For this one, I read a lot of reviews. It was my first Franzen, you see. But nevertheless, it didn’t feel right. So I needed to see what others, those who knew his work better, were thinking. Gawker proclaims, “Call a piece of shit a piece of shit!”, while The Atlantic is more ready to worship the last name than the book itself, and The Guardian considers his oft-contentious gender representation. Stuff, well, Stuff has a yarn to Franzen, and I can’t help but sense that Franzen is over it—exhausted by the publicity circus.
The book itself is 579 pages with golden rays all over the cover, and it comes four years after his last release Freedom, which saw him on the cover of TIME magazine proclaimed as a great American novelist. As the Gawker article points out, this is Franzen’s attempt to achieve mass appeal in a way only someone envious of such wide readership could. There are fraught relationships, plentiful amounts of weird sex, an on-again-off-again relationship that has Ross and Rachel getting sick of it, and not to mention doses of pre- and post-Wall Germany, reporters chasing stories, knowledge (think Julian Assange), and some internet trolling and spyware technology in case you didn’t know Franzen was relevant.
The central character is a twenty-something college graduate whose debt weighs around her neck: Pip, whose real name Purity generates the same discomfort as the nickname, pussycat, her mother affectionately gives her. Her journey to discover the secret of whom her father is, while seemingly unsubstantiated, sets the novel into motion.
Pip’s job is unfulfilling; her boss’ advances confuse her, she messes up her love life, and she is smothered by the needs of her mother, who has never revealed to her daughter her real name, nor the name of her father. Pip’s roommate, a German backpacker, tells her of the Sunlight Project, and the eminent Andreas Wolf, someone who could help her find her father. Joining the project, she catches the attention and affections of Wolf and their relationship becomes strange and needy. Wolf sends Pip on an intelligence mission, to gather information on Tom, a journalist, who knows too much about Wolf’s past. Twists abound, and both Tom and Wolf begin to carry the weight of the novel. The narrative is gripping—I found myself reading with my mouth agape. The threads all come together by the end, which is a little too convenient and rushed.
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The sales pitch from HarperCollins positions it thus: old fans of Franzen will hate it; new fans will love it. They’re gesturing towards a departure from Franzen’s typical style, which was devoted to an exploration in the crushing realities and minutiae of family life, and an adept ability to represent characters thoughts and minds. In Purity the same attempts arise, but it misses the beat. Characters are developed, but still lie flat and unconvincing. The psychological realities behind the characters are inconceivably created and are unexplainably toxic and tormented. I suppose it’s not your classic Franzen, but due to its “thriller” aspects it’s an enjoyable read.