Book Review: Purity by Franzen

purityJonathan 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.


Pip’s mind was like a balloon with static cling, attracting random ideas as they floated by…

“Martin is jealous of my female friends. Nothing more threatens a German man, even a good man, than women being close friends with each other behind his back. It really upsets him, like it’s something wrong with how the world is supposed to be. Like we’re going to find out all his secrets and take away his power, or not need him anymore.

But you know public figures must be especially careful. Imagine the state of distrust in which I move through the world. Revealing anything shameful to anyone, I run the risk of exposure, censure, mockery. Everyone should be told this about fame before they start pursuing it: you will never trust anyone again. You will be a kind of damned person, not only because you can’t trust anyone but, still worse, you must always be considering how important you are, how newsworthy, and this divides you from yourself and poisons your soul. It sucks to be well-known, Pip. And yet everyone wants to be well-known, it’s what the whole world is made of now, this wanting to be well-known.

Eventually he determined that what had depressed him was his childhood bed, the bed itself, in the Müggelsee house, and the feeling that he’d never left it: that the more he rebelled against his parents and the more he made his life a reproach to theirs, the more deeply he rooted himself in the same childish relation to them. But it was one thing to identify the source of his depression, quite another to do anything about it.

“It’s actually worse that people like me. They think I’m funny, they think I’m attractive. Only I know how bad I am inside. I’m extremely bad and extremely important.”

This was the truth but also, deep down, a total lie, and Annagret called him on it. “Everyone thinks they have strict limits,” she said, “until they cross them.” “Let me be the person who proves to you that some limits really are strict.”

You’d been a person long before you had a conscious self. Your little body had once been deeper inside your mother than your father’s dick had ever gone, you’d squeezed your entire goddamned head through her pussy, and then for the longest time you’d sucked on her tits whenever you felt like it, and you couldn’t for the life of you remember it.

Or maybe it was just that the magazine editor was about the same age as his mother and reminded him of her: somebody too blinded by self-regard and privilege to recognize what a total tool she was.

He dimly saw her moving on the porch, coming to the railing. Then he heard the strangely childish and almost dear sounds of her throwing up. He didn’t feel sick himself. More like postorgasmic; immensely weary and even more immensely sad. He wasn’t going to throw up, but he began to cry, making his own childish sounds. He dropped the shovel, sank to his knees, and sobbed. His mind was empty, but not of sadness.

If time was infinite, then three seconds and three years represented the same infinitely small fraction of it. And so, if inflicting three years of fear and suffering was wrong, as everyone would agree, then inflicting three seconds of it was no less wrong. He caught a fleeting glimpse of God in the math here, in the infinitesimal duration of a life. No death could be quick enough to excuse inflicting pain. If you were capable of doing the math, it meant that a morality was lurking in it.

…safety pin in her ear were helpless against her beauty, but her unhappiness wasn’t. Her features were the same as two years ago, but the light in her eyes had gone out.

She left her room lights burning and the privacy card on her doorknob. [Leaving a hotel room]

Her body looked to be only a healthy diet and some regular exercise away from greatness, but her face and hair were on the verge of confirming a wicked little dictum of Leila’s: Blondes don’t age well. (Leila saw middle age as the Revenge of the Brunettes.)

Many of her colleagues, even some she liked, were brutal in betraying their sources afterward and severing all contact with them, adhering to the principle that it was actually kinder not to return a call from a person you’d slept with if you didn’t intend to sleep with him again. In reporting, as in sex, Leila had always been a caller-back.

The hobgoblin of spurious specificity. [Writing advice]

The Second World War was remembered more for the extermination of Jews, more even for the firebombing of Dresden or the siege of Leningrad, than for what had happened on two August mornings in Japan. Climate change got more ink in a day than nuclear arsenals did in a year.

