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book review

‘Purity’ by Jonathan Franzen

carl wiens

It’s pretty much impossible to review a book by Jonathan Franzen anymore without also reviewing the accolades for some of his past ones. “The Corrections” was a National Book Award winner, Pulitzer finalist, and Oprah Book Club pick; “Freedom” was another Oprah pick and landed Franzen on the cover of Time magazine. Please don’t mistake this for snark; the man and his books truly deserve these testimonies to his voice and vision, to his brain and his art.

Enter now his latest tome, “Purity.” The novel’s eponymous character, Purity “Pip” Tyler, a grudgingly employed twentysomething living in a squatter house in Oakland, Calif., wants to know who her father is. Despite the wishes of her reclusive and somewhat nutty mother, Pip sets out to find him, and begins by interning with the world-renowned hacker Andreas Wolf, a charismatic and mysterious Julian Assange-like secret leaker.


So intricate is the ensuing plot that I can’t connect many dots without revealing perhaps one detail too many. But as with all Franzen’s work, it’s the ambitious means by which the novel reveals itself that makes the book, not the plot. Daughter searching for father — well, yes. But there’s more.

Over these 563 pages we get four points of view in seven novella-length sections; we get cold-blooded intrigue in Texas and Colorado, the Bay Area and the Santa Cruz mountains, New York and New Jersey, Belize, Bolivia, and East and West and unified Germany; we get dark tales of perhaps-stolen nukes, drug cartel connections to the upper echelons of the US military, collateral victims and disappeared brass. We get the fall of the Berlin wall, the rise of the Internet, the dark zeitgeist of the world of social media. We get the battle between the sexes, and its attendant sex (though much of it is of the onanistic variety). And we get murder.


Reading “Purity” is pretty heady going, and calls for a willingness to let an avalanche of intellect, politics, psychology, and allusions to high and low culture cascade down upon you. Franzen populates Pip’s quest with everything from postmodern filmmakers to high-end banking protocols, from industrial meat-packing to Ben Bradlee’s tenure at the Washington Post, from East German Central Committee intrigues to quantum physics. (“Boson” was a word that sent me sheepishly to the dictionary, as did “estoppel,” and with each look-up I couldn’t help but feel Franzen ruefully wagging his head at me, the slow jogger unable to keep up). All in the attempt to show how beclouded the entire notion of identity can be in our time of wholesale surveillance and the hollowness of fame.

Even the book’s epigraph, in untranslated and unattributed German, is a portent of the intellectual rigor involved in reading what comes next, not to mention a tip of Franzen’s hand to its thematic core (it’s from Goethe’s “Faust” — I had to look that one up, too).

But that rigor is rewarding in that we come to know, through the book’s dense web of associations, the whole of the lives of the people involved in Pip’s quest, a quest that reveals itself to be a matter of life and death. At one point during the section given over to Tom Aberant, the head of an online investigative journalism outlet (and eventual employer of Pip once she’s left Wolf behind), the reporter notes of his arguments with his then-wife the nature of the “logic tree” he’d have to climb with each next word he has to speak: “Every utterance of hers gave me multiple options for response, each of which would prompt a different utterance, to which, again, I would have multiple options in responding, and I knew how quickly I could be led eight or ten steps out onto some dangerous tree branch and what a despair-inducingly slow job it was to retrace my steps back up the branch to a neutral starting point, since the job of retracing the steps would itself result in utterances to which I would inevitably produce a certain percentage of complicating responses.”


The reading experience on “Purity,” with all the logic-tracing it demands, can be exhausting, too. But as in all Franzen’s novels, and now so very powerfully in “Purity,” it is the history of his players that matters.

Franzen’s exhaustive exploration of their motives, charted oftentimes over decades so as to deliver us to this moment when the plot turns on the past in the seemingly smallest of ways, is what makes him such a fine writer, and his books important. He is a fastidious portrait artist and an epic muralist at once, and the compact passage above, mapping the self-consciousness we all live within, is in micro what this very macro book is all about: human response, for better and for worse, to human response.

Purity: A Novel


By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux,

563 pp., $28

Bret Lott teaches at the College of Charleston and is a former editor of The Southern Review. His most recent books are the nonfiction collection “Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian” and the novel “Dead Low Tide.”