Reviews provided by Syndetics
Kirkus Book Review
A twisty but controlled epic that merges large and small concerns: loose nukes and absent parents, government surveillance and bad sex, gory murder and fine art. Purity "Pip" Tyler, the hero of Franzen's fifth novel (Freedom, 2010, etc.), is a bright college grad with limited prospects: burdened with student debt, she lives in an Oakland squat, makes cold calls at a go-nowhere job, and can't stray far from an emotionally needy mom who won't reveal who her dad is. A German visitor, Annagret, encourages Purity to intern in Bolivia for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-style hacker group headed by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. Skeptical but cornered, Purity signs on. The names alonePurity, Wolfmake the essential conflict clear, but that just frames a story in which every character is engaged in complex moral wrestling. Chief among them is Andreas, who killed Annagret's sexually abusive stepfather and has his own issues with physical and emotional manipulation. But he's not the only one Franzen dumps into the psychosexual stew. Andreas' friend Tom Aberant is a powerful journalist saddled with self-loathing and a controlling ex-wife who detests her father's wealth; Tom's lover (and employee), Leila Helou, is a muckraker skilled enough to report on missing warheads but fumbling at her own failed marriage to Charles Blenheim, a novelist in decline. In Freedom, everybody was eager to declaim moral certitudes; here, Franzen is burrowing deep into each person's questionable sense of his or her own goodness and suggests that the moral rot can metastasize to the levels of corporations and government. And yet the novel's prose never bogs down into lectures, and its various back stories are as forceful as the main tale of Purity's fate. Franzen is much-mocked for his primacy in the literary landscape (something he himself mocks when Charles grouses about "a plague of literary Jonathans"). But here, he's admirably determined to think big and write well about our darkest emotional corners. An expansive, brainy, yet inviting novel that leaves few foibles unexplored. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
New York Times Book Review
AT THE CENTER of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Purity," is a young college graduate called Pip, whose full first name, bestowed by her not-quite-sane mother, is Purity. Pip is burdened by college debt, a lack of direction and a sharp intelligence; she is also burdened by her mother, who has brought Pip up alone in a tiny cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains and now works at the checkout in a market. Pip's general situation in a dead-end job is not helped by her obsession with a married man who lives with his wife in the same house in Oakland as Pip and some others. When Pip meets a nice boy in a coffee shop, a guy who seems to like her, she leaves him alone in her bedroom in a state of some sexual arousal and stays away for more than an hour while she fills in a questionnaire for a friend downstairs. She seems surprised and becomes angry when she finds a text he sends to another guy: "U can have her # if you have a taste for weird." As Pip moves in and out of the book it may be that she is not weird enough; it appears at first that she does not have sufficient substance to hold the narrative. She can feel bad about herself and the world, she can be feisty, but her sensibility is not rich enough and she is too passive to make her the main character in a novel of this length. Or so it seems for the first half, before the very weaknesses in her personality become essential to the novel's progress and the reader's interest. Pip's main complaint as the novel opens is that her mother will not tell her who her father is, or indeed what her mother's real name is. No amount of searching has helped her. This sense of a confused identity feeds into her general confusion, and the growing sense for the reader that she is as much a pawn as a personality. The structure follows the same system as Franzen's earlier books "The Corrections" and "Freedom." A character is given a chunk of pages and many scenes, then allowed to disappear, replaced by another character, only to re-emerge later. In "The Corrections," because it was the story of one family, each perspective had a natural connection with the ones that came before and after. Here the connections emerge slowly, with the help of an elaborate plot that is chilling in its implications. In the two earlier novels, Franzen included what seemed lengthy digressions or meanderings, like the detailed accounts in "The Corrections" of a journey on a cruise ship, or what it was like to run a restaurant or to try to make a quick buck in Lithuania. In "Freedom," there were long descriptions of women's college basketball. In "Purity," computer hacking and online journalism are handled with the same sort of detail but are more necessary to how this book unfolds. "Purity" is a novel of plenitude and panorama. Sometimes, there is too much sprawl, but it can suggest a sort of openness and can have a strange, insistent way of pulling us in, holding our attention. Like "The Corrections" and "Freedom," this novel views its world and its characters as too interesting and too filled with varying motives and fascinating intent not to want to describe them with surges of energy and enthusiasm. In "Purity," however, Franzen has toned down the all-knowingness and the irony that he used to full effect in "Freedom," at the cost of making the sentences here less elegant and sharp, more relaxed and anodyne. The book is written in a sort of deliberate non-style that