Book Review: Purity
When somebody reaches a certain level of acclaim, there comes with it backlash. Almost as if people don’t want to believe that there exists a genius at the level he’s touted. Jonathan Franzen is absolutely no exception to this. He came to the public’s eye when in 2001 he published The Corrections, a novel sprawling many generations and multiple continents about a family in the modern age. It’s a monumental work and in my opinion worth every bit of praise it received, and Franzen was seen as an author to watch. After a controversy involving Oprah’s Book of the Month and many non fiction opinion pieces that portrayed him as a crotchety old man frustrated with the youth of today, he published 2010’s Freedom, another powerful look at family and idealism in the modern age. It too was met with critical acclaim and it’s fair share of hate both for him and the book. Now, in September he released Purity, another lengthy book which delves into such prevalent themes as privacy, secrets and youthful idealism.
It’s not like when I’m writing this I feel the need to defend or gush about Jonathan Franzen - there are already plenty of people way more qualified to review literature who do that for me - but, I do feel the need when reviewing Purity to stick up for the big guy who already has money, accolades and persuasion in the literary community. Not for his sake, not even for my sake, but for the sake of people who are pouring their hearts into work only for it to be met with what is, in my opinion, completely unfair and misplaced criticisms. It’s one thing to not like a book because it didn’t speak to you, or to find it too long or complicated. It’s another thing entirely to frame a whole critique on the book in an ad hominem attack on the author. So, here is my review of Purity as a critique of criticisms and defense of fiction and literature as an outlet for expression.
To talk about the plot of a Jonathan Franzen novel is hard if not impossible. The book details intersecting characters and the entire lives that hide behind them. We start with a 23 year old girl named Pip whose life is in utter shambles. She has $130,000 in student debt looming over her, a very strange and complex relationship with her mother and a job she hates. Until one night she gets an opportunity to join the Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks type organization run by the very intriguing Andreas Wolf. Thus sets off a story that involves a murder, secrets, investigative journalists and a failed marriage many years ago. Like all of Franzen’s work it spans decades and continents and presents a picture of life as a whole.
The thing that makes Franzen’s writing so alluring and exciting is his characters. He is unlike anybody else I’ve ever read in how non judgmental he is of these characters and the choices they make. He presents such a rich, complex and full picture of these people over so many years that everything they do makes sense, even if you don’t like it or agree with it. He gets into their heads and comments on things that make us human. And, he does it all without pausing for breath. He’ll travel decades in one paragraph seamlessly and the whole thing slowly but surely builds to paint a full picture of all of these lives and what they mean. It’s only through this strange but thrilling exploration that larger ideas themes emerge. But, he leaves it to the reader to discover and think without providing judgements beforehand.
A simple google search for Jonathan Franzen will bring up claims of misogyny and self importance. I’ll even admit that he’s really hard to like in interviews as he so clearly thinks himself to be the most important writer of our generation. In 2010, in correspondence with the release of Freedom, Time Magazine featured him on the cover with the headline, “Great American Novelist”. He’s also on record for contemplating adopting an Iraqi orphan simply to better understand millennials. He’s annoying, pompous, arguably unfairly critical of twitter and our generation as a whole. But, none of that detracts from his writing.
It’s very easy to call somebody a misogynist. It’s very easy to sit in your armchair and use a reductionist term that attacks the author and his whole work. You bring up examples of his writing that somehow prove that he’s not worth listening to. But, it’s exactly not doing this that makes Franzen so effective. He’ll have a character refer to herself as a feminist, but the term doesn’t matter because he’s showing you such a complete and holistic picture of the person that no one term could encapsulate all that the person is. His writing is just like the world: complex, intriguing and leaves the reader with a funny feeling.
Please don’t take this to mean that you have to love his books. Criticism in all its forms is valid. After all, without it, we’d never get better. I just happen to think that there’s too much of it nowadays. Too much cynicism. Too many people who are so easy to dismiss a work as “terrible” for no good reason. There are things that are in fact terrible, but I have a lot of difficulty believing that something that comes from such a pure place as a desire to tell an interesting story could possibly be as bad as people claim. I know that might be naive and overly optimistic, but I think it’s true, if not fully then at least slightly.
I’ll admit I didn’t love the ending. I found that things wrapped up a little too nicely in contrast to the 560 or so pages that preceded it. I also found many scenes to be too gratuitously graphic for reasons I didn’t understand and found unappealing. It’s a book and it’s not perfect. But, nothing is. Like any writer or college student who wants to come across as smarter and more worldly than he is, I’m going to quote David Foster Wallace who said, “Fiction is what it means to be a (expletive) human being”. Good fiction is not concrete. It’s not black and white. It’s not feminist or misogynistic. It simply is. It explores and delves and makes you think and feel and want and hate. And it’s characters are not representative of the author as a person, writer or thinker. Just because Jonathan Franzen is annoying, or complicated, or famous, doesn’t mean that he deserves that backlash he gets. Neither he nor his haters are intrinsically special, and neither of their voices intrinsically matter. Personally, I just happen to connect a lot more to a deep exploration than a one sentence tweet deriding him as hateful. Franzen himself says it better than I ever could when, in Freedom, he writes, “But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special.”