Purity – Jonathan Franzen
What to make of Franzen? I repeatedly hear that he is one of, if not the, greatest living American novelist but I have never been that bowled over by his work. I enjoyed The Corrections and bought a first edition of Freedom, his satire of middle America in the Bush era, on the back of it. I then got a note from the publisher saying that the author was recalling the book as there were a number of errors which he wanted correcting and that they would replace it with an error-free edition post-haste. I declined this invitation, trusting that my edition would accumulate some value as time went by. Has it? Who knows? But I am open to offers. It gave me the sense, though, that Franzen was a bit of an arse and slapdash to boot.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked up his latest tome, Purity. It seemed over long to me (563 pages) and a bit contrived. In essence, it is a story told in seven interlinking sections, each of which develops the narrative from a different perspective, moving back and forth in time and place. You quickly work out that all the characters have a shared story and, frankly, it is easy to see where the, at first, disparate characters with seemingly radically different backgrounds fit together. The strongest section is the only section written in the first person, Tom Aberant’s memoir of his relationship with his ex-wife, Anabel in the curiously titled le1o9n8a0rd, the password required to access the document.
The book opens in a rather under-cooked way introducing us to Purity Tyler aka Pip and her rather neurotic mother. The tale – I won’t spoil it for you – is of Purity trying to discover her roots and identity. Thematically whilst Purity is trying to find out who she is the other characters are trying to find their own form of purity. A case in point is the Assange/Snowden-like internet activist and charismatic guru, Andreas Wolf, who is trying to expose the world’s corruption but has just exchanged his Stasi-dominated spy state of the GDR for snooping on the internet. The realisation that the internet is governed by fear and an instrument of totalitarianism is well made. The pursuit of the state of purity is over-riding but delusional. To make sure you don’t miss the point Franzen repeats the title phrase and its variants over and over again, the sort of sledgehammering you could do without.
By starting and finishing the book with Purity aka Pip, you cannot help but notice the great debt that Franzen owes to Dickens in this book and, particularly, Great Expectations. Both deal with the search for true parentage and unexpected riches, the plots of both lurch hither and thither with melodramatic lurches and rely on astonishing coincidences to keep the story going. It is not too fanciful to think of the fruit cake, Anabel, as a modern-day take on Miss Havisham and, of course, Pip as Pip.
There are some gloriously funny moments in the book – particularly the scenes of the frantic lovemaking between Tom and Anabel – and there are some really insightful comments and observations. But there is also a dark brooding and, to my mind, unpleasant side to the book – the men are predators and that women are prey. There is a very strong anti-feminism thing going on throughout the story.
Having read it and thought about it, I don’t think Purity has changed my view of Franzen. He is worth reading but American literature must be in a pretty sorry state if he is the best.