Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Jonathan Franzen, _Purity_

ALMOST PASSED ON this one. I picked up Freedom with some anticipation, having enjoyed The Corrections and having duly noted the advance acclaim for the successor cropping up everywhere from n+1 to Time, but it was a dud, I thought--the central triangle not that persuasive, the initially promising kulturkampf confrontation with the neighbors two-dimensional.

Purity was much more cooly received, so I'm not altogether sure why I decided to read it anyway, but I did it, and I think it a much stronger novel.

Purity is the name of the central character, but she goes by Pip, and she has a lot in common with her Dickensian namesake: self-centered, prone to misjudgment, object of mysteriously-motivated benefactions, but good-hearted and capable of learning from her mistakes.

A very large part of the novel, though, is devoted to Pip's parents and their pre-Pip loves and entanglements, including one with an eccentric East German dissident who goes on to found an organization very reminiscent of WikiLeaks. This clay-footed figure generates most of what we might call the plot, but let's skip that. The looming question for him, for Pip's father and mother, and for other characters in their orbit is finding an indubitably noble end that can be pursued with uncorrupted means--hence another dimension of the novel's title.

Finding a noble end achievable by uncorrupted means sounds like a first-world problem, and it is, but it is the classic first-world problem, since first-worlders are always already complicit in crime simply by being first-worlders, so this particular conundrum seems worthy of a long novel. A similar conflict was discernible in Freedom, but it tended to shade into idealism-vs.-pragmatism, and Purity takes on the question with both more irony and more gravity. Not to mention more intelligence.

Franzen does a lot of things well here. In Freedom, the transitions from Franzen-esque narration to style indirect libre were bumpy, the timing of the revelations stagy, but both matters are adroitly managed here, the latter worthy even of Dickens.

Biggest surprise was the fifth and longest of the book's seven sections, which keep calling Philip Roth to mind. It's in the first person, which Roth uses (used?) often but Franzen rarely does, but the main similarity lies in Franzen's character Anabel Laird, who repeatedly evokes the many fictional avatars of Margaret Martinson, Roth's first wife (see Letting Go, When She Was Good, Portnoy's Complaint, My Life as a Man (best place to start), and The Facts). Franzen cannot quite match the histrionic high notes that Roth can hit in in the mad scenes, but Anabel walks away with the book, really.

Actually, factor in that Anabel is also Penelope Tyler, Purity's devoted, vulnerable mother, and she begins to look like the most interesting character Franzen has ever conjured up. I wouldn't want to be married to her, but she's really marvelous.

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