Jonathan Franzen is one of those writers who I’ve always avoided. Initially, I didn’t mean to. But when a writer is labelled as the Great American novelist or some such grandiose term, I tend to back away from their books. And then I read about all his weird interviews, and the bird-watching (not that I have anything against it), and most important – the number of reviews that talk about his white male worldview, and his problematic approach to writing female characters. Let’s say nothing I read compelled me to go read his books.

This year however, something made me change my mind. #FranzeninFebruary happened and I saw a number of tweets chattering on about all the Franzen books. Finally, reading Laura Frey’s tweets convinced me that there wouldn’t be any harm in reading one of his books, and trying him out for myself.

And hence, I started with Purity. I loved the cover – it caught my eyes at the bookstore, and I had an AHA moment, which of course I had to follow through on.

A Brief Synopsis

Young Pip Tyler doesn’t know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she’s saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she’s squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her mother though very loving is also very weird. She doesn’t have a clue who her father is, or why her mother has always concealed her own real name.

Her hunt for her father’s identity leads her to Andreas Wolf – a charismatic Julian Assange-type of character who lives to publish leaks through his organization The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world. Purity hopes that Wolf would be able to help her find out who is her father.

My Review

This is a book that reinforced all the messages I’d been hearing about Franzen and then some. It is definitely very much a white male novel, and I did find his women characters really weird. However, in spite of all the problematic nature of the writing, I simply loved the book.

One reason for loving it is the pure out-thereness of some of these characters – Purity, Andreas, Anabel, Annagret are all so extreme. Not only are they extreme, they are also extremely self-obsessed and introspective. These people have ISSUES, and they are constantly thinking about these issues, and verbalizing them until even the dumbest reader gets just how massive these ISSUES are.

Pip – the titular character who is supposedly the pure heroine of the novel spends a lot of time trying to seduce older men. She is obsessed about paying off her $130,000 student loan, and she wants to find her daddy, so that he can pay off the loan for her.

Andreas Wolf is quite simply a psychopath. He often fantasizes about killing off the women around him, and he’s got major mommy issues.

I considered, quite seriously, strangling her to death while I fucked her and then throwing myself in front of the 8:11 bus. The idea was not without its logic and appeal. But there were the bus driver’s feelings to consider.

Yup, that’s the character of Andreas in a nutshell. Pleasant, right?

When Andreas and Purity meet, sparks fly. But there is a background to their love. And it is this background that forms the really interesting part of the book. Once Pip and Andreas get out of the way of the story, it starts to get really exciting.

The love/hate story of the two secondary characters – Tom and Anabel is what anchors this book, and gives it heart. In general, all those sections in which Tom is present are the best portions of the book. That’s probably because he is the most normal person around, and his very saneness keeps the weirdos in the book somewhat likable.

Anyway, enough about the characters. What about the plot? What about the themes of the book?

Well, the plot is fairly straight-forward. Simply put, it’s a very Dickensian kind of tale (Great Expectations is a big inspiration) about a good pure girl in search of her father.

The simple story though is wrapped up in rather grandiose wrapping – life in East Germany before the fall of the wall is a huge thing in this book, as is privacy in this internet-era. There are some other grand themes discussed too – materialism, capitalism, veganism, all kinds of isms populate this story, although it is very hard to make out what Franzen himself thinks about these themes. Does he approve of veganism like his character Anabel, or is he poking fun at her? It’s hard to tell.

One rather problematic thing is the way feminism is depicted in this book – as a hysterical overreaction. I didn’t like it, and it made me very angry.

His descriptions of the women were also so off the wall I can’t decide whether it was brilliance or just poor editing.

I mean, what do you think when a woman is described as full-chestedly anorexic? If he is talking about someone Angelina Jolie-esque, then this turn of phrase is pretty accurate, brilliant even. But I am not convinced that is what he meant.

Here is another description of a woman’s body.

Around her ribs and waist were curves of the kind that wind carves in snowdrifts.

Again, not quite sure what to make of that description.

So, yes, I found the writing problematic in many places, as were the relationships between men and women in the book.

But, in spite of that, there was something about this book – some pull that had me reading and thinking and obsessing about this book. The sheer hysteria of the characters also was such fun to read.

Overall, I came away really liking the novel, and I am interested in going back to read some of his other books.

Not too soon though. I think I am fairly emotionally and intellectually drained after this one. I will probably take a long-ish break before I embark on my next Franzen.

Have you read Purity or any other of Franzen’s novels? Do you like/dislike them? Which would you recommend to me?

2 Responses
  • The Bride
    February 15, 2017

    I read Freedom, after it got rave reviews but before the stuff about Franzen being a douchebag was out. I enjoyed it. It’s the only of his books I rhad ead so I didn’t find the portrayal of women particularly problematic… though I guess if he keeps doing the same kind of woman then it would be? I don’t know. The examples in the book you cited sound pissing off as hell. Not sure if there was similar stuff in Freedom but I was carried away by the story and character delineation. Also while people (including himself) went on about him being an example of complicated or obtuse writing, I didn’t think it was.

    • Nishita
      February 15, 2017

      @disqus_n8id8gueu6:disqus I am wondering now whether I would even have noticed all the problematic stuff if I hadn’t already read those newspaper articles about him. Once read though, it’s hard to not see it in his books.

      And while I disliked how he talked about feminism and feminists, it seemed like an honest reaction, and maybe something most men feel but don’t like to say it?

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