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 of rooms, or to Denver or Belize, where they can continue their ruminations and reproaches; the fast-moving events are recounted in serviceable and self-effacing language.
In Part One, at her Oakland squat, Pip meets a German woman, Annagret, who puts her on to an Internet guru, a charismatic Julian Assange figure, and plants the idea that his command of the Internet may help her discover her father’s identity, along with allowing her to do good in the world by bringing hidden wrongs to light, a mission that accords with Pip’s idealistic upbringing. Andreas Wolf, the Assange figure, is a German who heads a cultish organization, located in Bolivia, of hackers and leakers ostensibly bringing transparency to the world—the Sunlight Project. We meet Andreas in Part Two. His is the most interesting of the intertwined stories for its details about his upbringing in East Berlin as the child of privileged Communist Party intellectuals. We are told quite a bit about Andreas’s psychosexual development, arriving at an ambitious portrait of a charismatic, lecherous, puritanical, and conflicted idealist as viewed through the lenses of Freud and Sophocles.
It’s Wolf’s mind that is most thoroughly examined and best understood, even though it is the most deranged. His torment arises from a crime: when he was about twenty, Andreas conspired with a beautiful girl he loved (Annagret) to kill her stepfather, who was molesting her. This dark deed will shadow his conscience from then on, and drive him to confess it to one or two people, eventually to a young American he meets in Berlin, Tom Aberant. Tom is his doppelgänger, though it would be too simple to say that Tom is the superego and Andreas the id; they are mirrored characters, as are Annagret and Anabel, their wives.
In Purity, we don’t often venture into the female consciousness, not even Pip’s, so Annagret and Anabel may have a side we haven’t heard, but as seen by Franzen, wives, mothers, and women in general are a problem; they are almost uniformly nattering, tiresome, self-involved, and not very bright, when they’re not actual monsters like Anabel. At any rate, the male characters see them this way. Oedipus and Hamlet notwithstanding, we never do quite understand Andreas’s resentment of his mother; her having affairs, or being a Party official, or him seeing her naked hardly seems enough to explain his powerful rage, an emotion Franzen has elsewhere claimed as an important wellspring of his own work.
Men trapped in marriage: whereas in The Corrections, Franzen viewed his characters with Olympian sympathy (for instance in his treatment of the marriage of the mother and the father with Alzheimer’s disease), it is in Purity that he comes closest to less sympathetic things he has written about his own life and marriage, his moral concerns and aversions, his overdeveloped sense of guilt, some past rather obsessive and strange ideas about sex, and so on. Probably people will differ about whether he has made too great a sacrifice of a high comedic perspective for the satisfactions of confession or revenge, or whether this new direction comes from some misunderstanding of the Contract. In any case, his candid autobiographical writings allow us to infer that aspects of Andreas and Tom may come close to Franzen’s own experiences, especially Andreas the antihero in the banal part of husband of Annagret:
During the day, when they were apart, he kept picturing [Annagret’s] solemn gaze, but when he came home he found a person with no resemblance to the object he’d desired. She was tired, had cramps, had evening plans…. He had only to call home and hear her voice for two minutes to be bored with her.
This is nearly interchangeable with Tom Aberant’s account of his marriage to Anabel:
My life had become a nightmare of exactly the female reproach I’d dedicated it to avoiding. To avoid it from my mother was to invite it from Anabel, and vice versa; there was no way out.
It goes without saying that both Tom and Andreas hate and/or resent their mothers too. However melodramatic the main story, when it comes to marriage, the two main male characters appear in archetypal, almost sitcom detail in painful passages whose intensely felt quality exudes faintly autobiographical whiffs. To continue with Andreas and Annagret:
But the problem with sex as an idea was that ideas could change. By and by, Annagret developed a different and much drearier idea, of total honesty in bed, with heavy emphasis on discussion. [But] endless discussion with a humorless twenty-three-year-old bored him…. Even worse, [she] wanted to discuss her feelings. Or, worst of all, wanted to discuss his feelings.
When it comes to Tom’s experience of an impossible woman, there’s Anabel’s fierce feminism. She complains about everything, for instance:
“I have to sit down,” she said finally. “Why shouldn’t you sit down? I can’t not see where you spatter, and every time I see it I think how unfair it is to be a woman.”
In Part Three we have more detail about Tom and a new woman, Leila, a nice journalist, now Tom’s longtime partner, though she is still married to a paraplegic writer, Charles Blenheim. Charles was once a promising novelist, still hoping to be important; The New York Times Book Review had praised the “twinned muscularity and febrility” of his style. Franzen’s comic riffs are at their best in the world of letters, when he gets going on writers like Charles, or journalists like Leila and Tom:
After she won a prize for her reporting (Colorado State Fair mismanagement), she dared to excuse herself from the dinners that Charles was obliged to host for visiting writers. Oh, the drinking at those ghastly dinners, the inevitable slighting of Charles, the addition of yet another name to his hate list. Practically the only living American writers Charles didn’t hate now were his students and former students, and if any of the latter had some success it was only a matter of time before they slighted him, betrayed him, and he added them to the list.
