When my birthday came round I had two matching sized presents (from different generous people) - two big hard gift wrapped blocks. Both were the new book Purity - the latest from probably my favourite contemporary writer Jonathan Franzen - the gift givers know me well. The novel had a weighty feel (literally) to it. Great I thought, an epic up there with Freedom and Corrections - fiction so strong I speculated that JF may give up on that style and just focus on new journalism (which he also does very well). But...no.
Purity is a disappointing work. Not terrible nor unreadable but a meandering mass. The sharpness of tone and language is there in parts as is his understanding of America's place in the world yet overall it is blunted. I think there are several major issues
The title first of all is not an abstract concept with which to view the body of the work like “Freedom” or in Austen or Dicken’s work “Pride and Prejudice” or “Hard Times”. Well it is sort of but not just that as it is also the name of one of the central characters of the piece – a twenty something female college graduate although she is known universally as Pip. This nod to Great Expectations – explained in a pointless interaction in the work and indeed Victorian novels and novelists in general is an apt comparison. For in many ways it seems that Franzen is trying to create a big old school 19th Century novel. However unlike his previous large works (which I think could be put into this category) this seems a lot more contrived and inorganic as the themes rather than the structure of the work ape conventional Victorian novelists.
At the core of the book is a search for identity – Pip grew up alone with her mother and wants to know who her father was. Their existence is a meagre one in almost complete isolation. There is no mention of her father apart from one story of escaping an abusive partner and having to change her name. Tied to this comes a puzzle of missing legacies and challenging inheritance. These devices could come straight from Thomas Hardy or George Eliot. The problem though is that the plot becomes over powering and invades the areas which are Franzen’s considerable strengths : character development and understanding contemporary issues. In fact at its lowest ebb (which is not maintained throughout) it becomes a little like crime fiction where the plot distracts from any other aspect of the book. Not a whodunit but a who is Purity’s dad? When I was most frustrated with the work I had flashbacks to the trashy 80s book Lace with its equally trashy Dynasty/Dallas style mini-series and its tag-line : “Which one of you bastards is my father….” Not helped by the cover design of the dust sheet which looks like a glossy 80s piece of work.
It is always a big gamble when a male novelist adopts a female protagonist and tries to see the events through her eyes. Although JF does not attempt a first person narrative - big chunks of the work are the perspective of Pip (unsurprising given the title of book) and a sizeable chapter from an older woman journalist Leila. The work similar to Freedom adopts a number of perspectives throughout - male and female, older and young. This in itself can be problematic particularly when intimate or sexual feelings are discussed. Add to this Pip's age - she is the millennial in the work - and her approach to social media. Potential boyfriends tell her to look at their relationship status, key points in the work are revealed through short texts, communication through text and online chat is second nature and her identity is determined by her digital profile. In theory this is an accurate picture of Pip and her generation but at points you can see JF (a self -confessed opponent of social media) as someone at least 25 years older struggling with the terminology and the use of digital media like a pensioner with the screen of a smartphone. Thus an attempt to contrast the younger generation with the older characters (who make up the majority of the work) struggles with the lack of deftness in this area.
The focus on Pip seeking her father has a global dimension. Although Pip is a debt laden graduate living in the Bay Area at a crappy telesales job (another plight of the millennial) her life in an alternative squat -type community (this part of the work lets JF make some fairly funny and accurate comments on the Occupy Movement of a few years ago) leads her into an entanglement with a global star of the Internet - Andreas Wolf - a German in his 50s known for leaking international information through his online empire. It turns out he has another motive for dragging Pip into his circle as becomes obvious as the overbearing plot intervenes.
Wolf (predator - geddit?)...you say you mean Assange surely a charismatic man of a certain age with a dodgy past and aspect to his character. Well no and this leads to another major problem of the work. Explicitly Wolf is not the Australian embassy dweller as Assange is mentioned as a person in relation to Wolf. This is poor form as the work carried out by Sunlight Project is almost explicitly the same as Wikileaks. Further in the lengthy piece outlining Wolf's back story growing up in East Germany - the son of leading bureaucrats in the Stalinist regime- where he exhibits a controversial sexual interest in alienated teenagers and the development of an eventual uncontrollable narcissism. Given these traits even though he is not Antipodean I could not get image of Assange out of my mind wherever Wolf is involved in the work. Try it! Franzen obviously has struggled with this in writing this hence the crowbarring in of mentions of Assange. Apparently Daniel Craig has been pencilled in for this role in a TV adaption (the plot makes this an easier proposition to televise than Franzen's other work) - even he is going to struggle to give Wolf another face than the Australian facing investigation over sexual offences.
