Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen 978-0-374-23921-3 Farrar, Straus and Giroux 576 Pages; First Printing: Sept. 2015

In Purity, Jonathan Franzen lures the reader by dangling the carrot, today’s idealism, a setup reminiscent of the Occupy Movement and the various hacker groups, particularly Wikileaks. Purity is the lone child of Penelope Tyler, a woman who has split from her past, claims to be on the run from an abusive ex and now lives in a cabin in the woods. We meet Pip (Purity) as she struggles in a job she does not like, while owing $130,000 in student debt and living in squalor, squatting in a foreclosed house with a cast of characters. The catch is that Pip is not a true idealist; she simply wants to find the identity of her father in hopes he can pay off her student loan and some more. 

That yearning gets her caught up by Annagret, a German woman who recruits her into The Sunlight Project. Annagret tells her Andreas Wolf, the leader of the project - a band of hackers and other true believers - should be able to find her father. Wolf came to his revolutionary zeal by happenstance in East Germany as the Berlin Wall was coming down, and continued down that path because of the fame. His problems with the totalitarian State had more to do with his ambivalence toward his parents, specifically his mother with whom he shared a love-hate relationship imbued with a ruinous oedipal complex. Conflict with the State in all its forms, potentially maleness, and the desire and machinations to remove or subdue it form the core of Purity. As such, Purity is a violent novel, and not necessarily physically, though there is a murder. Franzen’s contention or presentation comes off as a mockumentary, a bit over the top, with characters that, for the most part, refuse to take accountability for where they are in life. In true narcissistic fashion, each decision is overanalyzed in order to escape culpability and reach self-purity. The novel is messy, in that, aside from structure, the story moves randomly like a code, a virus, spyware a hacker has released. There are many takeaways from Purity, including the conflict regarding where novelists, journalists and internet leakers stand in the hierarchy, and whether technology has extended the State’s ability to oppress, whereas in the past the State needed many individual informants.

Recommendation: HIGH

Reviewed by Guichard Cadet