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Book Review: “Purity”

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By Joe Kryston

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Jonathan Franzen might just be the most brilliant author alive and active in America today, and Purity, his latest novel, is proof of that. Not that the claim really needed much proof; he is the writer most recently featured on the cover of Time magazine, appearing next to the caption “Great American Novelist”. Clearly, Franzen is no lightweight, and, at nearly six hundred pages, neither is Purity.

Though Franzen writes the book from the point of view of several intersecting characters, Purity focuses on Purity “Pip” Tyler, a woman in her early 20’s. In many ways, she is much like the average millennial: struggling with a difficult job market, a fractured, complicated family situation, and $130,000 in student loans. She becomes involved with Andreas Wolf, a shadowy German man who leads an organization called The Sunshine Project, a fictional rival of WikiLeaks. To give away much more would spoil the plot, but, to put it lightly, not many things go according to plan.

Though the novel thoughtfully addresses a broad spectrum of themes and ideas, it seldom stops at a cursory analysis of anything. Franzen’s writing is not difficult, but it is always subtle and nuanced. Every line of dialogue says something about the character, and every character says something about the way we live our lives.

Among the inaccessibility of some of the characters, there is almost always a strong relateability. Andreas Wolf, who, at first glance, is worlds removed from most Americans, uses “LOL” liberally in emails. Purity Tyler, the young woman to whom a world of activism and international intrigue has presented itself, is still terribly worried what her mother might think of her choices. For all their eccentricities and successes, they really are just like us.

The novel has been met with mixed reviews, but this seems like it might be more convincingly attributed to iconoclasm among literary critics than a real decline in the quality of Franzen’s writing. After two of his novels (“The Corrections” and “Freedom”) were met with nearly universal critical acclaim, some might feel that it’s time to remove Franzen from his perch as America’s foremost literary artist. As such, most of the criticisms have been vague, the main argument being to the effect of “How can a middle-aged white man be qualified to write about American life so broadly?”. It is a perfectly fine question, and it is not one for which I have an answer, but reading Purity, it seems clear that Franzen really is qualified.

This leaves a few critics confused and desperate, scraping the bottom of the barrel for some evidence of sexism, or of Franzen being generally out of touch. The evidence is scarce and coincidental, because the argument it seeks to support is weak. Franzen is one of the most judicious social commentators in modern literature, and, again, he has produced a really thoroughly wonderful work of fiction. Purity is thought-provoking, hilarious, interesting, timely, and, importantly, an awful lot of fun.