As well as the Assange problem the character of Wolf has other issues. In writing his background JF goes over the top with a Hamlet analogy. His mother is a Professor in English Literature and leading party apparatchik as is his father. However she is promiscuous as witnessed by a young Andreas and there are question marks about his parentage. He is even visited by the "ghost" of his biological father twice within the works. There is also an Oedipal dimension to his relationship with his mother - a theme explored in many productions of Hamlet. The Shakespearean quotes and metaphors are completely overdone and don't go anywhere. They are also incongruous in a literary sense as it seems the work is meant to be like a nineteenth century novel not a Shakesperean tragedy - it just seems tapped in. It also disappears after this part even though Wolf is involved in much of the rest of the book
In Wolf's past something happens (plot device) involving a young woman who is being abused by her stepfather and murder . Wolf becomes obsessed with Annagret who in turn becomes a key figure in the work and in Pip's life eventually. This event dominates even in an unspoken way the rest of the novel. What is done well in this part (along with the description of East Germany which seems accurate and non accusatory) is the growth of narcissism amongst men and those who try to be leaders of anything. Wolf becomes a dissident in Stasi-East Germany but really as an act of maternal rebellion and becomes a "leader" in 1989 really because he wants to cover up his past and hide his identity - not from any real commitment to anything. This ego mania is very much Assange and others I could mention and have seen close up. Franzen is perceptive in his analysis of this and this stands out from many others who buy the whole Assange myth. But there is the problem - it is viewed again through the Assange prism not from the work as a whole.
This leads into further problems when Assange brings Pip into his world in Bolivia. JF sets up a sexual tension between the two - which is only partly resolved. This in itself is tricky for me given the 30 year age gap and Wolf's past. The scenes are difficult to read in for this reason which I wonder if is deliberate on Franzen's part especially as he explores the nature of abuse with Annagret who is also younger then Wolf but not in the same dimension. It is also problematic because of Pip's unresolved paternity - given the plot leaps is it not possible that Wolf is her father? There is a particularly unconvincing part where Wolf admits his love for Pip - incongruous given his narcissism and his eventual end which I will not reveal.
The other major character (along with journalist Leila) is Tom Aberant - an old style investigative journalist and magazine editor who has had an entanglement with Wolf way back in the heady days of 1989. His job allows for lots of comparison with the new media and the old ways/values of journalists. Aberant hires Pip who is essentially working undercover for Assange (whoops sorry Wolf) and is still intent on finding her father. Is it Tom? Well another "clue" - that blooming plot again - comes from a lengthy journal/essay/unfinished memoir written by Tom which is presented in full. This part is by far the best written section of the book outlining a difficult and tempestuous relationship between Tom and performance artist/alienated heiress Anabel growing up together from the early 80s on. This is JF's time obviously and the ease with which he does this contrasts with his struggles over Pip's time and place.
But even this is a problem as it is a device used almost identically in Freedom where the pivotal points of the relationships between the protagonists are revealed in Patti (the leading female character in Freedom)'s journal which is published in full as the central part of the novel. It is an effective device but using the same approach in subsequent novels is disappointing for a writer of JF's quality.
All comes to a head in the concluding characters and fathers are revealed, inheritances are received and Wolf's destiny comes to a predictable conclusion. It ends with an argument between Pip's parents and her contemplating that "it had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn't sure she would". The essential millennial problem now being played out in full in post-Brexit UK. This would be also more valid if Pip had not just inherited millions of dollars- but again this is central to plot!
There are good elements to the book - Tom's writing, the dissection of narcissism, the understanding of Occupy. But other points there is just a hint of Franzen's skill. When Pip is confronted by Tom about Wolf she breaks down in a very young immature way which contrasts with her general persona - this was very well written but not explored enough. There are hints of Franzen's love of nature and wildlife but in very small patches unlike his previous work. These give a glimpse of what JF is and potentially what Purity could have been but sadly it is not these things. A meandering and problematic disappointment and I never thought I would write that about a work of Jonathan Franzen.