PURITY by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen_Purity-hbWelcome, 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.”

Jonathan_Franzen,_Purity,_coverIn 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.

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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82 Responses to PURITY by Jonathan Franzen

  1. Colin says:

    Well, welcome back and nice to see your name attached to a piece again.
    I can’t say I’m familiar with this book, and I don’t think I’m missing too much from what you have to say here. Not to worry, plenty more stuff, of all kinds, out there.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Lovely to see you back, Sergio! And I’ve been wondering about this one. Sounds as though it’s got some very solid aspects despite not, as you say, being Franzen’s best. Interesting character studies, too, even if they aren’t exactly pleasant folks.

    • Thanks very much Margot. It is not the book I thought I was going to be reading, I’ll certainly admit that. I think a lot of it is misjudged and definitely can be seen as edging on the side of mysogony in some respects, though many of the men are very screwed up too frankly …

  3. Welcome back Sergio! Too bad it’s not one of Franzen’s better works, but there’s always the next one…

    • Thanks very much Chris – I wish I had liked it more and there are good things here. But mostly I just found it irritatingly focussed on the plot, which with an another author would not be a complaint, obviously …

  4. realthog says:

    Welcome back!

    I bought a copy of The Corrections years ago on a friend’s recommendation, but it’s still sitting pristine on my shelf. Maybe I’ll wait until I’ve conquered that one before I think to try Purity . . .

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    Bentornato, Sergio !

  6. Todd Mason says:

    Sadly, Sergio, this might well be more or less the excruciatingly overrated Franzen at his feeble best. Or at least at his most revealing. He can write a sentence and spit venom at women and other smaller groups of people, rather witlessly and smugly, with equal aplomb. That said, I’ll admit the description of the subject matter of this one has made it very easy indeed for me not to pick it up. Almost certainly the least forgotten book this week…for now…but with a modicum of justice in the world, perhaps in years to come.

    • Thanks for that Todd 🙂 I am really tempted to re-read The Corrections, which I liked a lot but now feel the need to look again in a new context. His divorce really must have been hoprrible, that’s for sure!

    • Matt Paust says:

      Trying to come up with gloved invective as I scrolled down the comment thread until, voila! Thanks, Todd. About all I’d come up before I read your comment was that the mere name of Jo…**cough cough** …en brings a near explosive nausea to my digestive system. I heard his smug, smarmy voice in part of an NPR interview a couple of years ago, and am still undergoing intensive monthly therapy sessions as a result. “Excruciatingly overrated,” indeed, Todd. You and Ol’ D. H. must drink from the same cup.

      Good to see you back, Sergio, and thanks for stimulating my aerobic Fr…**gag gag**…en phobia. ;D

      • realthog says:

        So you and Todd would recommend that I might be wiser to leave my copy of The Corrections on the shelf just a little while longer, is what you’re saying?

        • Matt Paust says:

          Or use them as archery or knife-throwing targets. Hell, thick as I understand they are, they’d probly stop a bullet or three.

        • No, I think you shoukld definitely pick it up. Todd hates the guy, I thought the novel was really impressive.

          • realthog says:

            I did take a look inside my copy of The Corrections when I got it, only to have my hopes dashed that it might be a sort of companion volume to Fifty Shades of Gray, only tweer.

          • I was running a course yesterday with a group of post-graduates and did in fact name-check Fifty Shades, but only as an example of fan fiction that got re-written so that it could get published without getting sued …

        • Todd Mason says:

          Others find his kind of preciousness less enervating, to be sure. For me, his work I’ve attempted is less self-indulgent than William Vollmann’s, but not enough…about as smug as and windier than T.C. Boyle or Cormac McCarthy at their worst…(I’ve argued briefly with Ellison, who at the time at least admired Boyle’s work…I’ve read perhaps one decent and one half-decent story by Boyle in a few dozen over the decades–they will appear in magazines and anthologies I gather), and certainly as precious as anything by John Irving or the most trivial work of Updike (and as misogynist as the last’s worst). But you must remember, he’s the voice of Our Generation…TIME magazine said so (and who better to crown the prince?). Norman Mailer without the sporadic vigor. And while Winfrey is the same sort of egomaniac he is, his hostility to the concept, apparently, of Mere Middlebrow Ladies chatting up his novel was indeed merely the first of his sad advertisements for himself I was to encounter.

          • Yes, I did get that issue of Time actually … Not read Boykle or Vollmann and very little McCarthy, but remain devoted to Irving (well, hist first 7 or 8 novels at least, so that is probably where we part company on this one,

          • Todd Mason says:

            In the circle with DePalma and Lombino…I am perhaps Milanese enough to want to be Swiss with such paesani…that you like Irving better than I do also doesn’t surprise me…

          • Well quite chum – though you have to admit, it is possibly a bizarre artistic conjunction / mashup!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Boyle is like an ineffectual, unimaginative Ellison. I can see why Ellison likes his work more than he should.

          • Well, that sounds boring – mind you, Ellison can be very loyal (until he isn’t) – I really hope he keeps going forever!

          • Todd Mason says:

            I think Lombino, DePalma and Irving have (or had) a certain shared contempt for plausibility, Or at least what I see as a bootless indulgence in improbability. (Fantasists and surrealists are always better off with the plausible as much as possible.)