They should have had a baby. In a way, it was an immense relief not to have had one, not to have brought another life to a planet that would be incinerated quickly or baked to death slowly; not to have to worry about that. And yet they should have done it. Leila loved Tom and admired him beyond measure, she felt blessed by the ease of her life with him, but without a child it was a life of leaving things unspoken. Of cuddling in the evening, watching cable dramas together, inhabiting broad areas of agreement, avoiding the few hots spots of past disagreements, and drifting…

while Tom hired more female journalists than male ones. Tom was a strange hybrid feminist, behaviorally beyond reproach but conceptually hostile. “I get feminism as an equal-rights issue,” he’d said to her once. “What I don’t get is the theory. Whether women are supposed to be exactly the same as men, or different and better than men.”

[On arriving to an empty house] Maybe it was only because she’d expected to find Pip here, but the house seemed ominously sound-swallowing, the banalities of homecoming unreverberating.

She was surprised by how many of the others mentioned making the world a better place when she asked why they were working for Andreas. She thought that, however laudable the sentiment was, this particular phrase ought to have been ridiculed off the face of the earth by now; apparently a sense of irony was low on the list of employment qualifications here.

“Aha, you caught me,” Leila said. “You smoke?” “About five a year.” In a white cereal bowl next to Leila were four stubbed butts. She covered the bowl with her hand. “What is it like to be so moderate?” Pip said. “Oh, it’s just another thing to feel insecure about.” Leila gave a self-disliking laugh. “The interesting people are always immoderate.”

By the mid-eighties, our only halfway decent sex was of the homecoming variety, after one of my reporting trips or my annual summer visit to Denver; for a few hours, we were unlike enough to reconnect.

Finally there came a perfect storm of drafts from uptown and downtown, a big humid uric wind that swept the platform and then reversed itself, and reversed itself again, so that the dollar bills came levitating out of the guitar case and drifted up and down the platform like leaves in autumn, tumbling and skidding, while the band played on. It was perfectly beautiful and perfectly sad, and everybody on the platform knew it, nobody bent down to touch the money.

The argument I made to her, and to myself, was that we needed to reconstruct our separate identities in order to go on together. I genuinely believed this, but my reasons for believing it were bad. I was postponing for as long as possible the guilt of abandoning her. I was also hoping, unrealistically, that she might spare me from this guilt by being the one to leave.

Her breathing became slower and more labored, and then, just past noon, it stopped altogether. I laid my cheek on her chest and held her for a long time, not thinking anything, just being an animal that had lost its mother… My own body felt so vital, so far from its own death, that I went out walking instead, retracing my mother’s long-ago steps, mingling with foreign gawkers along the Wall in Moabit and then finding my way to the Kurfürstendamm.

We were in territory familiar to a journalist. Sources who bothered to allude to stories they couldn’t tell me almost always ended up telling them. The important thing was to talk about anything that wasn’t the untold story. I bought us another round of beers and got him laughing with an attack on twentieth-century British literature, which he seemed to know

it was consonant with my experience of crushes—the feeling of inferiority, the hope of being found worthy nonetheless.

When I finally defeated him, I could feel that something had changed between us, some hook of friendship set. He seemed both confounded and admiring. Until then, I don’t think he’d believed I was a worthy intellectual adversary.

Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married. Only love, only long empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply that there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is her capacity to be hurt by you. The love persists and the hatred with it. Even hating your own heart is no relief.

He went to the Leipzig train station and fished newspapers from trash cans and read them, feeling fortified when he saw his own name. Who could resist the temptation of believing one’s own press?


2 comments on “Book Review: Purity by Franzen
  • Excellent review that reminds me why I need to read it again.

    I’m not sure why, but for some reason I think of Pip in Purity in contrast with the Mae, the main character of Dave Eggers’ The Circle. I generally like Eggers but was disappointed with that book.

    I think because he couldn’t resist making occasionally sarcastic comments about the character. He wouldn’t go all the way and completely empathize with her, which made me wonder how I should relate to her.

    Pip is an outstanding character, right up there with Patty in Freedom.

    I wonder, though, given Franzen’s problematic relationship with female readers, whether he’s presenting a version that’s more suitable for men than women. I’d be curious to hear what women reviewers think of both books.

  • “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *