What exactly caused Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Purity to go off the rails? Was it his grumpy-old-man characterization of the Internet as the biggest villain of our lifetime? The complaints about fame? His tiresome depictions of women as indecisive and supremely neurotic creatures? His grotesque and laughable descriptions of sexual encounters (“The pecker knew her secrets. It knew that, if only for a while, she’d looked forward to being tampered with”)?
Or did the novel’s first two words seal its fate? “Oh, pussycat,” says a disturbed mother addressing her daughter. Can an endearment so false and stilted set off the story on a shaky course from the very beginning?
Purity is Franzen’s fifth novel and a bitter disappointment after the uncanny brilliance of The Corrections, which won the National Book Award in 2001, and Freedom, less beloved, maybe, but equally commanding. In both novels Franzen used family dysfunction to sketch compelling portraits of contemporary America.
Purity is essentially a story of family dysfunction, too — buried in an unnecessarily twisty, overstuffed narrative. Franzen attempts to give the novel scope and depth by flogging themes involving our flawed notions of morality (the words “moral hazard” appear on the first page, right after that “Oh, pussycat” bit). Every major character must confront the fact that his or her motives and actions have been less than pure. But the book reads more like handwringing than an epic, incisive examination of our time.
As the book opens, Purity “Pip” Tyler, out of college and deep in debt, is struggling along in a job she loathes, working for a boss who sexually harasses her. She pines secretly for a married roommate who’s just one of the guys with whom she shares a grubby Oakland squat where politically minded strangers come and go.
One such stranger, a German named Annagret, pesters Pip to fill out a questionnaire and apply for an internship with the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-style endeavor run by the mysterious and charismatic Andreas Wolf. Unlike Julian Assange, Wolf is “still reasonably pure. In fact, that’s his whole brand now: purity,” a character explains helpfully.
Pip agrees to answer Annagret’s questions at a most unlikely time (she’s just about to have sex with a cute boy in her bedroom). Soon she’s off to Bolivia on her internship, where she falls (sort of) under Wolf’s creepy spell.
But unlike the other comely young women in his employ, Pip doesn’t care much about making the world a better place. She wants to use the project’s vast resources to solve the pressing mystery of her life, facilitated by her mother’s stubborn refusal to provide any facts: Who is her father? Is he still alive? And most importantly, can he help her pay off her student debt?
From there, Purity winds back through the life of Wolf, who grew up under communist oppression in East Germany but was protected from the Stasi by his father’s position in the government. This safety net left Andreas free to pursue his delights, namely teenage girls. No worries, though; he was a sexual predator because he missed his mom: “Had looked for her in fifty-three girls without finding her.” One of these girls leads him to commit an act that will haunt him for the rest of his life, long after the Wall has fallen.
That act will also link him to Tom Aberant, editor of the Denver Independent, and Tom’s lover and fellow journalist Leila Helou. Tom devotes his life to uncovering scandal the old-fashioned way (as opposed to Andreas’ data-dump method), but his hands aren’t entirely clean, either. Franzen spends a lot of time laying out Leila’s investigative work — with Pip as her assistant — but in the end, nothing comes of it.
Purity takes plenty of lengthy detours as it winds to its conclusion, during which we learn a variety of preposterous facts. Tom’s former wife can achieve orgasm only during a full moon. The Internet is as dangerous as the Stasi: “The answer to every question large or small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet. Its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence.” Love equals being stalked: “The rightness of the phrase preyed upon was becoming evident. The feelings of prey in the grip of a wolf’s teeth were hard to distinguish from being in love.”
I wish I could tell you all this nonsense added up to something, but in the end, Purity is just about a young woman trying to find her father and her place in the world. Neither Pip nor any of the other characters is interesting enough to warrant this much of your time. The book’s resolution feels like a cop out: You can never shake the feeling Franzen was trying too hard, that even he didn’t quite know what to do with this unwieldy mess of a novel.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.