A magnum opus for our morally complex times from the author of Freedom. Young Pip Tyler doesn't know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she's saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she's squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother - her only family - is hazardous. But she doesn't have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she'll ever have a normal life. Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world - including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now on the lam in Bolivia, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn't understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong. Purity is a grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder. The author of The Corrections and Freedom has imagined a world of vividly original characters - Californians and East Germans, good parents and bad parents, journalists and leakers - and he follows their intertwining paths through landscapes as contemporary as the omnipresent Internet and as ancient as the war between the sexes. Purity is the most daring and penetrating book yet by one of the major writers of our time. This audiobook includes a bonus conversation with the author.
"In short, the book is a dream for any narrator who is itching to demonstrate his or her acting range, as Jenna Lamia, Dylan Baker, and Robert Petkoff handily do. Their performances are uniformly engaging and engrossing; together, they make the listening time fly by. Anyone weighing the potential return on investment of reading all 587 pages can safely turn the heavy lifting over to them." (AudioFile)
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You see, women supposedly can't criticize this author's novels without being accused of resentment towards the author. A long story that dates back to 2010: "[Jennifer] Weiner, Jodi Picoult, and other prominent female writers argued that acclaim for Franzen came at the expense of women writers, whose work has historically been ignored by book reviewers—in particular those on staff at The New York Times." I read his first book... I stand Corrected; I tried. I picked up Freedom, I put it down. Seemed I just couldn't do whiny, and didn't want to review and add substance to either side of the debate.
Determined to get one down by this "Great American Novelist," I figured I would do a read along with my superior reading pal Darwin. I texted him this message when I finished: "I have never been so happy to have a book come to an end than I was with this!" And I meant it: even while I was dazzled by Franzen's intelligence that highlighted my own inferiority; the elegant technical structure and his dexterity in steering these detailed threads (each of them their own novella) towards his end goal; his ability to keep his clutches tightened around my throat when I wanted nothing more than to just to get away.
Regardless of the oodles of talent Franzen has been blessed with and/or developed, I mostly disliked this very good book. My general dissatisfaction -- a few degrees short of hostility -- is not because of the gratuitous onanism; I read Portnoy's Complaint, loved Suttree with the watermelon violator (though I do feel the need to throw in a foul flag here and issue a warning to readers). It is because of his gross misrepresentation of women across the board, and from what I've read elsewhere, not just with this book. Now don't go pegging me an ultra feminist; I haven't burned a bra and I shave under my arms, and I have never stamped the anti-fem label on anything, but I don't like when my gender is made to look like the doors of mental institutions have sprung wide, spitting from their maws nothing but XX chromosome fruitcakes. Right now, I dislike him, I think I even dislike his mocking, misogynist face!
I can't help myself from wondering, why should it be any more acceptable to continually generalize women this way (or men) than it is to write that all white people can't dance, that all black Americans like chicken and waffles, that all Mexicans hate Donald Trump? -- in my mind, it is offensive, demeaning, and wrong. How far do we broaden the parameters of the literary-tactic-by-a-literary-superstar pass? Isn't a blatant and morally disparaging generalization a blatant and morally disparaging generalization -- hiding behind artistic expression to hurl boulders... ah, what do I know? Maybe Franzen's portrayal of women is nothing more than Sam Tanenhaus' statement: "Franzen has an “otherworldly feel for female characters.” [The New Republic]. I hope Mr. T is not offended by me saying his minimization shows his "vast male dullness or sensitivity of a fence post -- which may or may not be gender related, I have to add to be fair. Because I wouldn't want to assume that all men are like [him]." (Chosen from the words of Patricia Cornwell; The Body Farm.)
I won't deny Franzen's talent. If I could be just pragmatic after reading this instead of embarrassed to be a female, I could recommend. My XX chromosome deleted the fourth *. Franzen was too visible in this novel, too aware of his own intellectual power just beneath the nearly perfect style. I felt like he was mocking me as a reader with his low rung "otherworldly" portrayals juxtaposed with his clever insights into society, as if he was challenging me to fight passed the insults purposely flung, to grab the prize. (Darwin8U-XY gave the perfect example with Andy Kaufman analogy.)
What are those lyrics?: "I hate myself for loving you?" "I love myself for hating you"...Right now I seem to be a little confused.
