‘Purity’ by Jonathan Franzen tells the story of Pip, a college graduate in her 20s living in Oakland, California and deeply in debt who is offered the chance to take an internship with the Sunlight Project in Bolivia led by East German peace activist Andreas Wolf. Pip hopes that working for the Sunlight Project – a Wikileaks-style organisation which traffics secrets – will lead her to some answers about her origins including the identity of her father. Her work eventually takes her to Denver where she meets investigative journalist Tom Aberant who has connections with Andreas and knows his darkest secret.
I have had mixed feelings about Franzen’s writing which can be extremely clever and perceptive yet also infuriatingly pretentious and self-indulgent all at the same time. I liked ‘Freedom’ more than ‘The Corrections’ but I haven’t been in a hurry to read his latest novel which was published in 2015. However, I did enjoy reading his essay collection How To Be Alone a few years ago which explored different aspects of solitude, privacy and technology in society. These ideas are revisited in ‘Purity’ in a fictional and more satirical context alongside familiar themes from his novels concerning the nature of dysfunctional families.
There are some allusions to ‘Great Expectations’ (Pip has a “destiny” to fulfil and doesn’t know her date of birth, who her father is or her mother’s real name) as well as ‘Hamlet’ to a lesser extent through Andreas and his relationship with his parents. Although the main plot running through the book hinges on a murder, ‘Purity’ often reads more like a series of interlinked novellas or in-depth character studies due to Franzen’s tendency towards lengthy digressions concerning the back stories of the main protagonists. As ever, his writing style is very dense and wordy (‘Purity’ clocks in at a hefty 563 pages, no less) and the connections between the characters take a long time to fully develop.
‘Purity’ has been rated as one of Franzen’s funnier novels. I don’t think all of the humour really hits the mark but that’s probably because I’ve never been sure if Franzen either takes himself too seriously or merely pretends to. I prefer to think it’s the latter as although his portayal and limited development of female characters continues to be problematic, Franzen does at least appear to poke fun at his own reputation as an author of “bloated and immensely disagreeable” literary novels through the character of Charles Blenheim. There are also some sharp observations about the place of investigative journalism in the Internet age.
In a nutshell, ‘Purity’ represents what readers either love or hate about contemporary literary fiction. For me, it falls somewhere in between ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Corrections’ in terms of how much I enjoyed it and further confirms my view of Franzen as one of the most frustratingly brilliant yet puzzling authors writing today.