Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Purity’
563 pages, hardcover: $28
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Pip is 23, crippled by student debt, working as a telemarketer and living in an Oakland squat at the outset of Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity.” Smothered by her reclusive mother, who refuses to reveal Pip’s father’s identity, this smart, snarky millennial travels to Bolivia to work for a Andreas Wolf’s Sunlight Project – a WikiLeaks-esque organization – on the promise of paying off her loans and, maybe, finding her dad.
In the ensuing pages, this epic yet intimate novel spans decades and continents – it’s a page-turner of cliffhangers and plot twists, with murder and espionage, journalists and leakers at its center. But despite those fireworks, it ends up being about the thorny bonds between parents and children, husbands and wives.
Early on, the book appears to be cloyingly topical: WikiLeaks, Occupy, millennial entitlement, renewable energy. They all make appearances in the first – and ultimately weakest – of the novel’s six novella-like sections. Titled “Purity in Oaklland,” this long chapter feels at times like the literary equivalent of a “ripped from the headlines” TV movie, with Franzen straining to make it as culturally current as can be.
The novel picks up momentum from there, however, and ultimately – though its plot is nominally wrapped up in Wolf’s shady operation – it ends up being a closely observed, compulsively readable, emotionally bruising novel about relationships. The secrets characters keep (or don’t) are the concerns of “Purity.” The genius of Franzen is that amid the dysfunction and abuse, this remains a comedic novel.
Pip (given name Purity) and Wolf’s collision brings her to Tom Aberant, a Denver journalist running a ProPublica-styled investigative news organization, who knows Wolf’s worst secret. Leila Helou, a prize-winning bulldog reporter dating Tom but still married to a disabled failed novelist, chases a big story about a missing nuclear weapon and shows Pip the journalistic ropes.
The novel’s centerpiece is Tom’s first-person narrative of a marriage gone bad (reminiscent of Patty Berglund’s autobiography in Franzen’s “Freedom”). Anabel, his girlfriend-then-wife, insists on no secrets and a radical equality in all things – for example, she requires he sit while peeing, she tallies their monthly orgasms and requires an equal count. This harrowing (and yet, somehow, hilarious) section brings the book’s seemingly disparate strands together.
Colorado readers excited by the Denver locale shouldn’t expect much insight from Franzen on our capital. His Denver is a sort of Anywhere, USA in the narrative. Franzen invests far more in spectacularly capturing the atmosphere of East Berlin in sections of the novel tracking Wolf’s sordid backstory.