What Do These People Want?


by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 563 pp., $28.00
Marco Okhuizen/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux
Jonathan Franzen, 2002


Admirers of Jonathan Franzen’s witty, brilliantly observed novels of contemporary American family life—The Corrections and Freedom—will find that his new novel, Purity, departs from his previous allegiance to comic realism; it’s a complex narrative of fates intertwined and twinned, international crimes, dark secrets, a whirl of events unfolding at fairy-tale or comic-book speed. There is the tale of Pip, whose quest is to learn the identity of her father; and that of Andreas, a world-famous Internet leaker operating from Bolivia after a childhood under communism in East Berlin; of Tom and Leila, journalists in Denver uncovering a Strangelovean plot to steal a nuclear bomb; a reclusive woman who won’t tell her daughter her real name; and much more.

In one of his essays (“Mr. Difficult”), Franzen distinguishes between one kind of novel, “Status” novels, like those written by Flaubert, Proust, Kafka, and especially William Gaddis, that invite a “discourse of genius and art-historical importance”; and the kind of novel he likes to read and believes in, “Contract” novels, referring to the compact between writer and reader, who both expect novels to be enjoyed, to be inspiring, to sell. Purity makes a stab at having “Status” qualities in its complicated chronology and ambitious array of moral concerns, but in its page-turning sequence of events and hot sex scenes it also tries to fulfill the “Contract.”

As with opera synopses, any narrative, reduced to its plot details, can sound ridiculous, so the reader may find it helpful to think of the melodramatic Purity as conforming more closely to the familiar genre of the folk tale than to the sort of lyrical/realistic fiction we have had from Franzen before. In a structuralist view, it follows archetypal patterns: there’s the Heroine, Pip. (The Dickensian allusion of her name will become clear as the narrative moves along.) Her reclusive mother (who is either the Princess or the Witch) refuses to tell Pip who her father (the King) is or her real last name. As in a fairy tale, Pip must embark on a Journey of discovery, she meets the Villain disguised as a friend, and so on. This basic paradigm is of course given a contemporary cloak: Pip is a penniless university student living in a sort of Oakland squat; her mother is a loving but depressed single woman who has attempted to bring Pip up in virtuous simplicity and near poverty in a cottage. There will be gold at the end of the quest.

The narrative is broken into seven sections out of chronological order, each focusing on a different character, some written in the first person, with many flashbacks. A précis may help illuminate some of the observations to follow. It’s worth noting that there is very little description of the material world except where it is necessary to get the characters in and out…

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