With the publication of his last two novels—soaring works that ingeniously analyze the complexities of our culture through characters both full-bodied and unforgettable—Jonathan Franzen proved himself unafraid to wrestle life's unanswerable questions and masterful at capturing our difficulty reconciling greed and ambition with a desire to do good. The tender precision with which The Corrections
then slowly allow them to redeem themselves, can bring a reader to tears. In his new book, Purity
(FSG), Franzen subjects his heroes and heroines to even harsher tests, but this time they don't always rise to the occasion.
Purity "Pip" Tyler is a guileless millennial staggering under the weight of her college loans and getting no help from her neurotic mother, who has never told Pip who her father is or even her own real last name. Pip toils in a dead-end job and plays nursemaid to various down-on-their-luck roommates. She inhabits a Northern California without any of the sheen of the real place; from the oppressive cubicle she works in to the seedy apartment she squats in, this is no Golden State.
Meanwhile, in Germany (and later Bolivia), Andreas Wolf has emerged as a kind of Julian Assange on steroids. As a boy, Andreas was in thrall to his overweening appartchik mother, but as a man, he's grown to despise her. Seducing women comes as easily to him as breathing—he engages in the two activities with almost the same frequency—but none of his conquests mean a thing to him until, at age 27, he is captivated by a 15-year-old named Annagret. To prove his devotion, Andreas concocts a plan to murder Annagret's abusive stepfather, a ploy that doesn't quite win him the love he seeks, but launches him as a superstar whistle-blower: the founder of a WikiLeaks-type organization called the Sunlight Project.
If Pip is the embodiment of innocence and youthful authenticity, Andreas becomes the "Big Bad" Wolf, a cynical opportunist hiding behind a cause. When their paths finally cross—through what appears to be a coincidence but is actually a carefully orchestrated scheme devised to settle a score—Pip bewitches the now 50-something Andreas, throwing him off his game. What follows is the unveiling of a subplot connecting Pip's past to secrets Andreas has held for years.
As with all of Franzen's fiction, there is much to admire in Purity, not least what reviewer David Gates once termed "microfelicities," the expertly calibrated turns of phrase and pleasingly digressive cultural references and riffs around every corner. Like his last two novels, Purity bends time, easing in and out of characters' pasts and presents until, before you know it, the disparate pieces of a life suddenly fit.
The big difference in this book is its lack of affectionate skepticism, the kind that allowed Franzen's earlier characters, such as Walter and Patty Berglund of Freedom, to be fatally imperfect yet finally noble. Purity's characters—particularly its monstrous mothers and even the intriguing Andreas—never achieve that humanity. At their best, though, they remind us how far simple openness and kindness can go, as when Pip tries to help her parents make peace with each other so they can finally move forward. If, with all she has been denied, Pip still emerges whole and healthy and able to love, maybe all is not lost.