Purity by Jonathan Franzen


Franzen’s novels now have a recognisable formula. The passing of the narrative baton between several characters who collectively will tell a family history. Some have said this novel is a departure from his familiar familial territory – but I didn’t see that at all. This is another novel about a family, or, more accurately, two families. I continually felt like I was reading an inferior version of Freedom and The Corrections (both novels I loved). Some have seen it as an attack on the internet. I didn’t really see that either. I was rather dreading some kind of repeat of Eggers’ soulless sterile propaganda attempt at warning us about the nefarious nature of social media. Purity has been praised for “rejecting the American dream of individuals as authors of their own destiny” but this is hardly ground-breaking as a theme: what good contemporary American writer hasn’t shown us the other side of the Gatsby coin?

If there’s a subtext in this novel it might be decoded as “everyone needs a dad because mothers are a bloody nightmare.”

You could say Purity is essentially about squabbling. Everyone is squabbling with everyone else – usually after a brief hiatus of requited love. The main problem for me though was the characters. The pulse they provided was often so thin that several times the novel was on the verge of dying.  It wasn’t until Annabel arrived (around page 370) that finally the novel acquired a stronger heartbeat.

The novel begins (badly) with Pip. Pip is pretty obnoxious and insubstantial. Pip is squabbling with the entire world. To counteract her lack of charm and depth Franzen gives her a mystery. She has been brought up by a Miss Havisham mother who refuses to tell her who her father is. (The rather heavy handed parallels with Great Expectations were like a joke I didn’t get.)

The second voice is Andreas Wolf. He is squabbling with his mother. He too doesn’t know who his father is. I’m not sure why Franzen repeated this theme. Reminded me of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night where everyone is shooting each other in the first 100 pages as if Fitzgerald liked the idea so much he couldn’t stop using it. The novel stands or falls on Wolf as he is central to the bigger picture Franzen is presenting. Through Wolf Franzen connects the surveillance culture of the eastern Bloc with modern day internet privacy issues. But Wolf was all pasteboard melodrama for me. The more we were told about him the less believable he became. His story is pinched from McEwan’s The Innocent.  It felt like Franzen is too conservative in his bones to convincingly create such a psychotic misfit.  Half way through Wolf’s story I knew this novel wasn’t going to work.

The third voice is Tom. Tom is like another, more domesticated version of Andreas. Except he’s an investigative journalist. This was where Franzen might have contrasted internet whistleblowing with rigorous well-researched investigative journalism but at no point do we see Tom investigating anything that might be deemed important. At the end of the day his attempts at enlightening the world appear no more laudable than Andreas’. The best part of the novel though is without question his dysfunctional relationship with his wife, Annabel. Finally Franzen seemed to have hold of his characters and command of his material.

Should also be said that Pip’s moral transformation, unlike her Dickens’ counterpart, takes place offstage so there’s a sense of being cheated out of any dramatic denouement.

The high level of my expectation, my great expectations, no doubt contributed to the level of my disappointment.  The Corrections was a great novel; Freedom was even better. I’m sure Franzen will write another great novel but this certainly isn’t it.


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