Leila would have liked a baby, but it would discomfort Charles’s art. To compensate for her childlessness and paraplegic husband, she has taken up with Tom, though Leila suspects he is still stuck on his ex-wife, with whom he had no children—the impossible Anabel, daughter of a fabulously rich tycoon. Having denied Anabel children, he doesn’t feel entitled to have a baby with Leila, even though Anabel hadn’t been heard from in years.
In Denver, we rejoin Pip, an intern with Tom’s newspaper, sent there by the spellbinding, now world-famous Andreas after her sojourn with him in Bolivia. Guessing that she is his old friend Tom’s daughter, Andreas has ordered her to Colorado to learn journalism, and actually to find out whether Tom is likely to reveal Andreas’s dark secret. Still broke, she’s befriended by Leila, and moves in with her and Tom.
Leila and Pip are covering a story about a plot to steal a nuke, a typical Franzenian digression that can sometimes come as a welcome distraction, though that is not necessarily the case here. In fact, in the welter of journalism-speak, the reader’s attention may be wandering, despite the lively nuke story, worth mentioning, though, for it sounds a note of the lively former Franzen in a sort of DeLillo (Status novelist) mode:
Pip was on the phone with a Sonic Drive-In manager, trying to reach Phyllisha Babcock, whose tale of death-bomb sex had squeaked into the article in one-graf form, when the office IT manager, Ken Warmbold, came by her desk. He waited while she wrote down the hours of Phyllisha’s shift….
Leila has misgivings about having an attractive young woman in the house with Tom, who seems worryingly drawn to their new tenant. But in an opera-worthy coincidence scene, the mysterious attraction is explained: Tom, having glimpsed a picture of Pip’s mother on her cell phone, confesses to Leila that he believes Pip is Anabel’s daughter and he himself probably her father:
“I’m sorry,” Tom said. “I know it’s a lot to hear.”
“A lot to hear? You have a child. You have a daughter you didn’t know about for twenty-five years…. I’d say, yes, that’s quite a lot for me to hear.”
The fourth part is a flashback to Pip’s arrival in South America to work on the Sunlight Project, which she found was pretty much staffed by women Andreas Wolf had slept with. This looks like where she’s heading too, but Pip can’t seem to go through with making love to people. Eventually she submits to the “negocitos he was expertly transacting with his mouth” but fails to do “the polite thing” in return. There’s another scene like this a few weeks later. Never mind, he tells her, it only increases her desirability, though it’s unclear throughout what Pip’s desirability can possibly be, as she’s not given beauty or cleverness, and often screws things up.
Part Five is Tom’s first-person account of his marriage, twenty-five years before, to the neurotic, difficult Anabel. He tells of an occasion when they made love after their divorce. Then he digresses into the story of his German parents’ meeting and coming to America. Then how he met Anabel in college. Each story is absorbing and often funny, but the connections come to seem too driven by the objective correlatives. Tom was shy about sex because of his first experience with Mary Ellen Stahlstrom, who let out a shriek when he “accidentally delivered a sharp masculine poke to the very most sensitive and off-limits part of Mary Ellen.”
Mary Ellen’s anally violated shriek was ringing in my ears when I matriculated at Penn. My father had suggested that I choose a smaller college, but Penn had offered me a scholarship…
Tom’s funny, sympathetic confession is a novella of 125 pages and concludes with his version of meeting Andreas Wolf in East Berlin, all those years ago, and being entrusted with the secret of Andreas’s past; he recollects how, as an act of friendship, he had helped Andreas rebury the victim’s bones. His account then returns to his last scenes with Anabel, her father’s death, the mystery of her disappearance:
I’ve never stopped wondering where Anabel is and whether she’s alive…. I remain convinced that I’ll see her again…. I couldn’t go on and have children with anyone else, because I’d prevented her from having them.
By now the reader has guessed many of the answers to the questions he’s raised—where is Anabel? what is the connection to Pip? The more interesting question is, why has Franzen chosen this complicated chronology?
In Part Six we’re once again with Andreas Wolf in Bolivia, entering his Jim Jones phase, morphing into a dictator of the New Regime, the Sunlight Project, which “now functioned mainly as an extension of his ego. A fame factory masquerading as a secrets factory.” His dreams of global influence through the power of the Internet are all subjects that have interested Franzen elsewhere:
There were a lot of could-be Snowdens inside the New Regime, employees with access to the algorithms that Facebook used to monetize its users’ privacy and Twitter to manipulate memes that were supposedly self-generating. But smart people were actually more terrified of the New Regime than of what the regime had persuaded less-smart people to be afraid of, the NSA, the CIA….
There are allusions to current events and montages of celebrity names we recognize, as when Andreas visits Tad Milliken,
the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who’d retired to Belize to avoid the inconvenience of a statutory-rape charge pending against him in California. He was certifiably insane, an Ayn Rander…, but he was surprisingly good company if you kept him on topics like fishing and tennis.
