Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

by Robert A. Parker

This 2015 work is a confusing novel from a writer I have long admired. It is confusing because it moves back and forth among different characters and different time frames. It is a method authors often use today, chiefly to involve readers into figuring out what is going on and, not incidentally, to create suspense.

But I found myself asking too many questions. Who, for example, is the main character? Is it Pip (Purity), whom we encounter at the start of the novel. Is it Andreas Wolf, a German computer hacker whom we next meet in Berlin, and follow to Bolivia, where he is a WikiLeaks-type provocateur? Or is it Tom Aberant, an American journalist tied to Andreas by a crime and his investigative journalism web site, but who also endures a ten-year marriage to Anabel, a marriage of conflict that this reader also found difficult to endure.

Also, why do we meet Pip in the middle of her story? Why is her mother so afraid to tell her about her father? Why does Wolf entice Pip to come to Bolivia? What is the point of the disastrous marriage of Tom? What is the lasting connection between Tom and Andreas? Eventually, we do learn the answers to these question, but rather than work as teasers, these questions frustrated this reader, actually inhibiting his interest. As suggested, I am not a fan of presenting characters and their stories out of chronological sequence. What I wish is that the suspense come from the actions of the characters, and wondering what they will do next, not from wondering what the actions of the characters actually mean.

Franzen is obviously trying here to write a major novel of literature. A novel of generations. A novel of family hate and jealousy. A novel of relationships between parent and child. A psychological novel (the Killer who haunts Andreas). A novel of international scope and subterfuge. A novel of literary complexity and commercial surprise.

The ending, in particular, reflects that commercial aspect. Marriage partners reconnect, but there is no conclusive ending to their relationship. A love affair continues on also, but inconclusively. Perhaps the characters are intended to continue on in our minds, but one also wonder if they are being set up to continue in a sequel. Or is Franzen simply unable to imagine the future of these characters, once their basic drama has concluded?

The novel’s title. More than a name for Pip, it seems intended to be symbolic. There is a billion dollar inheritance being refused. Does that reflect a sense of purity? There is truth being hidden and being exposed. About a nuclear bomb, about a murder, about a paternity. Is hacking in the interest of truth, and is that for reasons of purity, as Andreas pretends it is? There is even a suicide that, for me, comes out of nowhere. Of course, it is Pip’s mother who named her, and she is living her own interpretation of a life of purity. But the title seems meant to go beyond that, and for me is a little forced as a result, as if the author wants to make sure we get his point.

As Colm Toibin suggests in his Times review, Pip seems for a long time seems to be a victim of circumstance and an innocent in the ways of the world—far from the qualities of a major character. Indeed, Toibin calls her “a damaged innocent in need of rescue and redemption.” But even when her central role is more clear, she remains for me a passive character, more a character used by the author to reveal the more significant actions of the other characters. This is again evident when the author uses her to build a final scene that goes nowhere.

Toibin accurately sums up this novel when he writes: “it dramatizes the uneasy and damaging relationships between parents and their offspring in white America, the strains within friendship, and the ways time and familiarity and human failings work at corroding a marriage.” Of course, this is very abstract, perhaps because a critic needs to avoid spoilers, but it accurately reflects the family relationships that are the concern of Franzen in many of his works

The long section of Tom and Anabel’s corroding marriage particularly aggravated me. Especially Anabel’s whiney one-upmanship, her insistence that she is always right. And Tom’s acceptance of her, because he loves her, and his refusal to free himself from her for ten years. Of course, we finally come to understand her, as we finally realize who she actually is, but it is a long slog, barely justified by Franzen’s revelation.

Many of the reviewers comment on the coincidences that appear in this novel. And at the same time, they praise the forward-moving plot. Of course, that forward movement depends often on the coincidences, which bring these characters together at key points and at other times help them understand the motives of others. Such as Andreas and Tom meeting in Berlin. Such as Pip working for Andreas and then for Tom. Such as Andreas and Tom ending up in the same profession, that of revealing secrets. Such as, on the other hand, Pip’s ignorance of who her father and mother really are, the premise of the entire novel. And, finally, such as Pip bringing people together at the end, but with inconclusive, unconvincing results.

I observed that family relationships have long been a concern of the author. And in telling his other stories, he would move among the family members and tell each story from different viewpoints. But there was unity, because he was always within that family. Here, however, he goes beyond that basic family. First, we are not even sure who the basic family is comprised of. And, second, he makes Andreas, an outsider, part of that family. And both these factors require him to move about in time as well as in geography, in order to tell us this complicated story. And they also require him to hold back on key information. In other words, his structure is at the service of the story he wishes to tell.

I shall continue my interest in Franzen, but I hope he discovers a simpler way next time to tell his story of family relationships. (July, 2016)