Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: a review
Don’t listen to the haters, read this book
Pick a dysfunctional family, any dysfunctional family. People trapped in it will often find themselves at one of three stages: rage that they should have been born in this messed-up family instead of say, a normal one; acceptance of their own role in the mess; and finally, hope that their family will one day find its own version of normal. This is not a linear process; personal growth is optional, erratic and completely reversible. One weekend back in a house full of screaming adults and suddenly there you are, back at Stage 1.
If Jonathan Franzen’s book The Corrections vividly illustrated the first stage, his next Freedom inched towards the second, which makes his latest, Purity, the most hopeful and life-affirming of his books. Or as life-affirming as a book can be while also containing a murder scene where a man’s head is severed with a shovel.
Like with Franzen’s two previous books, Purity is narrated through the back-stories of its major characters. But this time, the American Mid-West does not dominate their landscape, which shifts from California to the police-controlled East Germany of the ’50s to a lush Bolivian valley and, back in the United States, to Denver. Purity aka Pip Tyler travels—or time-travels—to these places to find out the identity of her father, which her single mother has kept from her. She doesn’t really know how she’s going to do this till she is recruited as an intern for The Sunlight Project.
This international whistle-blowing agency, which has sought asylum in Bolivia, is run by a leader so slick with charisma that it’s impossible to like him. But Andreas Wolf is irresistible and the parts of the book that delve into his dark past have an accelerated momentum of their own. When she returns to America, Pip finds two much more worthy role models in the form of investigative journalists, Leila Hedou and Tom Aberant. The relationship between these two, even with all its unresolved issues, is almost idyllic. You can feel Pip’s yearning to burrow into the comfort of their normalcy. But her very arrival disturbs it and the events she sets in motion changes the status quo for everyone, not least of all, for her own dysfunctional family unit of two.
One of the most satisfying things about novels is that they can immerse you in worlds in which you would otherwise be an outsider. The bleakness of winters under a repressive police regime, the impossible idealism of old-school journalists, the frustration and enchantment of loving an insane person—Franzen deep-dives into different lives and records everything with empathy. Except in the case of the aforementioned insane person.
Franzen said in an interview with The Guardian about Purity that he takes a certain amount of glee in baiting his haters, some of whom see him as a misogynist. If they’re looking for ammunition, they’ll find it in the passages about Tom Aberant’s first wife, Annabel Laird. She twists feminist philosophy and uses it to keep her husband feeling guilty, inadequate and constantly on edge. The haters took the bait and Franzen has been roundly flamed on Twitter for his representation of this character.
But this novelist is no misogynist. His women are every bit as complex and compelling as his men. That’s precisely my problem with Annabel. She is irrational, psychotic and a trial to everyone who loves her. And you have no idea what it feels like to be her, because Franzen doesn’t tell you. When it comes to this very important character, you feel every bit the outsider.
Then again, perhaps Annabel is just mentally ill. Only in Jonathan Franzen’s world does a genuine psychiatric condition pale in comparison with the demons that plague the sane. After all, a mental illness is like any other natural disaster, like say, an earthquake. Purity goes beyond tracing the fault-lines that rip families apart. It is concerned with how they can still find a way back to something approaching normal.