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Review: Jonathan Franzen's Purity Examines Wealth and Identity

Aug 19, 2015

Purity Tyler, the hero of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, has a very contemporary problem: she owes $130,000 in college loans. Purity, who hates her name and goes by Pip, grew up with her eccentric mother in a 500-square-foot cabin outside Santa Cruz. She knows nothing of her father—her mother obstinately refuses to reveal his identity—but her debt sends her on a quest to discover his name and, crucially, whether he can chip in on her monthly payments.

Along the way, she meets a very contemporary character: Andreas Wolf, professional leaker, lady-killer and fierce rival of Julian Assange. From his camp in Bolivia, Wolf, an East German dissident turned political fugitive, runs an operation called the Sunlight Project, whose mission is to air the world’s dirty laundry. Pip cares little for such grandeur, but she thinks the project’s powerful servers might help her locate her missing father. When an internship with Wolf drops into her lap, she heads for South America, starting a series of revelations that result in a confession of murder, a suicide and the unlikely reunion of her parents.

Purity comes five years after Freedom and 14 years after The Corrections. Both earlier novels were called masterpieces of American fiction; to say the same of Purity might be true but misses the point. Magisterial sweep is now just what Franzen does, and his new novel appears not as explosion of literary talent (The Corrections) nor as glorious confirmation of it (Freedom) but as a simple, enjoyable reminder of his sharp-eyed presence. Near the end of Purity, Wolf muses on his use of the word totalitarian to describe life in the digital age:

Younger interviewers, to whom the word meant total surveillance, total mind control, gray armies in parade with ­medium-range missiles, had understood him to be saying something unfair about the Internet. In fact, he simply meant a system that was impossible to opt out of. The old Republic had certainly excelled at surveillance and parades, but the essence of its totalitarianism had been more everyday and subtle. You could cooperate with the system or you could oppose it, but the one thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not be in relation to it.

One might say the same of Franzen’s role in the culture. Perhaps it’s a bit rich for a writer to offer home truths about the Internet when (as he revealed in a 2010 TIME cover profile) he keeps it at bay by gluing shut his Ethernet port. But Purity assures us that, oppose Franzen’s truths or not, we readers can’t escape them. And they’re only coming faster.

Franzen’s world, like any teeming ecosystem, has its irritants. In Purity, people engage in toxic relationships, parents are either overbearing or absentee, and self-righteousness rises to the level of performance art (the performance being either masturbation or media appearance). Pip suffers from a common plague of coming-of-age heroes: she lacks a sense of self. Early on, she doesn’t act so much as flail. For a scene or two, she doesn’t seem worth our time.

But she has a sharp tongue, and gradually, over the 550-odd pages that bear her name, she begins to assert herself. She says no. She says it to powerful people and to the people who mean the most to her. Amid the frenetic ­subplots—backstories of Stasi-­surveilled East Germany and the agribusiness conglomerates of the American Midwest—it’s bit of a throwback miracle to discern as through line the voice of a young woman discovering her authority.

And Purity, in its loose and self-­assured way, gestures openly toward narratives past. Franzen excels at being timely—the post-financial-crisis vernacular, the Snowden name checks, the journalists funded by angel ­investors—but nobody christens a character Pip without courting comparison to Dickens’ orphan. The idea behind Great Expectations is that wealth, however well intentioned, is not separable from its origins: Dickens’ Pip cannot accept money from a convict, and the novelist as moralist makes sure of that. Much of Purity, likewise, is devoted to the scrutiny of money and motive, the aspiration (as the title suggests) to clear from a good life’s pursuits the shame of any ill-gotten gains.

But Franzen chases a different resolution. Bankruptcy, poverty, crippling debt: if these social scourges trace back at least in part to the deep financial dealings of institutions beyond our control, then perhaps even the most morally suspect fortune can be used to negate them. Or as Pip pragmatically puts it, “There’s got to be at least $3 million you can take in good conscience.”

Our very contemporary problems, then, bring us past idealism to compromise. And Franzen, even in a novel that flirts hard with Dickensesque coincidence, cements his place in the ranks of the realists. Maybe it’s because the fortune in Purity is so absurdly big, and the needs it can alleviate so relatively small, but the idea of a troubled inheritance suddenly seems like a playful thing, a route to contentment instead of a roadblock. This is still Franzenland: Purity closes on a profane shouting match between two adults who really ought to know better. But Purity is calm and quiet, having said what she needed to say.

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