In Purity, Jonathan Franzen offers up a cast of characters who find themselves in moral peril and must choose how to respond. Some do the right thing, often at the expense of happiness. Some manage to seem righteous while making the most selfish choices possible. In the end, no one is purely good or purely evil, and everyone is interesting.
Purity’s reach goes beyond the suburban dystopia that bears Franzen’s literary stamp. Landscapes in Purity range from Oakland, California to East Berlin before the fall of the wall to present-day Bolivia. While Franzen’s Bolivia is all but devoid of Bolivians—it’s an enclave populated by an outlaw group of Internet information leakers—he takes on an international cast, spotlighting Americans and Germans. A central theme of Purity is privilege: How does the idea of privilege differ within a corporate-controlled United States versus communist East Germany, and what effects do their cultural contexts have on individuals? Privilege corrupts, suggests Franzen, no matter what form it takes: It encourages a fearful, dishonest existence, and positions those who have it on a narrow precipice between good and evil, with a lean toward the latter.
The obvious heroine of the novel is Purity “Pip” Tyler, whose story comes at the front of the book. But as we’ve come to know from Franzen’s earlier novels, as soon as we become aligned with one character, Franzen’s narrator retracts his lens and refocuses it on someone else; by the end of Purity, we’ve also been privy to the inner lives of Andreas Wolf, the son of East German communists and eventual Internet celebrity; Leila Helou, a Denver journalist; Leila’s boyfriend and boss, Tom Aberant; and, though we are never given access to her own account of life, an heiress and failed artist named Anabel, to whom Tom was previously married. Franzen once again demonstrates his astonishing skill for creating plot from the backstories of his characters, demanding his reader’s engagement with each one, and leaving it up to the reader to decide whose story is most crucial to the moral center of the novel.
Pip is in a financial crisis: she owes $130,000 in debt from college and her private high school, which her oddball recluse mother always told her not to worry about. She’s squatting in a house in Oakland, dislikes her job, and has an appetite for “moments of intoxicating honesty,” which leads to bad personal decisions. She does not seem particularly special or appealing, but a German woman, also temporarily residing in the house, takes an interest in her—“I see something special in you, and I know Andreas will see it too”—and soon Pip is being offered an internship with Andreas Wolf’s famous Sunlight Project.
The Sunlight Project, on the surface, is a lauded information-leaking organization that shares similarities with Wikileaks. Like its real-life counterpart, The Sunlight Project leaks, by means both legal and illegal, information that might be useful to the public, especially as it relates to “social injustice and toxic secrets.” It is seen as both criminal and a kind of martyrism, a “nobly untruthful” endeavor. Andreas Wolf is a charismatic, sexually unscrupulous leader whom no one seems to dislike as much as they should. When she first Googles him, Pip finds it “impressive how few hostile comments about Wolf she was able to find… in terms of universal admiration, he was right up there with Aung San Suu Kyi and Bruce Springsteen.” When Pip arrives in Bolivia to intern for TSP (the organization has offered to pay her student loans while she works there), she finds herself surrounded by exclusively young, “incredibly attractive and privileged” interns and a strict gender divide: the “hacker boys” write code and do the programming while the “girls” manage the organization. The fact that none of these bright Stanford and Yale women (or men) seem to notice or object to this divide seems suspicious—to both the reader and to Pip. Also suspicious, but in more of a curious way, is the interest Andreas takes in Pip. Pip is rude, does virtually no work for the project, and is miserable in Bolivia while everyone around her feels they’ve won the lottery. What is behind Andreas’s interest in her?
In its entirety, the plotting of Purity is masterful. Franzen writes towards this central mystery. Andreas’s attention to Pip is tied, we think, to the conflict established on the first pages of the book: Pip is desperate to find her biological father, whose identity her mother has hidden from her, in the hopes that he might help her out of her debt. The mystery builds and unfolds with perfect amounts of withholding—leaving the reader room for curiosity without frustration—and every revelation offers great payoff. Franzen writes from the outside in: Each chapter begins early in a character’s backstory and works its way towards the common center.
Two contrasting chronologies emerge to serve the mystery. In one, we learn about the life of young Andreas, the only child of staunch communists who comes of age in East Berlin in the eighties. Despite the “radiant privilege” Andreas is born into—his father’s position of power in a government that Andreas finds “silly” and “absurd” grants him immunity from most anything—he commits an act considered rebellious by the Republic, and pays a price. He finds himself living in a church basement, offering support to wayward teens, often sleeping with them if they are female, and wallowing in “megalomaniacal solipsism.” In the other thread, we are offered a rare-for-Franzen first-person narrative describing a powerful love affair and subsequent miserable marriage between Tom and Anabel, who fall in love as college students. Tom is a standard Nice Guy. Anabel is driven by hatred for her billionaire executive father, and decides to shun him by refusing his money… once Choate and Brown and art school are behind her. While Tom begins a career as a journalist, Anabel spends her days filming her own body, inch by inch, towards a performance art piece they both know she will never finish. Being unclear on how these pieces fit together, and knowing they will ultimately fit together with a satisfying click, is the great pleasure of reading a Jonathan Franzen novel.
But Purity’s plot-driven structure comes at the expense of character credibility, often when the plot requires something of a character. When a murder occurs, it is conceivable. But when another character helps the murderer, whom he has known for one day, cover up the murder by committing a subsequent crime (which necessitates both great motivation and great physical and logistical work), it seems like a convenient way to link these characters together for future necessities in plot. Psychological reactions ring hollow, as well, in Pip’s responses to big events in her life. Whereas in most daily interactions she tends to be hotheaded, defensive, and even mean, when a great betrayal is revealed to her she responds, bafflingly, like the Buddha.
The most difficult element of Purity to swallow is the character of heiress/artist Anabel. Her shift from flying to New York to shop for new dresses at Bendel’s to a permanent condition of poverty—all because she is mad at her father, who continues to try to convince her to accept her inheritance—is extreme. It seems highly unlikely that a woman who grew up flying on private jets, was socialized at the most elite schools, and never learned any self-reliance could subsequently convince family, friends and strangers that she had never known financial privilege. By all accounts, Anabel is self-indulgent, immature, and excessively annoying; Franzen’s ample use of exclamation points in Anabel’s dialogue seems to encourage the reader to find her hysterical and ridiculous. Yet somehow the people closest to her are endlessly sympathetic to her irrational, hypersensitive rages and inability to function in society on anyone’s terms but her own. Her miserable husband later muses of his relationship, “Why I didn’t resolve this crisis by breaking up with her is hard to fathom.” It is hard to fathom for the reader, too. It also revives the question of whether Franzen might, just a little bit, create female characters just so you can hate them.
Whether character believability matters more or less than an addictive plot is up to the reader to decide. In any case, a literary page-turner is a rare and glorious thing. With Purity, Franzen reestablishes himself as a novelist who can keep a reader engaged for the long game (563 pages this time) while playfully initiating the reader into complex moral questions. Purity’s international geography offers a kind of comparison study of how privilege assaults personality and how the legacy may be perpetuated or broken. Unlike the standard page-turner, Purity contains ideological knots worth worrying over once the book is closed. Franzen’s characters are never black and white, and they may sometimes be unlikeable; but if purity of character did actually exist, it’s unlikely we would want to read about it.