Like a lot of other people on the planet, I loved The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed 2001 novel about a dysfunctional Midwestern family. I hazard to say that I liked 2010’s Freedom somewhat less, and now that I’ve just finished it, 2015’s Purity a little less still.
There is no denying Franzen is a fine writer. His characterization is full and compelling, built upon revealing and often relatable anecdotes. Franzen has a gift for vividly portraying tortured relationships, whether they be parent and child, husband and wife, co-workers or partners in crime. This is what made The Corrections so much fun to read. Although no actual family could be messed up in the precise ways the Lamberts are, readers can still recognize the agony that comes from decades of responses to family members which trigger counter-responses. Suffice it to say that what rings true in The Corrections is the power that family has on us; at times, it’s a power that has us laughing aloud and at other times has us holding back tears of a very different nature. Another strength of Franzen is his ability to keep a story moving forward while switching the focus from one character to another. This achieves the effect of forcing the reader to constantly re-evaluate characters in light of new information and how others see them. Finally, there is the fact that reading a Franzen novel is illuminating about very specific niches of our contemporary world. Purity is convincing whether Franzen is writing about a secretive internet organization dedicated to leaking information that is damaging to the rich, powerful and environmentally destructive, painting a portrait of paranoid, repressive and corrupt East Berlin before the wall fell, detailing post-graduate film projects that border on performance art, or casting light on the anxiety of an independent journalist trying to verify her sources and beat the established papers to a big scoop.
The title is apt, referring as it does to the name of one of the protagonists of the 608 page novel, but also to the thematic concern of whether it’s possible to be pure in such an impure world. A number of characters commit vile acts in the novel, but many claim to have pure intentions in carrying them out. Just how much weight should purity of intention carry? It’s an important and relevant question.
So what’s not to like? Well, sections of the book just went on too long. In particular, the chapters dealing with internet sensation Andreas Wolf seemed endless. When I find that I am repeating to myself ‘just get through this section and it will be enjoyable again soon enough’, maybe it’s time to put the book down and get another. While the other Franzen novels I’ve read didn’t seem lengthy, this one did. Frequently. Perhaps well-respected and successful novelists have difficulty finding editors who will tell them the truth, even if it’s not flattering. Purity could easily have shed 100 pages, maybe more and been more effective. Whereas in The Corrections, the relationships are beyond our experience but still somehow familiar, in Purity, they seem to be so excruciating that they are almost unrecognizable. I felt this way to a certain extent about Richard Katz, the hedonistic musician in Freedom, but Anabel Laird and Andreas Wolf take this alienation of reader and character to a whole other level. The characters are so extreme in what they need from one another and come from such uncommon backgrounds that the novel seems less a revelation about modern living than a mystery accompanied by dashes of social commentary.
Would I like to be able to write like Jonathan Franzen? You bet. I just hope his best work isn’t behind him.