increase the level of humanity. The result is an intellectually stimulating and absorbing novel with characters that are capable of change and perhaps even maturity.
By Emma Nuttall