Purity, Jonathan Franzen's long-awaited new novel, is an unwieldy mess, with only a handful of gems buried beneath layers of the dullest and drabbest material imaginable.
True, those attuned to influences and developments in the acclaimed writer's life will find additional tidbits of interest: part of the story takes place in communist East Germany at roughly the time Franzen lived and studied in West Germany, while one hyperfeminist character's continuous emasculation of her long-suffering husband seems a dig at critics of the author's alleged male-centric outlook. But even readers eager to suss out such messages and meanings will surely struggle to wade through hundreds of pages (the final tally comes to nearly 600) delving into the most banal aspects of poisoned domestic relationships.
In his previous novels The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen prized character development over plot construction. That tendency is on full display here; despite some intriguing twists and cleverly devised intersections between separate story lines, Purity concerns itself largely with probing its protagonists' warped psyches. This wouldn't be objectionable in and of itself (plenty of otherwise fine stories are loosely plotted) were it not for the fact that you feel as though you're reading the entire backstory of one character after another, including heaps of tedious personal information the author should have jettisoned.
Franzen's fifth novel takes its title from the name of its chief protagonist, Purity Tyler, to whom we are introduced—via third-person narration—in Oakland, California. The underwhelming Purity, who goes by "Pip," is a woman in her early 20s who's avoiding paying rent by squatting with several others in a bank-foreclosed house. Unfortunately, her salary at Renewable Energy, where she cold-calls people to offer them suspect "energy solutions" packages, cannot begin to cover the $130,000 she's accumulated in college debt. "She could never quite figure out what she was selling, even when she was finding people to buy it, and no sooner had she finally begun to figure it out than she was asked to sell something else." She also wants to escape her smothering and omniphobic mother, who lives nearby. You can understand why she'd seize the opportunity to relocate to Bolivia to intern for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-type operation headed by the enigmatic Andreas Wolf, especially when he (incredibly) offers to cover that hefty debt. You also hope that such a move will give the boring story some oomph.
Here, Franzen pulls a surprise. Instead of taking us to Bolivia, we go back in time to the "Republic of Bad Taste," otherwise known as East Germany during the 1980s, the last decade of the communist regime. This proves an inspired choice; we meet a young Wolf, "whose embarrassment it was to be the megalomaniacal antithesis of a dictatorship too ridiculous to be worthy of megalomania." Although Franzen gets bogged down showing us how strange and clinging Wolf's mother was during his childhood (the overbearing yet needy mother is a recurring theme here), he also thrusts the adult Wolf into a possibly doomed romantic relationship, a ghastly crime, and an apparently fateful meeting with an American named Tom.
Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there. The most excruciating section, set in the States, revolves around the toxic relationship between the aforementioned Tom—who narrates—and his then-wife Anabel, who nearly drives him mad with her irrational demands (including that he sit on the toilet to pee). Meanwhile, Pip surfaces in Bolivia to work with Wolf, and (possibly at Wolf's behest) in Denver to work with Tom, who edits an investigative newspaper (and until recently had—you guessed it—an eccentric mother). Through Pip, the author's separate story lines repeatedly converge and solve various little mysteries. But those little mysteries start to seem less and less pressing as the insufferable female characters make you feel increasingly uncomfortable and make this book increasingly unreadable.
Make no mistake, you find yourself trying to like Purity. Not just for its heft (dismissing a tome that took its author years of work would cause anyone to suffer a twinge of guilt), but because Franzen makes an admirable effort to grapple with meaty issues such as the legacy of totalitarianism, the ever-expanding reach of the Internet, and the possible similarities between the two. In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then-permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which selects the winner of the annual Nobel Prize in Literature, said that American writers were "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," and that American literature was the product of a country that was "isolated" and "insular." Engdahl may well have had specific American writers in mind (including Philip Roth, whom the academy has snubbed for years), but what would he have to say about Franzen, one of America's biggest authors? In portions of Freedom, Franzen tried (not altogether successfully) to tackle wide-ranging political and economic motivations behind the war in Iraq. Now, in Purity, he uses the East Germany parts of the story to show us the nature of a totalitarian regime and how it affects its citizens, and elsewhere explores the fanciful but fascinating notion that WikiLeaks-type outfits lift their strategy "straight from the totalitarian playbook, disavowing your own methods of terror by imputing them to your enemy and presenting yourself as the only defense against them."
All this might fly in the face of Engdahl's claim, but unfortunately it's not enough to make for a good novel. The domestic drudgery and bickering in which Franzen mires his characters, the ferocious neuroses with which he saddles most of the women (including, to a certain extent, Pip; Leila, Tom's current girlfriend, is the only one who seems well-adjusted), and the interminable recounting of their personal histories combine to render Purity, as a whole, indigestible. Sure, some serious trimming might have produced a less flabby, more agreeable outcome. Yet what Purity really needed was for Franzen to reconceptualize the work in its entirety. This novel should have centered on the magnetic, conflicted, and ultimately self-destructive Andreas Wolf. v