Is Frazen's 'Purity' Worth The Read?

Jonathan Franzen is such a polarizing cultural figure that it's difficult to read a Franzen novel as just a novel instead of an extension of the debate surrounding the author. (Remember when he said some questionable things about women? That's what I mean.) Nevertheless, Jonathan Franzen's new novel Purity is out and ready for consumption. It's a book that touches on everything from the Internet to parenthood to feminism to growing up — and, as much as his detractors may hate to hear it, the novel is compulsively readable.

The most central of the novel's main characters is Purity "Pip" Tyler, a young woman in her early 20s working a boring, dead-end job, trying to pay off $130,000 in student loan debt, and squatting in a house of oddballs and anti-nuclear activists. But even as her personal life crumbles around her, she is offered a surprising and suspicious internship with The Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-style operation that believes in the higher good of exposing secrets. Intrigued and hopeful that The Sunlight Project will be able to help her find her mysterious father — and needing to put distance between herself and her stifling mother — Pip accepts and leaves California for Bolivia.

The novel focuses not only on Pip's story but also the murky origins of The Sunlight Project's charismatic founder, East German-born Andreas Wolf, and several journalists whose lives are affected by Wolf in surprising ways, both professionally and personally. It's a story that crosses continents and generations, revealing a gripping and tangled backstory and exploring the technologies and ideologies that shape the modern world.

Franzen's mastery of structure and pacing are on full display in Purity. The novel proceeds in a decidedly non-chronological way; not only does time jump backwards or forwards between sections, but within each section, Franzen moves seamlessly between present action and extended backstory, raising new questions even as he sheds light on new answers, drawing the reader in deeper and deeper. This expert structure, coupled with excellently timed reveals and plot twists, is what allows the story to be so engaging and multifaceted, and what will keep readers eagerly turning all 563 pages.

But, of course, the novel is not just about its story; it is ultimately an exploration of ideas and ideals. The title, Purity, does not merely refer to its main character but to convictions and ideologies. Perhaps the ideology at the forefront of the author's mind in the novel is feminism, but he also trains his eye on the Occupy movement and anti-nuclear activism, and other political beliefs and examples of community organizing occasionally crop up as well. What does it mean to hold ideological beliefs? Purity seems to ask. How does it impact our personalities, our choices, our relationships? What is the ideological landscape of the 21st century? And how does the Internet affect it?

This last question is explored in particular, and that is what makes the book so difficult to divorce from the mythos of its author. Franzen is, rightly or wrongly, famous for his anti-technology statements and his particularly negative comments regarding social media. In his fiction, Franzen is more nuanced in his view of the Internet. His main character uses social media, though not perhaps in the casual, habitual way one would expect of a young woman in her 20s. His two perhaps most sympathetic characters both work at an online news magazine. And throughout the novel, various characters admit that The Sunlight Project and its army of hackers, although not perfect, have done good work and revealed important stories.

...the feminism of Franzen's landscape is clunky, sticking out when it should blend in, and bearing little resemblance to how feminism plays out in the real world.

Nevertheless, the novel overall seems, if not outright negative, at least skeptical of the Internet and its effects on culture. "The irony of the Internet," veteran reporter Leila Helou muses at one point, "is that it's made the journalist's job so much easier. ... But the Internet is also killing journalism. There's no substitute for a reporter..." This attitude — that the Internet has created wonderful possibilities but at the expense of many things that are vital — persists throughout the novel. Even Andreas Wolf, the head of The Sunlight Project whose entire life is built around the ecosystem of the web, secretly despises the medium. And when, towards the end of the novel, Pip has a "shudder of revulsion at herself, and at Facebook" after checking another character's relationship status and turns off her computer, it comes across as a healthy development for her character — despite no prior sign she's ever spent much time on Facebook at all.

Of utmost concern in the novel is the issue of feminism, which comes up again and again. Seemingly every female character has some relationship to it. Journalist Leila Helou tries to reconcile her male-heavy personal life with her firm feminist ideals. Activist Annagret forcefully stresses the importance of female relationships. Artist Anabel Laird uses feminism like a weapon to get her own way. Pip herself has few overt feminist sentiments, but its ideals are a vague part of her consciousness.

And yet the feminism of Franzen's landscape is clunky, sticking out when it should blend in, and bearing little resemblance to how feminism plays out in the real world. Rather than informing women's worldview or providing a framework or vocabulary to contextualize experiences, feminism is external and is constantly being explicitly evoked in ways that feel unnatural. Even Leila, whose relationship to feminism feels the most natural, thinks things like, "As a feminist, she couldn't imagine merely being Charles wife," rather than simply having ambition and wanting her own career. (Besides, does that mean stay-at-home wives can't be feminists? Women who don't want to work themselves can't support the rights of other women to have careers?)

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Even this, however, is relatively tame compared to the point at which Anabel, who voices feminist ideals most overtly, uses "the unfairness of of [men] being able to pee standing up" to force her husband to pee sitting down. One could explain this as simply Anabel being her usual unreasonable self — but that the most unreasonable character is also the most vocal feminist in the novel also does not cast its view of women's equality in a flattering light.

It is hard to divorce the attitude towards feminism and the Internet in Purity from Franzen's personal statements on the subject, but it's also unclear if Franzen would even want us to. In a self-referential nudge, one character who is himself a novelist makes a point of noting with amusement that the literary world is full of "So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans." And of course, Franzen is the foremost among them.

...that the most unreasonable character is also the most vocal feminist in the novel also does not cast its view of women's equality in a flattering light.

Purity is also concerned with issues that are not technological or ideological, too. It is also looks extensively and sometimes brutally at the many ways people can hurt one another, and our capacity to wound the people we love. The novel is full of unhappy relationships — between spouse, between lovers, between friends, and between parents and their children. And yet this is part of those same questions about the Internet and about politics. The novel's name, Purity, hints at the dangers of seeking to achieve ideological purity, and the ways in which such a thing can destroy your relationship to others. Pip's mother, for instance, who loves the idea of pure ideology so much she named her daughter Purity and, in fact, hates to be seen as physical body at all, comes across as perhaps the most difficult and unenviable character in the novel. Meanwhile, Pip herself considers the word to be "the most shameful word in the language" and hates the weight of it on her life.

As a whole, Purity is an exciting and masterfully told story, one that attempts to explore a broad array of important issues in today's world. Whether or not readers will find Franzen's views compelling remains to be seen, but the book's vivid characters, its precise pacing, and its grand scope are reason enough to recommend it.

Image: Courtesy of Emma Cueto