is chatty, colloquial, informative, unshowy. Readers are unlikely to purr with pleasure when they encounter an explanatory sentence like this parenthetical: "(Even though the sufferer of guilt could stop the suffering whenever she chose, simply by doing the right thing, the suffering was still real while it lasted, and self-pity wasn't picky about the kind of suffering it fed on.)" Or a passage like this, which, even if it's meant satirically - mocking the general tone of Pip's office - remains more graceless than it needs to be: "America put too much carbon into the atmosphere, renewable energy could help with that, federal and state governments were forever devising new tax inducements, the utilities were indifferent-to-moderately-enthusiastic about greening their image, a gratifyingly non-negligible percentage of California households and businesses were willing to pay a premium for cleaner electricity, and this premium, multiplied by many thousands and added to the money flowing from Washington and Sacramento, minus the money that went to the companies that actually made or installed stuff, was enough to pay 15 salaries at Renewable Solutions and placate its venture-capitalist backers." "Purity," in other words, depends more on story than on style. It can seem, in fact, as though there is a battle going on in the novel between the slackness of its style and the amount of sharp detail and careful noticing, especially regarding Pip's role as a damaged innocent in need of rescue and redemption. Most of the time, there is something oddly invisible about the style, so that you do not notice it as the plot moves from event to event. Besides Pip, two other characters dominate sections of the book. They are the complex, flawed, charismatic and handsome Andreas Wolf, originally from East Germany, now in Bolivia running the Sunlight Project. Wolf is alert to the fame of his rivals in the world of poster-boy computer hacking, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. If Wolf is self-obsessed, manipulative and concerned with fame and power, Tom Aberant, who runs an online investigative journalism site from his home in Denver (where he lives with his fellow journalist Leila Helou), is his polar opposite. He is quiet, dedicated and serious. Andreas and Tom met briefly at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, long enough for them to share a secret. In what appears to be a set of loose coincidences, Pip ends up working first for Wolf, spending time in his compound near Santa Cruz in Bolivia, and then for Tom and Leila, living in their house in Denver. In both cases, Pip has a funny destabilizing effect on those around her. Leila, unsure of the state of her relationship with Tom, and uneasy about his feelings for Pip, becomes jealous. In Bolivia, Pip moves from being obsessed with Wolf to toying with him sexually, thus making all the young women who have flocked to work for him feel jealous too. There are moments toward the middle of the book where it seems that Pip, having caused a good deal of minor trouble, will finally go home to her mother, who views her movements with immense trepidation, and that this will be a novel about the sentimental and sexual education and the mild expectations of a young and inexperienced young woman in the tough world of now - that it will be, in other words, the modern analog to "Great Expectations" that Pip's name and circumstances suggest. At the heart of the novel, however, is a murder, and it is this murder, and the need to keep it covered up, that begin to animate the narrative. Slowly, it emerges that Pip's ignorance of both her father's identity and her mother's real name makes her immensely vulnerable, especially as Andreas Wolf, under pressures of his own, becomes increasingly paranoid. This colorful use of plot, along with the loose, inelegant style and the introduction of multiple subplots and side characters, take their bearings less from Dickens than from Anthony Trollope, and give "Purity," as it captures a society in a state of flux, a leisurely 19th-century appeal. One of the most vivid sections of "Freedom" contains a character's private auto-biography. "Purity" uses the same device, and once more, this first-person narrative seems the most compelling part of the book as Pip's father - I will not give his identity away - writes about his years with her impossible and willful mother in passages that are often brilliantly funny. These include a graduation night when the narrator's mother, a woman with middle-American cultural tastes, has to watch her son's girlfriend's experimental movie in which scenes with a cow in a slaughterhouse are spliced with scenes where Miss Kansas is crowned Miss America. "I've had some rough days," the mother says. "But I think this has been the worst day of my life." This is a novel of secrets, manipulations and lies. Like Franzen's previous two novels, it dramatizes the uneasy and damaging relationships between parents and their offspring in white America, the strains within friendships, and the ways time and familiarity and human failings work at corroding a marriage. It also connects the private and domestic world with pressing public matters. It is, in its way, an ambitious novel, in that it deals with the way we live now, but there is also a sense of modesty at its heart as Franzen seems determined not to write chiseled sentences that draw attention to themselves. He seems content with the style of the book, whose very lack of poetry and polish seems willed and deliberate, a statement of intent. At the heart of the novel is a murder, which animates the arrative. COLM TOIBIN is the author, most recently, of "On Elizabeth Bishop."