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Franzen's Latest Novel: An Ambitious But Tarnished 'Purity'

About two-thirds of the way through Jonathan Franzen's big new novel, Purity, we're told about an "ambitious project" conceived by a young artist named Anabel. Anabel finds it strange that people can go through their lives without "having made the most basic acquaintance with [their bodies] ... certainly places on the head and back that [they] can't directly see." So, with "a fine-tipped black marker" Anabel divides her own body into a grid of 500 "57 x 57 millimeter squares" and dedicates herself to slowly filming each one of these squares, as well as the images and ideas they provoke in her. We're told that "if she could stick to her schedule, the [project] would last ten years. ... [S]he didn't know how long the final film would be, but she was aiming for twenty-nine and a half hours."

This description of Anabel's excruciating project (which she never completes) is but one brief story in a novel that teems with hundreds of them. As Franzen readers know, his narrative method consists of latching on to each of his characters sequentially; delving deeply into both their backstories and the texture of their present-day lives; and then turning his laser-beam focus on another character and another, not unlike what filmmaker Anabel aimed to do with her close scrutiny of tiny sections of the body.

By the end of a Franzen novel, all these disparate stories assemble themselves into one grand narrative. Massive, yet precisely detailed construction is Franzen's forte; like Anabel, he's an obsessive. The trouble with Purity, though, is that this time around, Franzen isn't able to persuade his readers to share his obsessions.

Purity is both the major theme and the name of the central character in this novel. Purity, or "Pip" Tyler as she calls herself, is a 23-year-old woman working at a dead-end job in San Francisco and saddled with $130,000 of student debt. She was raised in an isolated cabin by a single mother who claimed to be in hiding from her abusive husband — Pip's dad, whom she's never met.

Through machinations too involved to describe here, Pip gets an internship in Bolivia working for the East German-born Andreas Wolf — a purer version of a Julian Assange-type Internet outlaw who runs something called "The Sunlight Project," which exposes secrets that governments and businesses would rather keep hidden. We're told that "in terms of universal admiration, [Andreas] was right up there with Aung San Suu Kyi and Bruce Springsteen." Pip hopes The Sunlight Project can also help her locate her long-lost father.

To name but a few, there are also prominent storylines here having to do with the murder of an East German Stasi spy, security breaches at a nuclear warhead installation, corrupt foreclosure practices and relationships — many relationships — gone sour; there's an inspired long riff on the invasive power of the Internet — another big concern of this novel — and there are hilarious digressions about writing and bad book reviews and a climactic ending that owes something to all those Gothic tales of wrestling to the death on mountaintops with one's evil twin.

Franzen also devotes many, many passages in Purity to targeting feminism and crafting descriptions of destructive mothers (I count three out of three) and needy and emasculating wives and girlfriends. I assume some of this is about Franzen deliberately trying to get a rise out of his feminist critics — at least that's the kinder interpretation.

The big problem with Purity, though, is that all this effort doesn't emotionally move the reader. If The Corrections and Freedom were about "the way we live now," Purity goes way beyond domestic concerns, both familial and national; but, it doesn't seem to be "about" the relationship between the interior lives of Americans and their complicated social world.

I think, at bottom, Purity is really about Franzen's aesthetic desire to spin out lots and lots of stories, to experiment with his craft — which is a fine endeavor, but leaves the reader feeling simultaneously overwhelmed, yet curiously empty by the end of this long, packed novel. You've got to be a Dickens to be able to command a cavalcade of stories and characters without numbing your audience. Some contemporary novelists like, say, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell and Donna Tartt have pulled it off, but, despite the Dickensian echoes of his heroine's name, Franzen can't meet such great expectations in Purity.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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