Another character-driven novel by Jonathan Franzen, Purity proposes a system in which morality is a performance and a frustration of desire. His newest book was highly anticipated after the success of The Corrections (2001), which won the National Book Award, and the highly praised Freedom (2010). Since Corrections Franzen has worn all the laurels as the darling of American letters. The hype is well deserved, though, as he continues the tradition of the large-scale social novel and is the direct heir of American novelists like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.
Most impressive is his work’s continued defense of the novel as an art form, an issue in which both he and his late friend, the writer David Foster Wallace, were deeply invested. He is a writer of 500-plus page novels in the age of television and Twitter, but the qualities of his work are exclusive to their medium. This is probably the reason they continue to resist translation into film. Over the course of dense, chapterless sections, Purity simmers with emotional tension, and the action is driven by this slow-burn energy. Only the novel form demands the attention span needed to build this tension and use it to explore the characters’ psyches.
Of Franzen’s novels, Purity boasts the largest scope, ranging from hackers in a present-day Bolivian paradise to the raiding of the Stasi archives in East Berlin. But his theme is perhaps the most narrow: what goes on in the human heart. His favorite themes of social consciousness, love, loyalty, success and family are reduced to their emotional residue. The question of Purity is not how does loyalty (for example) function in a life? but how does its practice change the geography of a person’s heart?
Initially, the novel follows the post-graduate life of “Pip” (real name Purity) Tyler, who is struggling with student debt and questions about her mother’s past and her father’s identity. Getting in the way of her contentment is her inability to deal with her dissatisfaction and her dysfunctional relationships in a squatter community. A chance encounter with some German anti-nuke activists puts her in contact with the Julian-Assange-like über-leaker Andreas Wolf and his Sunlight Project (because “sunlight is the best disinfectant”).
After Pip is wooed to an internship with the Project, the focus turns to the origins of this crusader of clean in East Berlin of the 1980s. There his career as a dissident is complicated by his parents’ ties to the Communist government. The contradictions of his life reveal his moral opportunism, creating a spotless image while indulging in depravity and self-denial.
A short return to the present depicts Pip’s work with an independent online newspaper in Denver and her interpersonal struggles with her editor and his girlfriend. The remainder of the book fills in the gaps in facts and motivations until a brief but intense denouement.
Despite the sometimes frustrating nonlinearity of the narrative, it glows with Franzen’s characteristic sensitivity to every shade and contour of emotional conflict. The novel explores how phenomena as diverse as oppressive governments, Dumpster diving and the Internet can change the landscape of hearts and relationships. Purity has typical Franzen character as well: a lean to the left politically, unmasked judgments (“having grown up with no television, she had good language skills”) and the fun, but hardly believable, specificities of his characters’ ornithological knowledge (Franzen is a bird enthusiast).
One stand-out portion of the book is the memoir of Pip’s editor, Tom, written in an engaging and convincing first-person voice. It reveals the tenderest and most personal treatment of the book’s interest in honesty and secrets. There are moments of aching confusion over revelations and refusals, although finally we are shown a compromised solution. Some holding back, some dishonesty is the best policy, and herein lies the flaw in the book’s overall conclusion.
The various plot secrets are the source of an obsession with scrupulousness, and this leads to dubious conclusions about the moral life. The characters develop and are defined almost solely by their scruples. The emotional tension, while complicated and well-crafted, is created by the near-paralysis of self-scrutiny. These are people torn up inside by the conflict between what they really want and the consequences of getting it. Pip follows her impulses and isn’t well liked, which depresses her. Passionate sex lives turn dangerous, so characters seek safer, easier sublimations. The human moral life is reduced to the subjugation of intense immediate desires to long-term contentment. Following the book’s logic, morality consists of the compromises we make in order to live with ourselves and in society. Integrity equals good impulse control.
But this smacks of cheap cynicism. Franzen may show us every shade here, but only along a small portion of the spectrum. He neglects or dismisses relevant concepts like sacrifice as virtue and the joy of wholeness.
Early in the novel a “Catholic Worker type” is vilified for the harshness of her piety. As a young provocateur, the leaker Andreas lives in a church basement among nameless, impotent Christian dissidents he labels “embarrassments.” With that treatment, Franzen does away with religious and spiritual moral dimensions. The most “irreproachable” characters, as well as the most self-serving, find themselves in untenable situations. The reader is asked to then sympathize with and accept the solutions of the characters who compromise. Whether a person could order desires and actions into the expression of an ultimate purpose remains unconsidered.
Franzen’s previous novels, especially his less popular but brilliant Strong Motion, were more comfortable with unanswered questions. It was allowed that there could be multiple ways of being. It’s possible that Franzen, who has an obviously philosophical mind and keen sense of responsibility, is growing frustrated with a world almost beyond satire. But Purity’s admission of the fiction of purity feels like throwing in the towel. Jonathan Franzen has lost none of his considerable powers, but the hope and openness missing from his new book make it a body without a soul.