Book review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 563pp, £20
A novelist, Charles is writing the “‘big book’ to secure him his place in the modern American canon. 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.” There’s nice self-irony here since Jonathan Franzen is engaged in doing just that. Purity is big, thick and lengthy. No question. Fortunately it is also engaging and rather good. It may not be the Great American Novel. It doesn’t set out to deliver a State of the Union message, and, though it has characters sounding off about the pernicious workings of the Internet and the death of privacy which it delivers, this shouldn’t be taken too seriously; it’s only newspaper op-ed grousing. Purity is essentially a comic novel in which most of the characters are trying to make sense of their disordered lives, none more so than the heroine Purity, known as Pip.
The name invites us to think of Dickens. From early on we are invited to have Great Expectations of, and perhaps for, Pip. Franzen is an agreeably literary novelist. Another major character, Andreas Wolf, brought up in East Germany, now running a Wikileaks sort of operation called the Sunlight Project in the Bolivian jungle, was reared on Shakespeare by his difficult English-teacher mother, and has moments at least when he sees himself as a Hamlet figure.
Pip has much to oppress her: she is living in a squat, has a hefty student debt, an unsatisfactory job trying to sell Renewable Energy, and no boyfriend (though she is good at sex). She also has a difficult, reclusive mother who adores her but refuses to tell her who her father was. The quest for the father is at the heart of the novel, a Dickensian theme, or at least one common in 19th century fiction, a variation on the missing heir. The mother, “though chronically depressed, wasn’t crazy”– well, just about as crazily selfish as Miss Havisham.
It is the search for the father which will take Pip to an internship with the Sunlight Project, thanks to a conversation with a German woman temporarily resident in the squat, who turns out to be an old friend of Andreas Wolf, perhaps a talent-spotter for him. Before she gets there, the narrative loops back to Andreas’s upbringing in East Germany, his demanding mother and his stepfather, an important servant of the regime. He drops out to become a dissident, working in a church basement with lost girls, and usually seducing them. Franzen has done his homework thoroughly and his East Germany is convincing enough, though Wolf/Hamlet is less so. Then he commits a crime which will darken his life; it is the guilty secret which the breaker of secrets must keep hidden. Pip gets to Bolivia and she and Andreas, well you can guess this, though it’s not satisfactory. However, he directs her back to the States, to work on a news gathering service, run by an old American friend who happens to be… well, several significant things.
The novel touches on all sorts of contemporary issues, or at least matters that agitate many today, such as the nature and present condition of feminism, the state of the environment, and nuclear disarmament. Pip sees “a planet on which there were still seventeen thousand nukes, probably enough to wipe vertebrate life off the face of it, and thought ‘This can’t be good’.” Quite so, but there it is; the satire is easy-going. When a thick soldier steals what proves to be a dummy nuclear warhead from the base to impress his girlfriend, we are invited to be amused by his moronic behaviour.
The public themes are only top-dressing in Franzen’s novels. The level of indignation doesn’t rise high. His treatment of them rarely gets beyond discussion, even chit-chat. He is concerned really with human relations, with, for instance, problems of loyalty and where and when this is deserved. Answer: rarely when it is most insistently demanded. The novel, in the best 19th century tradition, is concerned with Pip’s moral education, with telling how the lost, self-centred girl of the early pages learns who and what she is and should be. When she insists to a sensible woman that her mother did really love her, she gets the reply: “I’m sure she did. But by your own account she doesn’t have anyone else in her life. She created you to be what no one else can be for her. I’m angry at the selfishness of that.” This is essentially what Dickens’s Pip at last realizes about Miss Havisham’s purpose in adopting and rearing Estella to serve as her instrument of revenge.
Not everything in this novel works. Andreas Wolf, for instance, is essential to the plot, but, though the account of his upbringing in the DDR is well-done, the picture of him as a troubled, truth-telling internet guru is unconvincing. I’m sure he seemed fine in conception; but he rings like counterfeit coin. Of course this is in a sense what he is meant to be; the trouble is that the idea of him is inadequately realized.
Nevertheless what a pleasure it is to read a novelist who cares for his plot, cares for his characters and has such a lively sense of the comic possibilities of life. Purity is to my mind Franzen’s best and most enjoyable, deeply satisfying novel to date.