Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 563 pages
Americans don't read much, but that doesn't stop them from tossing the occasional writer into the celebrity hype and buzz machine. Jonathan Franzen is the literary equivalent of a rock star. This means reviewers generally decamp in one of two tents: sycophants who praise everything he types, or iconoclasts seeking to knock Humpty Dumpty from the wall. The Guardian dubbed Purity—Franzen's first novel in five years–"brilliant," and the New Republic speculated that Franzen might be the nation's greatest living novelist. By contrast, Gawker slammed Purity as high school prose, sniffed as its "placid gutlessness," and dismissed it as a buzz-driven "piece of shit."
Few embody buzz, excrement, and overwrought as well as Gawker, but though I'm tempted to agree with Gawker's takes-one-to-know-one assessment, I'd judge Purity neither masterpiece nor bovine exhaust. It has occasional insights, but it's mostly just mediocre. It surprises me more, though, that almost no one has picked up on the book's most-intriguing aspect, its title and Franzen's musings upon it. Most reviewers stop with the observation that Purity is the given name of the book's central character, 23-year-old "Pip" Tyler. They miss that every character suffers from existential crises resulting from the pull between purity and grime. These are expressed in ways such as: morality versus desire, character versus celebrity, principle versus pragmatism, prudence versus urgency, and fidelity versus lust.
Our titular character Pip/Purity is the cog of the novel. She's a 23-year-old recent college grad living with a band of misfits in Oakland, and stuck in a revolving door of dead-end jobs that won't make a dent in her college debt. She has good intentions and tries to care for her housemates, a few of which are scarred physically or psychologically, but she also suffers from Millennial self-absorption and doesn't understand why she can't sleep with anyone she wishes, or why somebody won't just give her $130,000 to pay off her student debt. It sure won't be her mother, Anabel Laird, a recluse in the Santa Cruz Mountains who lives like a cross between an ageing hippie and a survivalist. Pip can't even get her mother to stop calling her "Pussycat," tell her who her father is, or reveal a single detail of her life before she had Pip. The out-of-sort Pip is thus intrigued when another housemate, Annagret, an oddball German-born eco activist, recruits her for The Sunshine Project. This, we discover, is a Bolivia-based Wikileaks-like organization run by an East German ex-pat, Andreas Wolf. Like Julian Assange, Wolf is famous, infamous, and wanted; hence the Bolivian address. (We know Andreas is like Assange because Franzen constantly makes that very analogy!)
All of the major characters' stories overlap. We first meet Andreas in East Berlin two years before the Wall came down, where he's torn between his earnestness as a street angel/church youth counselor for troubled teens, and his libidinous desire to bed them. Annagret, though, is special and he helps her in a way that put both in danger. Before Andreas makes his way to the West, he enlists the aid of a visiting American journalist, Tom Aberant, the one person other than Annagret who knows Andreas' dark secret. Decades later, Andreas has assumed the mantle of a social justice crusader and uses his Svengali-like magnetism to draw idealists to his Web projects. Will Pip also fall to his charms?
Purity leaves opens itself to charges of packing way too many implausible coincidences into one story. Tom reappears–along with an absurd and superfluous back-story involving his father–and with a life partner named Leila, whose purity is compromised by her simultaneous roles as Tom's colleague/lover and her live-in status as the caregiver for a paraplegic husband she was on the verge of leaving before his accident. Through even more bizarre circumstances, all of the characters are connected through Pip. Gawker's overwrought tag has merit, especially in Franzen's deus ex machina approach to resolving dilemmas.
Add overlong to the book's problems. Must we equate being a "weighty" writer with the quantity of pages churned out? Purity could lose half its bulk and be no worse for it. The central premise is a compelling one. How does one maintain integrity in a world whose stronger currents run the other way? We don't, however, need another long book on this theme–Donna Tartt already wrote and collected a Pulitzer for it. Her Goldfinch also had characters less whiny than Pip, more deliciously Machiavellian than Andreas, more convincingly bohemian than Anabel, more conflicted than anyone in Purity, and with considerably more trust in the readers to connect the dots. I didn't hate this book, but as purity goes, it's more beige than white.