TIME Books

Review: Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Examines Wealth and Identity

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.

TIME remembrance

Corliss Unbound: A Collection of Quirky Pieces by TIME’s Inimitable Critic

Mario Ruiz—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Richard Corliss's writing for TIME covered much more than the movies

When you work with a film critic long enough, you learn a lot about what he loves. Luckily for us, Richard Corliss’s loves are well documented. Here’s a selection of some of our favorite offbeat, passionate pieces from the Corliss archive.

Corliss loved animated films. Loved them: The 25 Best All-TIME Animated Films

He could always be counted on to mark an important film’s anniversary. Here he remembers Blade Runner on its 30th birthday: Celebrating Ridley Scott’s Dystopian Vision

And here he revisits Titanic (the movie he famously panned as “dead in the water”) on its rerelease in 3D: Titanic, TIME and Me

There were two great loves of Richard’s life: the movies and Mary Corliss. Here he pays tribute to both in one go: The Case of the (Still) Missing Film Stills

Richard also loved TIME. On its 90th birthday, he reviewed the first issue: The First TIME

He loved Roger Ebert, whom he knew for 40 years: Farewell to a Film Legend and Friend

He loved baseball: These Are the Good Old Days

He loved the Beatles, so much so that he let himself be persuaded to impersonate one of them, in this video where we test-drive Beatles Rock Band: The New Fab Four

He loved Bollywood, and especially A.R. Rahman: The Mozart of Madras

He loved theme parks. Here he visits the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

He had a way with spoilers. In this review of The Crying Game, he reveals the movie’s big secret through an acrostic (at which he hints in the opening paragraph): Queuing for The Crying Game

To keep his Sex and the City review spoiler-free, he resorted to hilarious anagrams: Kinda Into You

And he loved tradition. For more than a decade, he and Mary were part of the “Times Square confetti dispersal battalion,” which is to say they spent their New Year’s Eves throwing bits of paper onto revelers below. We will miss you next New Year’s Eve, Richard—and every day in between.

TIME Books

A Little (Heavy) Light Reading

What’s in a name? How to beachify your serious summer reads.

Illustration by Ben Wiseman for TIME

Hard Choices
Hillary Clinton
At No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, Clinton’s account of her years as Secretary of State is indisputably popular, but its title is a little severe for the season. We suggest a more Elizabeth Gilbert approach to capture the tale of a woman at a crossroads in life who finds new purpose traveling the world.


Illustration by Ben Wiseman for TIME

My Struggle: Boyhood
Karl Knausgaard
Knausgaard, known as the Norwegian Proust, is the current darling of the literary set, but who wants to read about struggle during vacation? We borrow from another Scandinavian sensation to give his opus a title befitting a barbecue.



Illustration by Ben Wiseman for TIME

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Piketty
This French economist’s study of income inequality in capitalist nations became the unexpected hit of the spring. Catch up with it this summer, by all means, but first give it a Tom Clancy -makeover—-in the hope that Jack Ryan will show up to rescue us from the rising social discontent Piketty predicts.


Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution
Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz
The Roberts court is transforming the country we live in with its profound, sweeping rulings. A title like Barely Legalwould capture the complex dynamics and conceptual tensions in the court’s decisions, while also moving some extra units.

Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
Rick Perlstein
Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo—-nobody wants to think about that stuff on a beach blanket. Surely retitling this book That ’70s Show would put people in mind of the bright spots of the Me Decade. There must have been some.

Last Stories and Other Stories
William T. Vollmann
Vollmann’s 700-page collection, the National Book Award winner’s first fiction in nine years, is an exploration of the super-natural. Why not just call it Goosebumps? It seems accurate enough and somehow much less daunting. —Lev Grossman

TIME Books

Collective Memory

Simon & Schuster

In David Carr's hands, the addiction memoir offers a chance to set the record straight

Every memoir is in one sense an argument–a writer’s version of his or her past. But, as readers who cashed in their debunked copies of A Million Little Pieces know, recent memoirs have been just as notable for the arguments they raise about the intersection of fact, truth and memory.

