Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Purity” follows the misadventures of Pip, a young woman burdened by debt and family issues who falls under the sway of a WikiLeaks-type leader. Franzen appears Wednesday, Sept. 9, at Town Hall Seattle.
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pp., $28
Jonathan Franzen’s considerable literary fame rests on two novels, “The Corrections” and “Freedom,” that focus on the white, middle-class family. With detail worthy of Tolstoy, each book in its own way discovered the unhappiness that dwells within the basic building blocks of society, all set against the sound of social conventions in breakdown.
Now comes “Purity,” which stretches this formula to the breaking point. Several family units are intertwined in this ambitiously plotted book, and all are dysfunctional with a capital D. Girding this saga is Franzen’s gimlet-eyed view of the Internet’s power and the way it is used (or misused) in an era when scoops and tweets have supplanted serious journalism.
This is a book filled with unlikely coincidences and a pot of gold at the end — tropes that suggest a fairy tale, while reminding us that not all fairy tales end happily. There’s a cast of flesh-eating mothers, figuratively speaking, along with a sense that there’s moral hazard in everything, including our most enduring relationships.
The author of “Purity” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9, at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 and available at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m., or in advance via townhallseattle.org (1-888-377-4510).
Even the title takes on a deeper and more sinister meaning: Although superficially it alludes to the central female character, Purity (Pip) Tyler, it also is a jab at the intentions and pretensions of the self-proclaimed truth tellers who use the Internet to expose institutional wrongdoing.
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The book opens with Pip (an obvious nod to Dickens’ “Great Expectations”). Raised by a single mom in the backwoods of Northern California, 23-year-old Pip now shares living space in San Francisco with a motley crew while slogging along in a soulless community-organizing job. She has $130,000 in college debt sitting heavily on her shoulders.
Pip dreams of paying off her loans by tapping dear old Dad for the dough. But there’s a hitch: Her mother has repeatedly refused to divulge her father’s identity.
In order to find him, Pip embarks on a bildungsroman of a journey, traveling first to Bolivia to intern with a WikiLeaks-like exposé site called the Sunlight Project, and then to Denver, where she is sent to spy on an investigative magazine.
The central portion of the book is filled with the extensive back stories of the men who founded these two watchdog outfits: the charismatic Andreas Wolf, a fictional version of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and Tom Aberant, an American journalist whose tale is told in first-person as his memoir.
Andreas is the most compelling figure in the book — and the most repellent, starting with his habit of masturbating almost constantly. Having grown up under the watch of the East German secret police, the Stasi, he is a cynic who has created a “fame factory masquerading as a secrets factory.” He “had no interest at all in doing the right thing if the wrong thing would save him from public shame and prison time.”
As for family matters, each of the three main characters bears the influence of similar parental models: wacky, overbearing mothers juxtaposed with weak or nonexistent dads. Franzen magnifies the maternal impulse into an abusive force that may be intended to mirror the book’s larger ideas, but it feels obsessive.
In total, “Purity” has an unwieldy and discursive feel that would have benefited from another round of editing. Franzen is a talented writer, no doubt. But his own celebrity status may compromise a clear-eyed answer to the question he poses at book’s end:
“Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power,” Pip concludes, wondering, “how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it?”