The publication of a new Jonathan Franzen novel has a lot in common with the release of a new iPhone: Both early-autumn events are greeted with absurd amounts of anticipation, excitement, and derision, along with much commentary, and analysis of the commentary, etc. To be sure, there are other important novelists working today, and likewise various sorts of whiz-bang smartphones, but only Franzen and the iPhone dominate conversations in this manner, and with good reason: In both cases, even when a new release really doesn’t represent a dramatic advance on its hallowed predecessors, it’s still pretty impressive.
Following on Franzen’s most recent novels, The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010), funny and very smart both, Purity reads like the work of a major writer who’s become a little too practiced at his bravura storytelling. Once more, Franzen has worked up a sprawling novel that’s impressively of-the-moment in its political and cultural referents and storylines, while also keenly attuned to the stormy relationships, interior lives, and self-understandings of the people living through the intensities of that moment. “She was like a bank too big in her mother’s economy to fail,” Franzen tells us on the opening page of the novel, introducing the novel’s namesake protagonist, Purity “Pip” Tyler. Franzen’s distinctive gift is to take a universal situation — a young woman’s just making her way into the wider world and already done in by the demands of her parent — and make it feel fresh and immediate by drawing on a very current vernacular to express the character’s difficulties, while also making fun of the character’s grandiose self-dramatizing.
Pip is a monstrously self-involved and self-pitying young woman, and more or less an archetypal 21st-century elite American loser: “From somewhere in college, Pip had gotten the idea . . . that the height of civilization was to spend Sunday morning reading an actual paper copy of the Sunday New York Times at a café.” Stuck with $130,000 in debt from a vague higher education, when she’s not flipping through the Times she works for an alternative-energy collective, Renewable Solutions. To the degree that she understands her duties, her telemarketing work amounts to convincing people to let her company apply for government rebates on their behalf (and of course take a cut for its trouble). She lives in Oakland, in a decrepit house full of natural and ideological slackers, and she’s prone to falling for married men and to screwing up opportunities with good guys, including a guy who also reads the Times on Sunday mornings at cafés. Also, she’s obsessed with her reclusive hypochondriac mother, who lives in a cabin in northern California and refuses to divulge any information about her own past, or about Pip’s father, beyond stressing that he was abusive and is (fortunately) long gone from their lives.
Pip discovers that her mother has unapologetically lifted all evidence of spousal abuse from someone else’s memoir, and this leads to one of the protagonist’s many tantrums. Soon enough, however, Pip gets over herself enough to be drawn into a much more complicated and intrigue-filled adventure involving two men: a shadowy Internet activist-provocateur, and a crusading investigative journalist. Her involvements with them offer Pip assorted opportunities to figure out what she really ought to do with her life, and also to discover truths about herself and her family’s past. To be sure, she pursues all of this with lots more tantrums, snits, and sulks, which Franzen describes in great detail, moving effortlessly back and forth along a continuum ranging from generous sympathy to spiking satire.
Pip represents the young middle point in a triangle that also involves the book’s two major male characters. The first, Andreas Wolf, comes of age in East Berlin, near the end of the Cold War. He’s the son of a powerful Party official, which affords much cover while he hangs around church basements looking for vulnerable young women he can console by taking them to his father’s dacha. A lothario full of self-loathing, and erratic in thought, feeling, and act, he kills a Stasi officer who had been molesting his own stepdaughter, a 15-year-old whom Wolf himself was pursuing. This faux-Raskolnikov act sets in motion a self-seeking campaign for concealment and preservation that coincides with the fall of the Wall and, in turn, with the opening up of East Germany’s secret files on its citizens. Canny and telegenic, Wolf seizes a sudden chance at fame and, instead of being just another citizen ransacking an archive building to find out what the state knew about him, he arranges himself in front of television cameras and becomes the self-styled leader in a campaign to reveal all the many secrets of the state.
He is subsequently interviewed by Tom Aberant, a young American and would-be journalist moving around Europe. Wolf confides to him about his murderous deed and then further implicates him in a final effort to conceal this, before he begins his new life and career, as a famed exposer of state secrets around the globe.
By the second decade of the new century, Wolf and his “Sunlight Project” are fully digital and openly competing with Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks. “The Stasi was the best friend [Andreas had] ever had — until he met the Internet. He’d found a way to use both of them while standing apart from them. . . . For all the good work the Sunlight Project did, it now functioned mainly as an extension of his ego.” That ego is exceedingly well tended to by the talented, idealistic, and variously damaged young people Wolf attracts to his cultish headquarters in a jungle in Bolivia. Fitting in only too well in this milieu, and looking for an excuse to get away from her smothering mother and pointless job, Pip joins Wolf and his group.
After becoming Wolf’s confidante and in-house spy via some robust head games and awkward and aggressive sexual activity, and after lots of ambivalence and upset, she’s rerouted to work, ostensibly, for Tom Aberant. In the years since he met Wolf in Berlin, he’s become the thoughtful publisher of an online investigative newspaper based in Denver. Aberant has a backstory less dramatic than Wolf’s, but still complicated: a youthful, ill-fated marriage mashed up with romantic journalistic ambitions, all of which we learn about in an extended segment that Franzen situates in the heart of the novel, just as its many-threaded present-time plot is set to tighten.
Longtime Franzen readers will be accustomed to the formal method he deploys in Purity, of interlocking a series of long chapters, almost novellas, each dedicated to a single character. Indeed, it’s in this very structure that a great deal of the reading pleasure of the novel is to be found, specifically in discovering how the main characters connect to one another. At the same time, though, Aberant’s backstory isn’t that engaging. Franzen’s rendering of young Tom and his erratic wife recall much of Pip’s youthful ways, but with not nearly enough accompanying satire, and this part of the novel reads finally as a little too self-indulgent. As such, the segment significantly undermines the propulsive energy of the novel’s main story: Pip’s semi-witting involvement in Wolf’s scheme to obtain information about Aberant and his news organization on the assumption that Aberant is going to reveal Wolf’s murderous past to the world and thereby destroy the Sunlight Project and Wolf himself. This serves as a means for Pip simultaneously to learn shocking details about her mother and to discover the identity of her father.
By late in the novel, all of this is fully revealed, and it’s then that Franzen leaves off all the smart cultural observation and the fine-ticking multi-part storyline for something far more traditional: Pip must decide just how much love and forgiveness she can offer, and receive, from the people in her life. “Weak people hold grudges, Mom. Strong people forgive,” she declares, and for once with this character, this is no mere rant or ideal, but instead an idea that rings true to experience. Franzen is too much a realist about the human condition to leave his Dickensian-named protagonist with the great expectation that her crowning insight will be easily shared and perfectly lived out by her loved ones. But we know that at the very least, Pip will herself keep trying for love and forgiveness, thanks to the affecting final paragraph of Purity, the great Jonathan Franzen’s good-enough new book.
– Mr. Boyagoda’s most recent book is Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. He is a professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.