          • Bootless? I like that – not sure contempt is really borne out though, is it? Disregard in some circumstances most definitely, but plausibility can be some two-dimensional – I solemnly declare it overrated here at Fedora 🙂 De Palma is mostly an ironic, postmodern surrealist whereas I maimntain that the McBain books are only ever as realistic as they need to be. As for Irving, there are passages in Garp especially that are among the most moving I have ever read.

          • Matt Paust says:

            Implausibility works for me only when I want it to work. Usually need to sense a bit of cheeked tongue or deft misdirection for that to happen. Todd’s characterization of Mailer’s “sporadic vigor” continues to elicit sporadic dieseling chuckles here.

          • I would agree with that Matt – if it is merely a question of convenience r even contempt for the reader, then I am much less likely to be so tolerant.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Contempt for the reader/audience, or for the value of doing the work to be plausible or to have a borne-out reason to not be plausible. I certainly see that as a trademark of the work of all three. Plausible isn’t the same thing as realistic.

          • I completely disagree, especially given that we are talking about authors who often work in a surrealist / magic-realist tradition. To give two tiny examples and why I think Irving and De Palma work really hard at their craft: in Garp it is the dawning realisation that a character is no longer being referred to that breaks your heart. This is calculated and pitched at the alert reader but also creates a very haunting sense of what happens on and off the page, mirroring real life even with friends we know really well because we are just not there all the time, for good, great, major or minor moments. In Dressed to Kill Liz escapes from subway after being chased by a car with blonde in it. She gets out of the cab and heads for a subway while the cabbie knows over the blonde. Liz (after a dissolve, suggesting an unspecified passage of time) gets out of a subway and sees – the blonde again and runs away again. now, in the logic of the film it is not possible that the blonde got there so far, but most put it down to the usually lousy plotting of horror thrillers – but actually it should be alerting us to the possibilities that there are two similar blondes following on Liz. This latter example is handled both with the requisite humour but is always completely plausible in terms of the narrative’s mise-en-scene and follows the internal logic of the film.

          • Todd Mason says:

            OK. Then there are the adorable coincidences that run through both men’s work…such as the encounter with the woman for whom the self-mutilating society is named in GARP (I should go back and check after 30+ years, but it’s early) or the entire plot of the film OBSESSION. Thet might well work for you; they ring tinnily false for me.

          • But in GARP that is not councidental, is it? Mind you, it has been a long time. As for OBSESSION, well, the plot mechanics are hokey (taken from VERTIGO anyway, and actually improved in terms of plausibility in my view), but int he context of its oneiric style entirely consistent, surely? Does it really hurt the film? I mean, you could say the same about most Hitchcock movies (or Agatha Christie novels for that matter), which are in the aame vein – do you not think so (well, probably not, but I do love hearing your point of view on this, we are so far apart!)

          • Todd Mason says:

            The very fact of the self-mutilating society is a cheap device, for me.

          • I don;t see why it’s a cheap device here – physical mutilation, admittedly a recurring trope in Irving anyway, is a specific theme in the novel so it makes total sense. And surely the point of the novel is how you see your emotions about his mother change – that to me is the index of its success, otherwise we are just fretting around the embroidery, right?

      • Thanks Matt – Franzen himself never seems to come across well in person, but I do like some of his writing

  7. Franzen’s work generates a lot of controversy. Some readers like his work. I read Franzen’s essay collection and came away unsatisfied.

  8. tracybham says:

    So glad you are back, Sergio. I have two Franzen books that I have never read, The Corrections and Strong Motion. Do you recommend them? Both are fairly long.

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    Welcome back, Sergio! And belated Happy New Year! I previously thought Franzen didn’t sound like my cup of tea and you’ve not given me reason to doubt that with your review (which is, as always, a great review).

    Love the new banner!

    • Thanks Bev – yes, love the banner – the work of my two nieces again using their brand new smart phones (shortly before one of them lost their, but that’s another story).

  10. Richard says:

    Well, after reading all that, esp. the comments, all I have to say is welcome back, Sergio.

  11. Nice to “see” you again, Sergio. Never read Franzen and I don’t know what to make of his work. Enjoyed reading the comments too.

    • Thanks Prashant, good to be back and great to ‘see’ yopu too! Well, I knew Todd wasn’t a Franzen fan especially but we got some really interesting side issues raised from many other controbutors too – I love it when the comments really take off – so nice to be back at Fedora again!

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        “.. I love it when the comments really take off ..”
        A refreshingly different attitude from that of another mystery blog writer who in such a situation will remark tersely, “Enough ! It has nothing to do with the original post. Comments now closed. “

        • Well, yes and no Santosh! I am persoanlly a big fan of a conversation having its own life within our forums (as long as it never gets unpleasant or too personal), but people have different views on what might be germane to their blogs – which is fair enough – their house, their rules. But you are always welcome to express yourself as often and however you like (but let’s try and keep it clean – this is a family show 🙂 )

      • It sure is, Sergio. I look forward to your journey through some eclectic books and films.

  12. Great to have you back, Sergio, and worries about being late to see that are evened out by my getting the chance to read all those comments all the way through in one go…

    I did like The Corrections, and Freedom too, but now I think ‘do I really want to read another very long book by this white American man with his related concerns?’ And the answer is no. I might change my mind one day…

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