Controversy aside, Jonathan Franzen is an incredible author. With PURITY, he proves to be one of the greatest. In effortless strides, Franzen covers everything from God to politics, the environment to the internet. He takes us to Germany in the 1950s, down to South America, and back again to Germany when the wall came down, all with stops in Colorado and California. He touches upon—trounces upon, really—all the modern zeitgeists, from Frozen to Snowden. At its essence: purity. Beyond, yet including, sexual reference, the definition of pure is called into play in terms of money, acquaintances, and action. And: the differences of loneliness and companionship. No matter your opinion of the author himself, this book speaks of brilliance.
Bound in debt, hidden from wealth and murder, the character Purity—Penelope or Pip these days—Tyler is the driving force in Franzen’s character-developed novel. Her feelings: “the world was as obstinately unfixable as her life was.” She felt her friends slipping away in endless Tweets and Likes, her living situation was questionable, at best, and as for her mother: “she could feel herself starting down the road to be a friendless person like her mother.” Hermit-like, not even revealing her true name, Purity’s mother was hiding many secrets. Yet, it’s amazing what love will hold bound.
“You’re a very good person. You’re just in a bad dream.” The comparisons of Franzen to Dickens are well justified. Through the strength of his characters he illuminates the boundless issues of today, where we find ourselves “trusting in technology instead of taking care of people” in a country that is “…a testament to badass firsts.” A country that is “first in prison population, first in meat consumption, first in operational strategic warheads, first in per capita carbon emissions, first in line for the Rapture.”
In the midst of powerful observation comes tender emotion. As with any of us, the heart of the human spirit persists throughout an environment of difficulties. It’s amazing to watch Franzen dial down from the macrocosms of social and political injustices to pause in moments of personal reflection: “I’m starting to think paradise isn’t eternal contentment. It’s more like there’s something eternal about feeling contented.” We witness Purity transform from a self-doubting young woman to a self-confident, though still fragile, woman—all through decades of worldwide change. I’m in awe at the ease Franzen achieves this.
“Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and aggressive in the having of it?” The regaling of Franzen’s world (matching closely our own) is not without pointed lines at his own success. “You must always be considering how important you are, how newsworthy, and this divides you from yourself and poisons your soul.” Though it is important to note that this is not a distraction, just an interlude, to Franzen’s finest, most beautiful work. With fun, comes soul-searching, deepening questions, such as: “Was there anything crueler, from the person who’d rejected you, than compassionate forbearance?”
There’s a little bit of everything for everyone in PURITY. As the book’s description states, it is a “grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder.” This is a book for our generation, no matter your age. It’s one of the finest examples of craftsmanship you will find.
Thank you to FSG for sending me a copy of this book to review. I recently featured PURITY in a “Want Wednesday” post with some of the outstanding pre-launch coverage PURITY was receiving.