Purity by Jonathan Franzen, book review - Thrilling, frenzied and self-mocking

The sex-urge in Purity is alive and well, but the book paints a depressing picture of romantic relationships

Jonathan Franzen has become a difficult writer to review. The praise and the reaction against the praise have become so extreme that you end up bouncing back and forth between them. It’s a part of his real achievement to attract such strong feelings. Like Tom Wolfe, or Dickens, for that matter, he has managed to do what few literary writers can – reach a large audience. Partly because, like both Wolfe and Dickens, he writes fun, serious books in which stuff happens.

His new novel, Purity, follows squarely in the tradition of Freedom and The Corrections: a big novel about big politics that is driven by a handful of small-scale emotional relationships. ‘Pip’ Tyler (her birth name is Purity) is living in post-graduation squalor in Oakland. Her disabled live-in landlord is being dispossessed, her roommates are lefty agitators who make no money and in some cases oppose the existence of money, while Pip herself has a hundred-plus thousand-dollar college debt to work off, at an internet company whose boss occasionally perves on her.

Franzen writes well about these people, comically and sympathetically. He catches their voices (his overuse of ‘So’ as a dialogue ante is both a tic and a send-up of a tic), their predicaments, and the way they socially mediate their lives, without making too big a deal of it. Pip is not only the hero of the novel but also the fulcrum of its many subplots. She was raised in the San Lorenzo Valley by a hippie single mom who is entirely emotionally dependent on her but won’t tell her who her father is or help her out with her college debt. And Pip is being seduced, politically at least, by Annabella, one of her German housemates with connections to the famously charismatic Internet ‘leaker’ Andreas Wolf.

The plot shifts to East Berlin, where Wolf, the spoilt rebellious child of a government apparatchik, comes of age, and then the Bolivian rainforest, where he sets up his Sunlight Project – a website that operates along the lines of WikiLeaks. Assange and Snowden are referred to (Wolf himself refers to them), which doesn’t mean that Wolf’s character itself isn’t a commentary on both of them – he combines something of Assange’s weird magnetism with Snowden’s weird self-control. Anyway, Pip soon finds herself getting involved with him, partly because she thinks he can help her find out who her father is.

Franzen writes conversational, enormously intelligent prose that wears its subtlety and precision lightly. The book is full of small units of smart observation and funny description. ‘Even the best Americans were annoyingly naïve. Life in the UK sucked more, in a good way'; ‘somehow the guilt that should have followed infidelity not only existed before the infidelity but was hounding her into it’; ‘In the bright light of his prospects, his marriage of fifteen years was seeming lackluster and unbecoming to him, a contract entered into when [his] stock was undervalued.’ And he can bring that intelligence to bear on an impressive array of subjects: the history of the Stasi, the smells of the rain forest, the insidious oppressiveness of Internet porn. He also does some excellently German dialogue: ‘Ist doch Quatsch, du. . . . Also wirklich.’

Sometimes the scope and intricacy of the plot force him to force the action along. Wolf’s East German childhood turns on a dramatic event that never feels quite as necessary to the reader (at least, to this reader) as it does to Wolf himself – but the rest of the story hinges on it, too. For a large chunk in the middle, the novel seems to depend on a series of unlikely coincidences. Their explanation and resolution offer some of the pleasures of a good detective novel, but I’m not sure these pleasures contribute much to the emotional impact of what’s going on. It’s hard to sympathize too much with pieces in a puzzle.

On the other hand, there’s something thrilling about Franzen’s frenzied but at the same time self-mocking and capacious seriousness. (One of the minor characters, a pompous novelist whose career never lives up to its early promise, laments that ‘Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.’ Franzen’s ‘big’ subject here is the evolution of state power into non-state power, via the Internet, which Wolf thinks of as the New Regime – his East German backstory is really an occasion to compare different forms of mass-market oppression. ‘But smart people were actually far more terrified of the New Regime than of what the regime had persuaded less smart people to be afraid of, the NSA, the CIA—it was straight from the totalitarian playbook, disavowing your own methods of terror by imputing them to your enemy and presenting yourself as the only defense against them . . .’

I’m not always sure how well the global-political stories connect to the small-scale domestic ones. The idea of ‘purity’ has to carry a lot of this burden – purity as an escape from power-dynamics and as a tool in power-dynamical relations, and Purity as a character in the book . . . Franzen does his best, by shaping all of the personal relationships (between friends, between parents and children, between husbands and wives) according to some terrible and inescapable dialectic: ‘Every utterance of hers gave me multiple options for response, each of which would prompt a different utterance, to which, again, I would have multiple options in responding, and I knew how quickly I could be led eight or ten steps out onto some dangerous tree branch and what a despair-inducingly slow job it was to retrace my steps back up the branch to a neutral starting point . . .’

This is the kind of tortuous, almost reasonable thinking that Franzen excels at describing. The novelist he most reminds me of is Kingsley Amis – another writer with a sharp ear for the way more or less stable people rationalise their screw-ups to themselves, and each other. You can see in this comparison something of the way a writer is shaped by country and literary landscape. Where Amis had a tendency to go small, first into romantic comedy territory, and later into its opposite, Franzen consistently goes big. But their plots run on similar fuel: will the girl get the guy? Or vice versa. And often point in the same general direction. One of Amis’s most depressing novels, Jake’s Thing, describes what happens to an old man’s interest in women once the sex-urge goes away . . . The sex-urge in Purity is alive and well, but the book paints a similarly depressing picture of romantic relationships, as a kind of inescapable argument that nobody ever wins.

Benjamin Markovits’s new novel is ‘You Don’t Have to Live Like This’ (Faber).  He features in Granta’s selection of  Best Young British Novelists

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