PURITY: A Review
I finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, weeks ago. I didn’t hate it, but found it mostly forgettable. No character resonated; no conflict compelled me to keep reading. The only other work of Franzen’s I’ve read was The Corrections. That was several years ago, but I remember how I felt as the family disconnect played out. I could see the basement with its chair and the urine filled coffee cans. I remember how Alfred’s rejection of his wife and children fueled the dysfunction. Despite the problems generated by choices made by the three grown children, the book wasn’t about them; it was a portrait of a family and the misery of each member. In my opinion, Alfred was the root of the family’s disconnect, his role made overt by the onset of his dementia. I understood the way each family member defined his or her self and though disconnected, they were still a family.
Despite Purity’s lengthy back-stories, it never rang true. Pip, the main character, reminded me of one of my college roommates—the one with the freckled toes. Roomie never raised her voice, seemed very meek and accommodating but got an A in Passive-Aggression 101. She had a cow (didn’t appreciate) when I used a sprinkle of her nutmeg on my French toast. Henceforth, the nutmeg was hidden. Probably where the moon don’t show.
Purity is entertaining and witty. It captures the way the Internet has changed the world and Franzen’s take on millennials rings true. Pip’s search for identity and the identity of the one she hopes will sponsor her ambitions does recall Dickens’ Pip. But for all the plot twists, witty observations and improbable coincidences, in Great Expectations, Dickens invested his Pip with something more—a reflection on what it means to be human.
The vagueness of her origins (Pip’s mother won’t tell her who her father is, not even her real last name) has given Pip identity issues. Didn’t we all have them at that age? Like the spinster Miss Havisham, Pip’s mother, Anabel is a real head case, as are all the mothers in this book, which makes me wonder about Jonathan’s Franzen’s issues. Anabel is a feminist to the nth degree of the nth degrees. Ex.– Anabel’s long ago student film project entailed filming every square inch of her body and she suffered nervous exhaustion by contemplating each little piece. That’s one way to find yourself. In addition, Pip has massive college debt and Mom is dirt poor. Or is she?
Problem solver that she is, Pip decides to look for her dad. Or maybe “a” dad. She tries to seduce an older man, a fellow squatter in the house of questionable ownership where she resides. The move doesn’t go well and Pip is humiliated. When a houseguest urges Pip to take an aptitude test that will determine if she has what it takes to join an elite organization, lo and behold, Pip is the perfect candidate! This results in her agreeing to join an all girl cult down in Bolivia. In reality, it’s an all girl “expose the truth by hacking” group lead by a Julian Assange type, Andreas. While waffling over her decision, Pip begins an email exchange with Andreas. Andreas is charmed and amused when Pip releases her inner snark. You wonder why he bothers. Andreas has his reasons. Recruiting Pip was no accident.
The novel then divides into the stories of Pip, Andreas and two other characters, Tom and Leila. Tom and Leila are fifty-something investigative journalists who produce an online newspaper. They live together.
We learn that Andreas, born in 1950’s East Germany, was the precocious son of a Stasi (secret police) bigwig. His seductive, intellectual mother had fits that immobilized her. At twelve, little Andreas began to act out (excessive masturbation, drawing pictures of naked women and general weirdness). Not only did his mother get on his nerves, he was dealt another blow when a homeless man informed him that he, not the Stasi guy, is his father. That did it. While attending college he began writing politically incorrect poetry, not a wise choice in Communist East Germany. To escape prison, he hid in a church where he became a youth counselor. He “helped” young girls by seducing them. What a prince.
When he fell in love with the wrong girl, he protected her by killing her abusive stepfather. Guilt and the fear of getting caught continue to press on him. His angst reminded me of the Japanese girl ghost perched with her arms wrapped around the neck of her murderer at the end of the movie SHUTTER. He never shakes it. When the East Germany Communist Party collapses, Andreas frantically searches Stasi headquarters for his file. The nightmarish search recalled 1984 and the feared Ministry of Truth. Before he can be arrested the Berlin Wall comes down. Andreas seizes the moment and his talent for bullshit helps him become a media star when he announces a new world order. Soon after, he meets Tom, an American student who is researching his German roots. When Tom describes his wife Anabel and his unresolved feelings for her, Andreas unburdens himself to Tom and persuades him into helping him rebury the murder victim (the stepfather). This leads to a lifelong fear that someday, Tom is going to rat on him.