In The Night of the Gun (Simon & Schuster; 389 pages), his arresting story of addiction and recovery, David Carr takes on these issues by trying to pre-empt them. Carr, an ex–crack addict turned media columnist for the New York Times, faces two problems in writing his story: he was so often high during the period in question that he’s fuzzy on the facts, and he’s writing in the post–James Frey era, when being fuzzy on the facts can land you in the hot seat on Oprah.

Attuned to these and other pitfalls of inaccuracy (he was friends with Jayson Blair at the Times), Carr sets out to “report” his memoir, which is to say he digs up his medical and police files and conducts some 60 interviews with people who knew him then and know him now, from his parents to his rehab counselors to his grownup twin daughters. Wary of painting a distorted self-portrait, he offers up a researched composite instead.

The book begins with Carr sitting opposite his editor at a Minneapolis business magazine, being given a choice between quitting drugs and getting fired. He picks the latter and promptly goes on a bender–a long, violent night that ends, as he recalls it, with him on the wrong end of the barrel of a gun. It is March 1987, and Carr is 30 years old. He has been doing cocaine for nearly a decade, and another year and a half will elapse before he goes in for his fifth and final detox.

The opening scene, with its choice of desk or drug habit, introduces one of the book’s most unsettling truths: that despite Carr’s recollection that he cleaned up his act to care for his newborn daughters, the more compelling factor was his professional ambition. Much of the memoir’s emotional heft involves Carr’s coming to terms with this idea, realizing that for him, work is, “in some twisted way, more sacred, more worthy of protection, than friends, loved ones, and family.”

As far as this book goes, the investment pays off. Carr’s voice is persuasive; he not only anticipates every potential critique of his project but also hurls each one fiercely at himself. Don’t bother telling him that he’s a presumptuous navel gazer for pursuing this story; he knows it. When he visits his ex-wife Kim, on whom he recklessly cheated, she refuses to talk with him about the past. It’s a satisfying encounter, as we witness the head-on collision of Carr the intrepid reporter-author and Carr the self-critical and ambivalent subject. Kim’s silence, he writes, “is a significant loss in the effort to find the truth of what I did and why. But I secretly admired her unwillingness to engage my needs, my narcissism, one more time.”

An old friend, Ralph, throws a different kind of stumbling block his way. “I don’t know,” says Ralph, when pressed for the details of a drunken fracas in which he and Carr were involved. “You’re asking one guy who is drunk and stoned if his memory matches the other guy’s who’s drunk and stoned.”

These testimonies show that as a truth-seeking mechanism, Carr’s approach is not foolproof. And it does have its narrative drawbacks. The story starts out choppy, moving back and forth within each brief chapter from Carr on crack to Carr manning the video camera. The chronological jumps cause some repetition, and Carr is not immune to the tic of capping off his vignettes with a punch line, which works better in a magazine than in a book.

Not surprisingly, though, the pace relaxes when Carr reaches his recovery stage; by that point, familiar with the major players and milestones in his life, the reader can relax too. And if he lapses into clichés on occasion (he adores his daughters “madly, deeply, truly”), at other times his word choice attains a chilling precision, as when he describes the two girls on the date of their premature birth: “They weighed a bit more than a kilo, a term of art in our current context.” Carr and the girls’ mother had used crack during her pregnancy–he had just handed her a pipe when her water broke–and it is both horrifying and apt to hear the babies quantified on the same scale as a brick of cocaine.

It’s in moments like that one–when coke and kids mix, brought together in Carr’s life and his language–that you realize how successfully he has woven his tale. If the reporting device started out as a “fig leaf,” to keep him from obsessing about “adding to a growing pile of junkie memoirs,” it doesn’t end up that way. The Night of the Gun is in part a writerly exercise in defense and disarmament–memoir in the throes of an existential crisis. But that does not prevent it from being a great read. This is largely because, in using his reporter’s chops to investigate his own past, Carr taps the very skills that propelled him to survive. His method, as much as his madness, is the story.

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