Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is a novel about sex and power and horrible people in which even the the least horrible of the characters behave horribly. The book’s both surprising and disappointing because Franzen — in The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) –created such vivid and believable characters that, in spite of all their flaws, you could sympathize with them or, at the very least understand their motivations. They reflected the world we live in all their hapless, comical, pathetic glory .
In Purity, in contrast, no one’s motivations or actions are fathomable despite the long and windy explanations for why they supposedly act the way they do. The two main male characters Andreas Wolf, a Wikileaks style activist, and Tom Aberant, a successful crusading journalist, both hate their German mothers and treat them with palpable cruelty. In contrast, the main female character, the eponymous Purity or Pip for short, should hate her unredeemably awful mother, but for some reason gives her the pass she grants to no one else.
Pip eventually meets up with Andreas, but I can’t tell you too much about why or how because spoiler alert. What I can say is we readers get east Germany before and after the fall of the wall, Stasi secret police, internet activism, Bolivia, Belize, bad artists, righteous journalists, drunken novelists, crazy wives, multiple jealous girlfriends, and way too much information about Andreas’s and Tom’s hard-ons.
The tenor of the dick talk makes me bet that it’s only a matter of time before this novel gets denounced as misogynist porn and its author along with it. While I’ve always been Team Franzen in his various pop culture clashes, including the one with Jennifer Weiner about coverage of women authors, I don’t think I can defend him this time around.
There’s something that makes me deeply uncomfortable about the women in this book despite the fact I’ve never had a problem with Franzen’s female characters before. In Purity, the women are all hyper-controlling, manipulative, jealous and looks obsessed. Super stud Andreas has a harem in his thrall. Female solidarity is MIA.
If there’s a sub-text here or satire going on, then count me as missing that too. I’ll be shocked if the outrage machine doesn’t end up in high gear over Purity. And I expect to see a lot of critics pulped as a result. Even if this isn’t Franzen at his best, I suggest you speed read Purity to prepare.