Through facial recognition software, Andreas finds Anabel and discovers that she has a daughter. One more thing: Anabel is an heiress who rejected her family and the billions she inherited. After determining that Tom is Pip’s father, Andreas sends Pip to spy on Tom. One thing leads to another and Pip ends up living with Tom and Leila. Tom wasn’t aware that he had a child. Anabel, as a parting gift, tricked him into fatherhood before disappearing for good. Struck by her resemblance to Anabel, Tom realizes that Pip is his daughter. Pip is unaware that Tom is her father. Tom doesn’t enlighten her. When Leila an accomplished journalist and self-assured feminist, misinterprets what’s going on, Tom tells Leila the truth but keeps Pip in the dark.
So—where was I? Tom is a dedicated newsman. His story details his fatherless upbringing by a neurotic mother who suffered lifelong stomach problems. The saving influence was the care of his normal half-sisters. His relationship with Anabel was a nightmare of narcissism masquerading as extreme feminism. Anabel’s libido was governed by the Moon and her mood swings were right out of Mommy Dearest.
When Pip meets them, Leila and Tom are a content middle-aged couple. After taking Pip under her wing, Leila invites Pip to live with them. Leila is still married to another man, Charles, a paraplegic. Charles is a one hit wonder novelist struggling to produce another masterpiece. Embittered and sarcastic Charles riffs on the competition—all the literary “Jonathans.” I’m sure Franzen meant to be self-deprecating but what I heard was “It’s tough to be me.”
When it seems that Pip and Tom are getting along too well, and before Tom explains who Pip is to him, Leila panics, remembering how years before she had taken Charles away from his first wife. Pip tells them Andreas sent her to spy and returns to Andreas whom she torments sexually, channeling her inner Estella by running hot and cold, never giving up the goods. She plays with him like a kitten batting a squeaky toy.
Andreas’ guilt results in an “other self” he calls “Monster.” Monster would like to hurt people. Out of spite for Tom’s and Pip’s rejection, Andreas reveals the truth to Pip. When he learns of Andreas’ role in Pip’s deception, Tom, who has repeatedly rejected Andreas’ offers of friendship, decides to confront him and accepts an invitation to visit the compound. Trying to provoke Tom into attacking him, Andreas taunts him with detailed descriptions of his sexual encounters with Pip. Tom doesn’t take the bait so Andreas invites him to take a walk. Andreas stands on the edge of a cliff, but for Tom, the view’s fine from several feet away. All revved up and no one to kill, Andreas/Monster jumps to his death.
Now that Pip knows who she is and how much money her mother has, the fog of indecision lifts and she sets to tidying up her life. Visiting the man in charge of her mother’s trust, she persuades him to buy the house her squatter friend is in danger of losing by promising to tell him her mother’s address. She convinces her mother to sign off on it and to acknowledge Pip’s identity as an heir. Anabel is childlike. Pip becomes the mother. Rejecting the lifestyle of the rich, Pip becomes a well-adjusted barista and starts a relationship with a boy she had once rejected. It’s a Victorian ending until Pip talks her mother and father into meeting. All goes well at first. Later, Pip listens while her parents scream at each other. Finally, something I believe.
As I mentioned earlier, this novel lacks a true humanity. In Great Expectations the character of Pip remains one of my favorite Dickens people. When he discovers that his benefactor is not the crazy but respectable Miss Havisham, but the old convict who swore he would never forget Pip’s kindness, I could relate as Pip struggled with letting go of the fantasy and honoring the truth. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens wonders at all the doors in Paris. Each door hides a story. Different in detail, coincidence and outcome, each story is the same. We all struggle to find an identity while realizing that we’re just another story behind another door.
Purity is a story about a girl’s search for identity. She finds a name, nothing more.