Book Review: Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For some reason, my review of Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion remains one of the most-viewed posts on my blog. I wonder why that is. Probably because there aren’t that many other online reviews, but I’m not sure. No one has ever commented on it, just viewed it.

I was introduced to Franzen through The Corrections, one of those literary moments talked about, so widespread that you could converse about it with people you just met, and with a quality where readers had a personal reaction or connection with the book that drove the conversation. I loved it myself, finding the characters unforgettable and relatable. No matter the crazy circumstances they were in, I recognised myself, my family and friends in this family.

From there, I’ve read most of the rest of Franzen’s oeuvre. I thought the early novels were enjoyable; found the collection of essays interesting, mostly for the insight into Franzen’s character; and I seemed to like Freedom a lot more than my friends did, though I didn’t like it as much as The Corrections. Hopes were high then for Purity; and the reviews that I came across were very positive. Strangely, I wrote up this short review at the start of January 2016 and never posted it. Why? Shyness? Self-doubt. I’m not sure, but will finally clear it from my draft emails, where I have been storing it.

The verdict? I didn’t get around to doing a review immediately, which allowed for more retrospection, though perhaps less recall of detail. That’s actually one aspect of the book I wanted to comment on. Franzen’s storytelling really is unusual for me: he delves into his long stories and histories of his characters as if in one monumental exhalation, without breaks between paragraphs or sections. It can be quite dizzying how, in this style of narration, time is compressed and condensed; there’s no need for particular order or pauses, because it is as if a guy at a bar is simply recounting one long story, and it does make sense, and is complete.

At the same time, I worry for what Facebook and other social media has done to my brain. I found it hard to digest such large pieces of text. I actually needed to take breaks and space out my reading, but then I seemed to lose track of some of details, which Franzen would come back to, thematically, leaving me to flip through previous parts of the book to try to find out whether there was something really important I’d missed (there wasn’t generally).

The other thing is that I didn’t connect with the characters as much as others of his. This does make the pay-off greater, when a particularly self-absorbed and aimless character shows such growth by the end of the book. But I felt some dissatisfaction. While critics rail against the primacy of ‘relatability’ for how we enjoy art, I did want to like the characters just a bit more.

What Franzen has always excelled at though is the zeitgeist, and capturing the spirit of the times (or at least, America, and how that influence pervades the world) and the novel’s primary themes – surveillance, security and exposure – as mainly embodied by the Julian Assange-type character, felt right for 2015 (and now 2016). I also was impressed how he created this character while name-dropping his influences: Assange, Snowden and even Chelsea Manning and putting his protagonist, Pip, in the context of them. Franzen’s intellect and inspiration really does feel, at times, boundless, making it a pleasure to spend time in his company through his books.

A final note: there did seem to be a particular point of view coming across, a working through of the theme and question of how ageing heterosexual men have sex and court women at a time when women are expressive of their needs and demanding of more social power. Even though some of these characters were meant to be icky or corrupt, I kind of was left with more of an ick factor than insight, though of course, I, as a gay man, wouldn’t be his target audience with whom he can explore this issue. It felt to me that Purity wasn’t as popular as some of his other novels. Was this true? If so, could it have been that at this time, the world doesn’t really need to read about the sexual anxieties of ageing heterosexual white men?

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