Despite these new friends, and the echoes of Ted Turner, Michael Milken, and Roman Polanski, the guilt and egotism raging in Andreas are soon to spin out of control:
He was at once the man he’d killed and the man who’d killed him, and since another dark hallway existed in his memory, the dark hallway between his childhood bedroom and his mother’s, there was a further twisting of chronology whereby his mother had given birth to the monster who was Annagret’s stepfather, he was that monster, and he’d killed him in order to become him….
Now come many more pages of exposition of Andreas’s guilty deterioration, his rage at his mother, at women:
He was prone to Killer-sponsored fantasies, some of them so offensive to his self-image (for example, the fantasy of coming on Annagret while she was sleeping) that it took a huge exertion of honesty to clock them before he suppressed them.
Gothic depiction of madness is not perhaps Franzen’s best vein; it is better pursued by people who are actual geniuses at it, like Stephen King. Andreas
began to cry. The Killer stirred in him again, sensing opportunity in his tears, his regression. The Killer liked regression. The Killer liked it when he was four and Annagret fifteen. Blindly, with his eyes squeezed shut, he sought her lips with his.
Next, the account suddenly shifts from a picture of his “titanic rage,” back to his earlier life with Annagret, the young woman whose stepfather he’d killed to save her from molestation, when, after some harmonious years, their relationship deteriorates and boredom sets in—boredom is another Franzen preoccupation. The picture of a deteriorating, guilt-ridden, and depressed man soon to commit suicide is replaced by a generic, resentful husband who might have equally been Tom:
He saw that he’d trapped himself. He’d set up house less with a woman than with a wishful concept of himself as a man who could live happily ever after with a woman. And now he was bored with the concept…. He behaved like a jerk and paid a price for it in self-regard, but he persisted in it, hoping that she would recognize it as a well-known sign of trouble in a relationship, and that maybe, eventually, he would be able to escape the trap.
The writer rushes us through this domestic crisis by “telling” it, as writing students are instructed not to do. There are only flashes of the sort of engaging sentences found in The Corrections, with their precise distinctions and witty metaphors. In Purity the prose is serviceably workaday, and by the end of Andreas’s section, it dissolves into pages and pages of exposition, as if it were Soap Opera Digest, or as if the writer had become bored with Andreas and Tom, or was worried his readers might be, and is observing the Contract by considerately shortening scenes he would normally dramatize. Too bad—as readers, five hundred pages in, we would have stuck with our investment for the fun of hearing what Andreas and Annagret say when they are finally frank with each other.
Referring to his marital boredom, Andreas again calls attention to the “disparity between the nighttime object he desired and the daytime actuality of Annagret.” This is the disparity that troubles the entire novel: the tension between a writer confident of his daylight powers—the daylight of domestic realism is exemplified by Tom’s section—and a writer pushing himself into darker places and different registers with less success.
Andreas will perish in a dramatic suicide fall over a cliff, as in a comic book, aaaargh. Despite his villain’s fate, he is the character we know best and most regret. For all his ostensible ruthlessness, his youthful crime harrows him the way it wouldn’t the taciturn Pip, who has no affect whatever, challenged social skills, and who one can see is well on the way to turning into her mother, the controlling Anabel. At the end, a boy she’s attracted to, Jason, invites her to hit tennis balls:
“If you didn’t have a girlfriend, I’d be happy to hit with you. But you do, so.”
“You’re telling me I have to break up with my girlfriend before you’ll hit with me? It’s a pretty substantial upfront investment for just hitting a tennis ball.”
Pip will discover that she is to inherit a trust fund worth $1 billion—such is the factor of inflation that a billion is needed for a fairy-tale pot of gold to be worthwhile these days. Like her mother, Pip wants to be Good. She bails her Oakland friends out of their eviction problems by buying their squat, and takes up with Jason the tennis player. There is no trace of transcendence, no possibility she won’t end up the mess her mother was. But a billion dollars! We shouldn’t underrate the satisfactions of fairy tales, after all an enduring form, as we’ve seen with, say, Donna Tartt’s recent success.
Despite the superficially happy ending, readers will be struck finally by the real subjects of the novel, anxiety and that preoccupying modern subject, the search for identity. Despite the ostensible devotion to good works, feminist causes, governmental transparency, and so on, at bottom the characters all, like Andreas, have “no interest at all in doing the right thing if the wrong thing would save [them] from public shame” or give psychic gratification. Each character tries on several selves, and is uncomfortable in all of them.
As a novel about inauthenticity and intense self-consciousness, and as a portrait of the modern world, it’s convincing enough, if depressing. Franzen, from whom so much is expected, seems, like Andreas, on a sort of (literary) mountaintop, with several paths down, the one he came up just now, mined with melodrama and misstep; or there’s the Status flag planted a little higher up the slope, if he has the energy for climbing with his already heavy backpack of Contract books, and if he takes some time to contemplate the view before getting back to work.