Sunday, January 26, 2020

Review of Jonathan Franzen's Purity.

Although this blog is mainly about science fiction, I sometimes read pure literature just to see what the other side is up. Jonathon Franzen is one of my favourite non-genre authors and here is a review of Purity, which I just finished reading.  

Purity is literature with a plot. The plot revolves around secrets with the two main secrets being Purity’s search for the identity of her father, and the cover-up of a murder. The novel follows four main characters: Purity, Andreas Wolf, Tom and Leila. Purity is a recent university graduate in search of journalism job. She was raised by a controlling, but loving, mother who always got her own way and would argue for hours about the most trivial matters. Andreas Wolf is modelled on Julian Assange, complete with his own version of Wikileaks. Wolf was raised in East Germany and was a reluctant escapee when the wall came down as East Germany was a seemingly perfect place to keep his secrets. Tom is the owner and editor of an investigative journal. While Leila is a hard-nosed reporter who works for Tom. They are lovers, even though she is married.

When Pip is offered a job by Wolf that requires her to relocate to his secret base in Bolivia, the lives of the four main characters go from circling each other to intermingling. But each of them is so caught up in their own sense of what is morally right they find it hard, in some cases impossible, to share their lives with others. While Franzen's critically acclaimed novel The Corrections was all about people trying to hide their true selves from the world, in Purity the characters, for the most part, are controlled by secrets.

As usual, Franzen divides the novel into lengthy sections told from one of the four character’s points of view. So Franzen spends a lot of time in the heads of his characters as they attempt to justify what they are doing while reminiscing on what they have done. I particularly found Andreas Wolf’s life as a church councillor in East Germany compelling as he tried to keep under the radar of the Stasi, even though his father was a high ranking East German official. When Andreas "escapes" from East Germany, his secret ensures he is never free.

But the story revolves around Purity and her search for the identity of her father. Her strict upbringing by her mother and lack of a father leaves her longing for a father figure. This leads to a desire for a relationship with older men, be it the older married man living in her share house, or perhaps Andreas Wolf, or... While searching for her father and love, she leads an otherwise aimless existence ruled by cynicism.

I very much enjoyed being in the heads of the main characters. Their search for an ethical meaning to life had me often contemplating my own machinations on life. As I read, I pondered the possible consequences of their secrets being exposed and was frequently surprised with what happened. While not in the same class as The Corrections, Purity is a very entertaining and thought provoking read.  


Anthony J. Langford said...

Good review Graham. Sounds like a good read. I have enjoyed The Corrections and the earlier one. Freedom was it? Might invest in this one. No doubt its as big as his others.

Graham Clements said...

Yep Freedom was the other one - about on pair with it. Like I said in the review, I really enjoyed the sections where Wolf is in East Germany. It is 550 pages. Oh for smaller novels, says me hypocritically, but if I ever got one of my novels published, they would be LOTR sized monsters.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Haha yeah that is a hefty read. Not too many writers can get away with it I don't think. Maybe divide it up?