“Have a go,” my literary editor said to me, thrusting the huge block of wood shavings at me. Three weeks, several busted biceps and two sore sides later, I sent her back this review.
PURELY by coincidence, my gym membership lapsed during the reading of Purity but the fact was negated by the considerable bulk of Jonathan Franzen’s fifth novel. A weighty, sprawling tome, it is an endeavour in itself to wield and doses of vigour were necessary to wrench the papery block open each day.
It didn’t help that it was as difficult to put down as it was to pick up. Although an exhaustive writer, prone to exploratory asides, Franzen’s latest is a page-turner that taxes the arms rather than the patience.
While much is made of the US writer’s tendency towards “size matters”, you can do this kind of thing when you’re Franzen. The Oprah-bothering critic-cum-“Great American novelist”, who has, rather unfairly, become a conduit for feminist ire, is also at the forefront of modern US literary fiction since his award-winning 2001 bestseller, The Corrections. Those who despise Franzen love to do so.
The chauvinism he is lumped with, however, is absent in Purity unless you will it to be there. It follows the fortunes of Pip (be still, Dickens students), a debt-ridden post-graduate trying to make sense of career and romance while being ever-saddled with the burdens of not knowing who her father is and a dysfunctional relationship with her reclusive and secretive mother (a Franzen trope).
Pip is bolshie and insecure, but possessed of a good moral compass and high functioning bullshit radar. She is propositioned by two German housemates to take a placement in Bolivia with The Sunlight Project, an ethical hacking group akin to Wikileaks run by the charismatic and near-mythical whistleblower Andreas Wolf. He makes her an offer she struggles to refuse under her meagre circumstances, to work for him in his South American domain. She smells a catch but accepts on the condition that he help locate the identity of her real father. Andreas may already know more than he’s letting on, and it may have something to do with a dark secret of his that dates back to Berlin during the Wall’s breach.
In seven chunky chapters, time spans are stepped in and out of as Franzen lifts the lid on the backstories and motives of a brilliant panel of characters, letting disparate stories gradually and deliciously interconnect like the first moves of a cat’s cradle. It has its languid moments, more often than not during those periods where the author himself wades in through the narrator on matters such as the age of the Internet, modern journalism and the foibles and delusions of both sexes (flotsam from Franzen’s “colourful” 12-year marriage to writer Valerie Cornell may or may not be utilised here). It is all highly absorbing and well-constructed, but in the grand scheme of a story being told between two distant hard-back covers, it is clearly self-indulgent. We shouldn’t be surprised, mind you.
It’s also wickedly funny for the most part, which will be good news to the 56-year-old’s fanbase. His is a bone-dry, sideways humour, liable to sneak up on you when you think things are getting too self-important and cause you to put down the book for a brief chuckle. And when he satirises the absurdism of adult relationships or, in the case of one particularly Coens-esque character, the ego of the novel writer (“…bigness was essential. Thickness. Length.”), you get that he’s smirking at himself.
As you’d expect, there is some dazzling technical ability on show too. The elongated prose used to prise open the essence of his cast and the lavish brushstrokes of their histories flow like mercury, even if there can appear to be no end to the mini saga in question. And then, without warning, he will impart mountainous meaning with a casual aphorism. These are the lives of flawed and fidgety human creations, encompassed within mental dictatorships, from Stasi oppression to the World Wide Web to horrendous parenting. There is much ground to cover and much to say in transit, so Franzen’s timing throughout such a broad horizon is vital.
Purity (an elusive quality in Franzen’s America) is thus an expansive novel of serious proportions and scope by a writer who appears not to take themselves too seriously. For all his detractors’ heckling, this point seems to be lost on the anti-Franzen faction. These painstakingly drawn characters, their penetrating dialogue and the louche but shrewd narrator documenting them (only one chapter is told in the first person) are very much worth the odd bead of sweat.
First published in the Sunday Independent