The newest novel by Jonathan Franzen is the kind of novel which an author can only write when previous success has occurred. Without that track record of reliability or quality, the editors would have given the book much greater scrutiny. Purity suffers badly from a lack of editing.
The main character is nominally the recent college graduate Purity, nicknamed Pip, though the Julian Assange-like figure of Andreas Wolf steals the spotlight as soon as he appears. The best of the entire novel is set in East Berlin and if more of the focus of the novel was spent on Wolf, it’s possible the novel would have been far more entertaining. The parts with Wolf are not without flaws, however, especially as the character’s repeated stating of his devotion to his mother and love for his past partner, are his motivations begins to seem less plausible as the book goes on. The other main character, Tom Aberrant, an editor at Denver Independent, gives us the most emotional parts of the book but the hysterics in his diary makes one feel as though one is reading the most banal remembrances. Purity herself sometimes seems like a description of the problems of millenials than an actual person.
The entire book is sprawling and ambitious yet primarily character focused, as would be expected from the author. In fact, the summary of the plotline(s) actually seem like the logical expansion that Franzen would next attempt. It brings in Berlin during the era of two Germanys, subject that the author would know from up close during his time at Freie Universität Berlin. His distaste for the internet pervading into all aspects of life is also previously documented in his essays and the idea to spin this as a parallel to the era of the Stasi is actually quite clever.
The main issue with the book lies not with the concepts but the execution. Too many characters exist in the book that contribute nothing or, even worse, contribute just enough to seem interesting and then disappear. There are several stories that go nowhere at all, such as the journalism piece about a missing nuclear weapon which gives us one of the more interesting characters in the novel in Leila. Leila has claim to be the realistic character in the book. Pip, barely seems more than a blend of what millennial are supposed to be like and her mother is almost a parody of an idealistic feminist (as well as a parody of neurotic mothers and child of the rich). The author’s previous works such as The Corrections and Freedom were also dominated by idealistic characters (especially in Freedom with Patty but also The Corrections, as Alfred’s reserve and adherence to mid-Western style values is one of the primary structures of the book), but they managed to feel like real people with ideas and not composites of various ideologies.
People do exist with several motivating ideologies which swirl in them and are never resolved because of the difficulty of ideology in real life. But a novel is not real life and the author should put forth a viewpoint that is compelling. Even if the viewpoint that turns out to be compelling is that life is confusing. But the confusion of the story is not designed by the author and comes from incoherence, not design.
The main threads of the story do interact and there are unexpected links between Wolf, Pip and Tom. But these links never seem to ring true. The coincidences are wholly implausible and when later on in the novel we find out they are not coincidences, it’s been hundreds of pages since we already knew. The book gives the uncomfortable in-between of presenting us with the idea that the power of the information era brought the people together but states it slowly throughout the novel. Tom’s meeting with Wolf is plausible but Wolf’s motivation for obsession with Tom is thing. The entire rise of Wolf to the leader he is seems either underdeveloped or told in too much of a rush.
The novel is filled with brilliant ideas and a compelling plot. The characters have potential and Franzen has shown us a world which is much like our own. With better editing and perhaps a bit more work on the characters, it could have been another masterpiece. The man who wrote The Corrections certainly knows how to create one.