Do We Love or Hate Jonathan Franzen?

By: Emily Weber

It’s quite possible that Jonathan Franzen is that smart guy in your late-teens early-twenties that you fall in love because he’s so smart, even though he’s a complete asshole. Unfortunately, I’m still under the Franzen spell so I’m struggling to write a review on his newest novel Purity. But I will work on it and try to have a more subjective and critical friend write another review at a later date. Sorry you’re stuck with me for now.

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Purity, like The Corrections or Freedom (I only read the giant Franzen novels, and I’ve read nothing in between these) has several protagonists. The first is Purity Tyler, a 23-year-old who goes by Pip and has an incredibly strange and needy mother from whom she must move far away if she ever has any chance of actually growing up (I mean, Bolivia). Pip’s got $130,000 of student loans and a crappy job. The 2016 reader gets it.

Franzen writing from the perspective of a 23-year-old woman is awkward and a bit creepy, I’ll admit that. Hold on for the next few sections, though, because he really hits his stride with some of the other persons featured. Next we get Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange type character (though he shudders at the comparison being made by several observant characters in the text) who got his chip on his shoulder by being an enemy of the State in East Berlin. In the context of Wikileaks, Sony leaks, even Apple’s battle with the government’s “back door,” it should not surprise us that the ultimately zeitgeist-y Franzen is writing about hackers in his newest novel. His three major (giant) novels are crisp commentaries on their time. This is one of his biggest strengths, so sure he’s going to write about a Wiki-leaks inspired commune stationed in Bolivia in the 20-teens. Sure.

The next two sections follow Leila Helou and Tom Aberant who are both talented journalists in off-kilter relationships battling the fact that they’re really good and smart people who don’t think they’re either thing, and certainly not at the same time. Now, if you’ve recently read me gushing about Spotlight, or the first few seasons of Newsroom (before this moment), or House of Cards, you know I’ve got a big thing for journalists in fiction. Leila and Tom’s sections of the book just sing for me. Their both brilliant and funny and I wish they were my parents/mentors (Pip does, too). I think I read the whole chunk in one sitting. I don’t want to spoil anything about their parts, so give their story a shot if nothing else.

Now I know that people read Purity and come away feeling uneasy about Pip and her mother, and even at times the completely brilliant Leila because of how strangely Franzen writes women. The concerning aspects of their character that seem to overwhelm them from being real people (craziness toward men, craziness toward other women, flakiness, insecurity, etc.). I feel uncomfortable telling women they should read this novel because I feel like they might judge me for liking Franzen. I mean Gawker ripped the book completely to shreds. I’m not saying the people saying these things are wrong.

But I really like the way Pip and her mother come to relate to each other, and the way Pip learns to look up to Leila, and the way everyone in the novel (male & female) have to come down off of their moral high-ground if they’re going to stand to be around each other. And I just can’t help that I really like the way Franzen writes and crafts a story. I think he describes our times in such witty, intelligent ways and line by line his writing has this wonderful speed that I really enjoy. Plus the novel doesn’t feel too “literary” and the plot is full of really fun twists and turns. As a story, it’s really entertaining.

For every person who loves Purity there will be someone else who doesn’t love it, so that’s why I recommend everyone to read it. If you think there are problems with the story Franzen’s telling, you’re not wrong. But if you like the story and you like the writing, this novel might give you something to argue with your friends about. And that conversation has never done anyone wrong. So, tell us what you think.

You can find Purity or other novels by Franzen at your friendly, neighborhood bookstore, like Next Page Books.

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