“It sucks to be well-known,” says a character in the new novel by well-known author Jonathan Franzen. “Everyone should be told this about fame before they start pursuing it: you will never trust anyone again. You will be a kind of damned person.”
It’s tempting to hear that — and mock that — as the author’s cri de coeur. Who else has ever worn the mantle of “The Great American Novelist” so uncomfortably, so unable to relish his fame or renounce it? Even as we’ve largely dropped literary writers from the pantheon of celebrities, Franzen, who never shot a rhino in Africa or even stabbed his wife at a party, remains stuck in the spotlight, wincing through those black-framed glasses.
But if there’s an autobiographical impulse behind his new novel, “Purity,” which will be released Sept. 1, it’s subsumed by the story’s globe-spanning scope. As he did in “The Corrections” (2001) and “Freedom” (2010), Franzen once again begins with a family, but his ravenous intellect strides the globe, drawing us through a collection of cleverly connected plots infused with Major Issues of the Day.
That Dickensian ambition — always present in his work — is cheekily explicit in “Purity,” which traces the unlikely rise of a poor, fatherless child named Pip. When we meet Pip — short for Purity — she is buried beneath $130,000 of student debt and working at a marginally fraudulent business in Oakland that sells renewable energy. Her pride is further strained by squatting in a filthy group home suspended in foreclosure. Her roommates — Marxists and dumpster divers — spend their days theorizing about the imminent jobless utopia. Equal parts earnest and sarcastic, Pip has few close friends, no siblings, no one at all except her mother, a hermit who can’t help her financially and won’t tell her who her father is.
Franzen’s novels have never been appropriate Mother’s Day presents. But the matriarchs in this one are particularly toxic, an encyclopedia of Oedipal horrors: grasping, seductive, delusional, trumpeting their “moral victimhood.” Not that fathers get a pass — they abandon and abuse children, too — but somehow the guys inspire nothing like the blistering rage these mothers do. Although Pip’s mom isn’t the biggest narcissist we run into, she’s repellently manipulative, swinging erratically from lavish praise to pouty complaints, extravagant declarations of devotion and melodramatic claims of illness — and Pip loves her.
How redemptive and sweet you find that childlike affection will influence how realistic you consider Pip. An essay by Sam Tanenhaus in the New Republic claims that Franzen has an “otherworldly feel for female characters,” but the feeling here seems more underworldly. Particularly in its gleeful satire of feminism, these are harpies from hell. Weeks before the novel’s release, the debate about Franzen’s attitude toward women and women’s fiction started burning (again) from Twitter to Harper’s.
But “Purity” pivots to another even more contemporary issue: the relationship between secrecy and power in the Internet age. At least partially to escape her mother’s neediness, Pip accepts an internship with the Sunlight Project, a rogue Web site that exposes the nasty secrets of corporations and nations. Its disruptive posts emanate from a shadowy station in the jungles of Bolivia. Staffed by brilliant, beautiful coeds, this high-tech oasis is something like a cross between Dr. No’s lair and Bryn Mawr. The Sunlight Project competes with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, “but Wiki was dirty,” Pip’s roommate explains. “People died because of Wiki.” The Sunlight Project, on the other hand, is led by a German activist named Andreas Wolf. “Wolf is still reasonably pure. In fact, that’s his whole brand now: purity.”
“The word purity made Pip shudder,” Franzen writes. “To her it was the most shameful word in the language.”
For those of you sitting in the back, purity is the theme of this novel, and — spoiler alert! — it turns out that nobody is as pure as he or she claims to be. Everybody harbors secrets: shameful, disgusting, sometimes deadly secrets. If that adolescent revelation gets a bit too much emphasis in these pages, at least it’s smartly considered and reconsidered in the seven distinct but connected sections that make up the book.
In the novel’s relatively thin present-day story line, Pip travels to Bolivia, nominally to help the cause of truth, but actually in hopes of using the Sunlight Project’s Web-scanning expertise to track down her father. (So much for the purity of her motives.) That incident is dwarfed, though, by the book’s richer back stories. Indeed, “Purity” demonstrates Franzen’s ingenious plotting, his ability to steer the chaos of real life toward moments that feel utterly surprising yet inevitable.
Among the most compelling sections is the one set in East Germany under communist control. It’s a cerebral thriller about Wolf in the years before he became the famous truth-exposing disrupter. The spoiled son of a high-ranking East German official, Wolf rejects his family’s advantages in the socialist paradise and works as a youth counselor in the basement of a church. There, the troubled young women who come for help make easy marks for his sexual advances. But in one of the novel’s central ironies, what eventually complicates Wolf’s life isn’t his lupine sexual drive, but his desire to protect the innocent — the pure.
East Germany on the threshold of collapse may sound like a setting deep in the ash heap of history, but much later in the novel Franzen suggests the contemporary relevance of the communist regime. By this time, Wolf is a world-renowned hero of the Web, but he’s also a roiling mess of internal contradictions and anxieties, a scornful critic of himself and his medium. “If you substituted networks for socialism,” Wolf thinks, “you got the Internet. Its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence.” Taking a swipe at Web enthusiasts and their “smarmy syrup of convenient conviction,” Wolf notes that “the New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. . . . Like the old politburos, the new politburo styled itself as the enemy of the elite and the friend of the masses, dedicated to giving consumers what they wanted.” Here and elsewhere, one hears Franzen’s well-known complaints about the tyranny of the Web and the inanity of social media, but these criticisms are so effectively integrated into the mind of this hypocritical Internet warrior that the novel never dissolves into a cranky essay (See: “Freedom”; songbirds).
That same editorial subtlety enriches a section called “Too Much Information,” which takes us inside an online news organization in Denver that’s investigating the careless storage of nuclear weapons. The subject may be arcane, but the treatment is zany. The cast of characters bulges out to include a redneck who uses an errant atomic bomb to arouse his girlfriend. (If your erection lasts more than four hours, contact the Nuclear Regulatory Commission immediately.) One of the savvy journalists covering this case is married to a famous novelist, an embittered has-been who’s determined “to write the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon.” Even Franzen’s most confirmed detractors should enjoy this witty bit of self-parody, which mocks the whole industry of literary pretension — and includes a pan by the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani: “Bloated and immensely disagreeable.” (Is that a pre-pan, a weird act of critical inoculation on Franzen’s part?)
These side stories and many others aren’t so much detours as day trips, full-blown immersion in the lives of characters who may or may not reappear later in the novel. Sustaining that for almost 600 pages requires an extraordinarily engaging style, and in “Purity” Franzen writes with a perfectly balanced fluency that has sometimes eluded him in the past. He’s grown more transparent as a narrator, still brilliant and endlessly allusive, but less nervous about mugging for attention. And when he switches — only once — to narrate a section in the voice of one of his characters, it sounds wholly authentic. From its tossed-off observations (“We had nougat cores of innocence”) to its thoughtful reflections on the moral compromises of journalism, “Purity” offers a constantly provocative series of insights. There’s none of the labored hectoring of “Freedom,” and if “Purity” isn’t as much fun as “The Corrections,” it’s free of the self-indulgence that sometimes marred that fantastic novel.
The final section, which concludes on a note of romantic comedy, provides a respite from the book’s heft. But it feels neat, a little too small and personal for a story that offers such trenchant analysis of the sins of parenting, the destruction of privacy and the irresistible but futile pursuit of purity. With her goofy sarcasm and unflappable good nature, Pip arrives at a place of light and forgiveness. That’s lovely, but it can’t quell this novel’s profound anxiety about our future.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him at Twitter @RonCharles.
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus Giroux. 563 pp. $28