Purity, by Jonathan Franzen
I shan’t write a review outlining the plotlines or anything like that. Rather, here are a few thoughts that came to me while reading and digesting Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel.
This feels like it was written with television in mind. Maybe writing the doomed HBO adaptation of The Corrections put him off but I felt like Franzen’s multi-threaded style has evolved to feel like a really good TV show. Varied locations, time taken to develop a character who then disappears, only to resurface, and a combination of the highly visual and highly visceral. Franzen said that The Corrections had a ‘universe’ behind it with more characters and stories which he effectively edited out of the novel. I wonder if he didn’t consciously include more of these in Purity.
The Corrections and Freedom felt like attempts to describe America and the world at specific historical moments. Purity feels no different in this respect. While it continues in Franzen’s now traditional way to analyse family life (most specifically a Larkinesque approach to what parents do to their kids), Purity also deals with the information revolution: the Internet. Franzen has been named a Luddite by many fierce defenders of the Internet for comments he has made over the years about things like how a serious writer would never write a novel on a computer connected to the Internet. These defenders get really upset by anyone criticising their revolution. In Purity, Franzen takes some time to explain his position and his argument that the ‘revolution’ of the internet – insofar as it applies to liberty – is as false as the ‘revolution’ of the German Democratic Republic, but just as totalitarian. His observation that Google, Facebook and Twitter are often hailed for defending ‘freedom’ principles while the NSA – which really is tasked with protecting the American system – is universally loathed, is provocative. And taking some time off from such things over New Year, it is difficult to point to any true value that social media brings to an individual’s life, outside of ego boosts.
The idea of the Great American Novel is, in itself, a sort of Moby Dick (hurr hurr) for writers like Franzen. I don’t think he’s trying to deliver that with Purity, but I do appreciate that if he has come close, it’s with a Spanish culebron packed with German characters.
Purity’s closing message fits with a popular analysis of inter-generational strife in the post-war half century west. Our parents’ generation have fucked everything up. And they had everything. Franzen adds to this a vital component of hope – he seems to trust the ‘millennials’ far more than many authors in his position do.
I liked Pip as a lead character.
I found Purity to be the funniest Franzen to date. Really laugh out loud funny at times.
For some reason, I split my reading of the book between a visit to Berlin (which felt amazingly well-timed, seeing as I could now imagine the Frankfurter Allee and Friedrichshain while reading about them, and a trip to the Philippines (which is only mentioned once, and briefly, in the novel).
In all, an enjoyable read.