Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 563 pages
Young Pip Tyler doesn't know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she's saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she's squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother - her only family - is hazardous. But she doesn't have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she'll ever have a normal life.
Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world - including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now on the lam in Bolivia, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn't understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong.
Purity is a grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder. The author of The Corrections and Freedom has imagined a world of vividly original characters - Californians and East Germans, good parents and bad parents, journalists and leakers - and he follows their intertwining paths through landscapes as contemporary as the omnipresent Internet and as ancient as the war between the sexes. Purity is the most daring and penetrating book yet by one of the major writers of our time.
I've come to a few conclusions about Jonathan Franzen after reading two of his novels. First, he's a good writer and his books are fat, juicy reads with a slow burn. Second, he's a little bit obsessed with poop and other bodily functions. And third, he reminds me of the Jack Nicholson character in As Good as It Gets:
His male characters aren't exactly shining examples of logic and stability either - they are usually obsessed with their childhoods, bodily functions, and trying to deal with women. His women, however, are all pretty much crazy and irrational. Some are raving batshit crazy, others, like Purity "Pip" Tyler, are just damaged and neurotic, maybe intelligent and likeable, but still pretty much nuts.
Purity has a difficult mother who raised her alone, lovingly but fearfully, always refusing to tell her about her father. Purity (who hates her real name and goes by "Pip") did what a lot of Millennials have done - went to college for a useless degree and buried herself in student debt she'll never be able to repay. Then suddenly an internship opportunity falls into her lap, thanks to a man named Andreas Wolf, an Assange-like former East German who runs an organization called the Sunlight Project out of Bolivia. Pip leaves a pretty good journalism job with a couple of mentors who've taken her in like a lost kitten (where she predictably causes tensions between the couple, despite being innocent of any wrongdoing) to go to Bolivia, where Wolf, an enigmatic idol (on whom many chapters are spent going through his own history) becomes obsessed with Pip, and Pip, being like a man but without reason or accountability, becomes equally obsessed with Wolf, so they both badly want to hook up but Pip repeatedly puts the brakes on at the last second.
That Franzen mixes a comical subplot that is basically a dude's lamentation about blue balls into what turns out to be a large conspiratorial family drama in which international whistleblowing organizations and the East German Stasi are a red herring (because Wolf's real motivation was bitterness at an unrequited man-crush, which he has transferred to Pip for spoilery reasons) - yeah, the whole thing was funny, interesting, epic, and yet says a lot about Franzen's view of the world.
Pip's mother is the worst offender. She's sort of an archetype of what's now called a "SJW" (Social Justice Warrior). The uber-feminist daughter of a very, very rich man, she goes to college and pulls stunts like wrapping herself naked in butcher paper and lying down outside the administration building, to demonstrate against... the evils of consuming meat, and parallels to women's status in society, and something like that, but really it's just a great big "Fuck you" to Daddy, who owns a meat processing corporation. Her repeated arguments with Pip's father are shrill soap operas that just make you want to slap a bitch. I get the impression that Franzen actually intends her to be sympathetic, even while the reader realizes she's a histrionic drama llama, but frankly, [Spoiler (click to open)]if I were her daughter, struggling under the crushing weight of student debt, only to discover that mom is heir to literally billions of dollars which she's refused just because she's still sulking at her father - who incidentally was not terrible and never did anything but dote on her - I do not think I would feel so forgiving or sympathetic.
I can see why Franzen grates on some people. His books are fat opuses with lots of complex characters whose lives intertwine in dramatic and unexpected ways, rendering a big satisfying if sometimes stretched story. I would liken him to Dickens, the "dude lit" author of his day who also filled his books with great, sometimes ridiculous characters, trenchant (sometimes self-righteous) social criticism, and some unfortunate hang-ups about women. I'm a big Dickens fan so I like big books full of pompous, ridiculous, sometimes heartwarming characters, but I can also understand why even in his day, Dickens was sometimes considered a jerk.
Also by Jonathan Franzen: My review of Freedom.
My complete list of book reviews.