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A Compelling Plot Gives Way To Farce In Franzen's Purity

With a title like Purity, Jonathan Franzen's latest novel sets the reader up for great expectations, and how. What Franzen does well in every novel is to tell a sprawling story with a robust and intimately rendered casts of characters. At the outset of this one, we meet Pip (hello, Charles Dickens), a recent college graduate who is clever and ambitious, but aimless. She's saddled with student debt (as if her creator had studied a few popular magazines and websites in order to understand the condition of today's young people), works odd jobs, and struggles to separate herself from an overbearing and possibly insane mother.

Then we move on to the other characters: A chance encounter leads Pip to an internship in Bolivia with Andreas Wolf, a German ex-pat and creator of something called The Sunshine Project, which is similar to WikiLeaks (Purity is, if nothing else, frantically reaching for the zeitgeist).

From there Pip finds her way to a job with an online magazine in Denver where she lives with a group of adults involved in a complicated affair: Leila, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, her husband Charles, a moderately successful novelist, and Leila's editor and lover, Tom. (This triangle is far more interesting than the attention it receives in the novel but it is also not at all the point of the novel.)

Franzen is willing to show the reader just how much he knows about his characters with back stories that are, at times, far more compelling than the circumstances in which the characters find themselves. As the story unfolds we begin to see unexpected connections between Pip, her mother, Andreas, Charles, Tom, and Leila. There are complications, a murder in East Germany, secrets revealed and then a rather quiet end. That sounds a bit dismissive but it is, in essence, the overall narrative arc of the novel.

I am amenable to Franzen as a talented novelist. His 2001 novel, The Corrections, remains one of my favorite books though I was far less enamored by Freedom in 2010. Regardless, it is always clear the reader is in the hands of a talented writer. There are razor-sharp moments of observation, like when Leila recalls her lover Tom's ex-wife Anabel (never Annabelle). "The woman was intense—fiery-eyed, full-chestedly anorexic, Medusa-maned, mostly unsmiling." And the way Franzen structures Purity is unexpectedly satisfying. The tension builds and builds as new questions arise and still, everything somehow comes together.

But, for every wonderful piece of prose, for every masterful stroke in this novel, there is the stuff that was simply distracting, if not alienating and infuriating. For all its extravagant ambition, the book is full of self-indulgent nonsense.

Two of the characters—Andreas and Anabel — are so over the top as to feel like farce. Anabel is an artist, the daughter of a billionaire who refuses her blood money inheritance but loves her designer clothes. She spends most of the book in a near hysterical state, constantly perceiving slights. Of course, she is a feminist who so fervently believes in gender equality, she makes her husband, Tom, sit on the toilet to pee. This behavior is unhinged to the point where it feels more applicable to another novel, one about the profound depths of mental illness. This isn't that novel, though, so her characterization becomes excessive, strange and at times even silly.

Andreas, also mentally ill and full of delusion, was treated far more charitably, as if bizarre behavior is more palatable in a man. Only toward the end of Purity, do we truly see how troubled he is (his narcissism and promiscuity do catch up to him) but by then, the reader is so exhausted by his misplaced self-regard, it's hard to care what becomes of him.

Purity offers any number of critiques of modernity and the way we live now (online), the Internet (masturbatory death), feminism (angry womenfolk) and other topics. These are laden with potential but often fall short: When Leila considers her resentment toward Pip she deems her feelings, "an older woman's feminist anger at her younger self." This is a nice idea but it seems far more like how a man thinks a woman might view her younger self (uncharitably) than how a successful, self-actualized woman might view her younger self (with, I hope, at least some amount of empathy).

In literary circles, Jonathan Franzen is well known as a Great American Novelist, as he was heralded in a 2010 issue of Time. He is the writer who dared turn his nose up at Oprah Winfrey's book club. He has brash opinions and is often deliberately or obtusely provocative. It's hard to know which. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Franzen casually mentioned that he considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan so he could better understand young people. His editor, Franzen says, talked him out of it.

There are moments in Purity where the writer makes it clear he is well aware of his outsized, cranky reputation. At one point Charles tells Pip, "So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only The New York Times Book Review, you'd think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality." Franzen is poking fun at himself. But while he may feel his celebrity is a burden, few tears will be shed on his behalf. The author can console himself with both commercial and critical literary success. As such, each time Franzen tries to engage with his public image playfully it comes off as awkward, like unwanted affection from an uncle whose kisses are too wet.

But Jonathan Franzen is too talented a writer to let this diminish his overall project in Purity. In this novel he is not just reaching for the zeitgeist. He is offering up an earnest, albeit rather narrow and privileged assessment of the world we live in and a demonstration of how the more we are able to know about others, the less we know about ourselves. Unfortunately, the shame of this novel is that purity is largely found not in the storytelling but in the author's passive aggressive contempt for nearly all his characters.

Roxane Gay's latest book is Bad Feminist.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Roxane Gay
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