Welcome, belatedly, to 2016 (and the new site banner). We begin with what might seem like an unexpected choice for a site dedicated to crime and mystery fiction …
Jonathan Franzen’s new book is (perhaps inevitably?) challenging, ambitious, long and funny. An ironic story of parental conflicts that spans several decades, at its heart there is a murder that ties together several of the main characters, which is why I thought it was worth reviewing here at Fedora. But this may also be its downfall …
I offer this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog
“In the shadowy world of the Killer, nobody was ever dead.”
Purity is surprisingly plot heavy as the various strands of the story inexorably intersect, so I’ll avoid giving too much away – consider the following a taster or a tease … The title character, Purity ‘Pip’ Tyler (there are undeniable Dickensian touches) has been brought up by her idealistic, deeply needy and deeply unstable mother, who won’t reveal her true identity to her daughter and refuses to divulge who her father is. Pip of course is obsessed with finding out who he is and so, after being rebuffed romantically by another in a long line of father substitutes, she abandons her squalid squat to work for Andreas Wolf, the East German leader of a WikiLeaks style organisation based in Bolivia. Pip is the initial focus of the narrative, but then this shifts to Wolf’s somewhat tormented upbringing in East Germany in the 50s and 60s. Like Pip, his charismatic and domineering mother also suffers from mental health problems, and the two end up having a surprisingly large amount in common. The plot then shifts the back to the US as Pip undertakes a secret mission on Wolf’s behalf working as an investigative journalist for Tom, an idealistic newspaper editor who also has several secrets. But what is Andreas really up to and will Pip find out the secrets of her own life?
“In the instant before it was over and pure nothing, he heard all the human voices in the world.”
In ironic contrast to the title, much of the novel is very coarse indeed, populated with some very unsavoury characters who are not pleasant to hag around with. Pip herself initially comes across as oddly naive and manipulative, very smart and yet utterly incapable of self-reflective practice. The book is divided into six exceptionally long chunks (there are no chapters) and a brief and not especially believable coda. The fifth section, dealing with Tom and his wife, is the funniest and most compelling but I have to say right out that despite the many weird male characters, I really don;t care much for what Franzen has to say about women. Having said that, there is much that is witty and clever but it can be buried under a mounting avalanche of verbiage. It is worth sticking to to see how it all pans out, but I really didn’t expect to be reading this sort of book for the plot as this really is not the author’s forte.
So, not Franzen at his best, despite what many reviewers might have you believe, and for me too long, too coarse and too diffuse. But there is much of merit here too. Colm Toibin’s review in the New York Times, for me, is almost completely on the money. read it here.