Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, is a page turner that locked me into a rich, multi-layered plot and had me staying up at night later than I should have so that I could keep turning the pages.
With so many other forms of entertainment available today, purely plot-driven genre novels are a hard sell to me. I want psychological intimacy. I want complex characters. I want to get inside the head of someone balancing competing ambitions. I want to learn about someone whose love life is messed up, or family a wreck, or career falling apart, or someone who’s terribly lonely. It’s in the exploration of psychological hardship that a skillful novelist can write candidly about things a non-fiction writer wouldn’t touch.
Franzen delivers the goods in this respect. There are no heroic characters. Fucked up family relationships. Problematic love lives. Searing guilt. Friends who betray the friendship; friends who become fuck buddies; friends who literally help bury bodies. It’s telling that when Pip, a central character, hears the word ‘sister’ “her heart constricted with hostility. Having no siblings of her own, she couldn’t help resenting the demands and potential supportiveness of other people’s; their nuclear-family normalcy, their inherited wealth of closeness.” That tells all you all you need to know about the nature of family relationships in this novel. Or when Leila reflects on her long-term relationship with Tom, the narrator says: “Her life with Tom was strange and ill-defined and permanently temporary but therefore all the more a life of true love, because it was freely chosen every day, every hour.” Strange, ill-defined, permanently temporary: Yup.
The psychological drama surrounding these relationships unfolds in the background. The focus in Purity is on the action, which takes place through several different characters as much in their historical backstories as in their present-day storyline. The settings include the Santa Cruz mountains in California; rural Bolivia; and Cold War era Germany. The present-day story is utterly contemporary: leaked documents, Wiki-leaks style, drive a couple a non-profit organizations that engage in activist journalism. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are top-of-mind for the characters in this novel.
Franzen is restrained stylistically, relative to his ability. The “idea bombs” that I noted in my review of his previous novel Freedom — discursive remarks either said by the narrator or by some character on some general topic of consequence — are embedded in dialogue rather than formal set pieces. That said, there are plenty of sentences you’ll re-read. For example:
[Pip struggling to undress and hook up with a guy] Self-pity seeped into her, a conviction that for no one but her was sex so logistically ungainly, a tasty fish with so many small bones.
Reporting was imitation life, imitation expertise, imitation worldliness, imitation intimacy; mastering a subject only to forget it, befriending people only to drop them. And yet, like so many imitative pleasures, it was highly addictive.
“I’ve spent most of my life hating her,” he said. “I told you some of the reasons I hate her. But now I get this email and I remember that they weren’t the real reasons, or not the whole reason. They’re half the reason. The other half is that I can never stop loving her, in spite of all those other reasons. I forget about this, for years at a time. But then I get this email…”
Andreas was gripped by an unfamiliar physical sensation. He was such a laugher, such an ironist, such an artist of unseriousness, that he didn’t even recognize what was happening to him: he, too, was starting to cry. But he did recognize why. He was crying for himself—for what had happened to him as a child.
Leila felt keenly, after the call, that she liked the girl too much. “I miss you” was already more than she had a right to elicit from a subordinate and still not as much as she wanted to hear. She felt dissatisfied and exposed and somewhat nuts. The tenderness she felt with children had always had a physical component, situated close in her body to the part that wanted intimacy and sex. But the reason she felt such tenderness was that, no matter how she warmed to a child in her arms, she knew she would never betray and exploit its innocence. This was why nothing could replace having kids—this structural insatiability, both painful and delicious, of parental love.
My full highlights pasted below. See my review of Freedom here. My favorite lines from his book How to Be Alone. Here’s how Franzen dealt with envy when he read a galley of Infinite Jest.