Purity by Jonathan Franzen – Book

Much has been said about purity in recent years. Food is one
area where claims to purity add retail value for those who feel that eating
healthy is actually now a cultural responsibility. Purity in relation to our energy
sources – that they need to be carbon neutral and simple mechanisms that tame
natural forces for our use (like heat from the sun and wind from earth’s air
currents) – is another way the idea of purity has become an obsession for
those who can choose. One test mentioned often in Republican circles is the
test to determine how closely Conservative politicians adhere to right wing
orthodoxy, or, in other words, a test of purity.
All these ideas of purity and more sit behind this story. And
lots of impurity sits behind this story also. Purity is the birth name of the
main character who leads us into the events Franzen creates for us. What some
may find difficult about this offering is the way Franzen jumps to seemingly
unrelated characters and then shows us the connection when he’s ready. However
it all comes together in the end and I am guessing that the story structure is
very deliberate.
Purity lives in a derelict house with Dreyfuss who is one loan modification away from losing his only possession. Three other people
share the space with Purity and Dreyfuss; Stephen, Marie and Ramon. Purity is a
telemarketer whose main goals in life are to get out from under her student
loans and to have a relationship with Stephen which she cannot have because he
is married to Marie. A strange German visitor, Annagret, offers Purity – known
as Pip right now – an internship with a group called The Sunlight Project,
which has far more humane goals than Pip’s current employer. The Sunlight
Project is headed by a man named Andreas Wolf who is considered a cult hero.
Annagret has Pip complete a weird interview and tells her she is qualified for
the internship.
We jump to the story of Andreas Wolf, the legendary project
leader of this WikiLeaks- style operation designed to expose world actors whose
motives are less than pure. Wolf grew up in East Berlin in the years before the
Berlin Wall came down. Does this tough beginning justify some of the traits we
find in Andreas Wolf? You must decide.
Pip (Purity) spends lots of time talking to her agoraphobic
mom, Anabel, who has every other possible phobia also, but who obviously loves
her daughter, although we wonder who takes care of whom in this relationship. Would Anabel
have had any kind of life if she did not have Pip? Purity has never been
allowed to know who her father is and in fact Anabel says he abused her and
that he is dangerous. Pip still wants to find her father. We eventually hear
about the romance between Pip’s mom and a man named Tom Aberant (emphasis on
the Ab), a relationship which was good for a while and then devolved into spite,
anger, and revenge.
There is also a connection between Tom Aberant and Andreas
Wolf which I will not explain because it is at the heart of this novel and
because it might spoil the book for you.
Franzen wants, perhaps, to prepare us for how very difficult
it is for flawed humans to attain anything approaching purity unless it is a
name you give your child – a name that she is not even allowed to use. It is a
pretty good microcosm of the way the developed world rolls in these early
decades of the 21st century. 
Jonathan Franzen is a great storyteller. He’s the kind of
writer with enough craft that we forget to even be bothered by the words on the
page because there are no flaws to distract us. The story is in the foreground,
the writing underlies it, but we don’t notice it. Character development is more
problematic in Purity because at times Franzen almost seems to be writing
separate short stories. We are yanked out of one set of characters and settings
into new characters and settings with little transition. But eventually Franzen
ties his new characters back to the old characters and voila, the plot thickens
and unfolds almost like a mystery story which we solve with the author’s help.
Another difficulty some may find with this story is that the
message does not seem unique or profound enough to justify the length and
complexity of the story or even to turn this into a truly great novel. On the
other hand, it is a good social commentary and it is more substantial than some of the popular novels that are its
contemporaries. Perhaps time will change my take on this. Some novels require a
lengthier digestive period than others. I still recommend Purity by Jonathan Franzen because, although not perfect in my
estimation, it is still a good read.
By Nancy Brisson

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