For You, If You’ve Never Liked a Franzen Novel


By Jonathan Franzen

In his really good Purity, Jonathan Franzen ditches many of his literary pretenses in favor of an often humorous quest novel, carried along by plot and not a few coincidences of the type you might encounter in old English novels. The result is a story that even those who don’t particularly care for Franzen will devour with pleasure.

Pip Tyler sets out on a journey to find her father. Her mother has hidden his identity from her, raising her alone in a small cabin in the California mountains, isolated from modern life. When we meet Pip, she’s getting by in a ramshackle house in Oakland, living with a strange group that comprise something of a family for her. Among them reside temporaries, a couple of Germans. Annagret introduces Pip to the idea and possibility of working for the famous internet hacker Andreas Wolf, the revealer of big and small secrets who has secreted himself in the wilds of South America. The offer includes the seductive allure of finding out who her father is. Resistant at first, she succumbs and works for Wolf’s Sunlight Project. She doesn’t last long but uses her newly acquired skills and a key bit of information to land a job at an independent news organization that plies its trade over the internet. It’s sufficient to say that nothing is quite as it seems, she does discover her father, and she attempts reuniting her parents.

As you might guess, the title Purity, which is also Pip’s first name, represents an ideal that nobody in the novel lives up to, except perhaps for Pip and, oddly, certain characters in the Oakland house, which, naturally, in this world automatically makes them even weirder. While Wolf, Tom Aberant, Leila Helou (both of the Denver Independent), and Anabel Laird (Purity’s mom) seem to operate from decent motives, all share dark pasts. These pasts, comprising the plot and the forward engine of the plot, are parceled out in long sections that finally come together as a whole in the end. The organization makes for a real page turner, confirming your suspicions and the obvious.

The topics here, for Franzen’s always about something, include secrecy and privacy, the increasing difficulty of keeping things private, loyalty, the tyranny of the digital world that may be as oppressive as a police state, like the one that oppressed old Communist East Germany under the hand of the Stasi, as well as how few of us are pure, though we may strive for it and, in the end, we produce something close to pure.

Thanks to Franzen for a terrific tale most will like, finally. w/c


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