"So many Jonathans. A Plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you'd think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.” - Jonathan Franzen, Purity
I went into this novel with the same trepidation I approach all of Jonathan Franzen's novels. I admire his talent. Generally like his fiction, style, and prose, but also end up worn out and wrung out after reading them. The Corrections and Freedom wore me out with the struggle. The Kampf of Kinder. His prose in those two novels was amazing. The characters were fascinating. The plot and narrative was kinda sluggish. It was like a nature hike through an overgrown wood. Lots to appreciate, but moving forward was kinda a pain in the ass.
His debut novel The Twenty-Seventh City had more narrative thrust, but the plot was a bit labyrinthine. It moved, but you just seemed a bit dazed after. Talent was there. Excess of talent really, but unbridled. Unrestrained.
'Purity' seems to give us a fsster-paced, more plot-driven family novel. So, some of the excesses of his last two novels seem to be trimmed. It also is less of a puzzle. Even the structure was clean and clear. So, while I think this might be Franzen's most enjoyable novel to-date, I'd still rank 'The Corrections' as his best (despite its flaws). If that doesn't make sense. It might just be me. I have a history of mixed signals. I think Pynchon's Mason and Dixon is his most enjoyable novel, even though I think Against the Day is a superior book. Anyway, I do digress.
Let's get back to the structure of this novel. Franzen gives hints at his plan with this novel with way he divides the novel. The novel is divided thus:
Section 1: Purity in Oakland; perspective = PIP, aka Purity Tyler Section 2: The Republic of Bad Taste; perspective = Andreas Wolf Section 3: Too Much Information; perspective = Leila Helou Section 4: Moonglow Dairy: perspective = PIP, aka Purity Tyler Section 5: [lelo9n8aOrd]: perspective = Tom Aberant Section 6: The Killer; perspective = Andreas Wolf Section 7: The Rain Comes; perspective = PIP, aka Purity Tyler
So, just incase the title doesn't give it away. This novel is Pip's. She is the actual beginning, middle and end of this story. But Andreas Wolf is the anti-hero, the counterpoint, the response to Pip's call. The ebb to her flow?
So here are my three main gripes about the book. My trinity of reasons for the missing star:
1. FRANZEN'S LIBS
Some of my old gripes about Franzen still exist. Sometimes, I can't decide if he exists in an obnoxious liberal fairy tale, or is just really good writing about liberal fairy tales. If I was a betting man, I'd lay a Billion he gets a kick out of all his blatent self-parody. Franzen seems über self-aware and seems to enjoy using Pip's mom to poke a bit of fun at the extreme end of the cartoonish, obnoxious, west coast liberal... but at other times Franzen himself seems to fully embody and gloat in this same cartoon. It wasn't obnoxious enough to distract me for long from the novel, and look I'm a pretty liberal guy myself, but sometimes Franzen's approach to capitalism, feminism, privacy, animal rights and global warming seems a bit clumsy. Perhaps, it might just all be me.
2. FRANZEN + SEX
Also, I could say the same thing about Franzen and sex. To be fair, most writers can't write about sex. They either take themselves way too seriously or not seriously enough. Franzen seems a bit more comfortable writing about spanking the monkey (perhaps that is the danger of being a writer) than sex between man and woman (or woman and woman, or man and man). But, that said, his awkward sex scenes were mostly ALL supposed to be awkward. These aren't healthy adult couples manifesting their love or desire for another person through physical contact. These are issues of power, control, obsession, oedipal longing, etc. So, like his writing about the liberal extremities, I can't quite decide if his writing about sex is perfectly awkward or just awkward. It is a bit like watching Andy Kaufman. You aren't sure when he is joking or if the joke is on you. He just doesn't see to have grown much past his Freedom days. Yes, you all know what I mean: "the hot, hungry microcosm of Patti's c#nt"*. See? I can't even write it or not write it without barfing and giggling at the same time.
3. FRANZEN & WOMEN
Sometimes when I read Franzen writing about women, or as a woman (read PIP), I'm reminded of that fantastic Jack Nicholson's quip from 'As Good As It Gets'. Except...AGAIN I'm not sure if Franzen is doing this on purpose. Perhaps, the whole reason I gave this book only four stars is the one star is all about my uncertainty. Is Franzen truly a d!ck or is he just playing with the idea of being a d!ck? I dunno. For sure he isn't folding to Jennifer Weiner's attack on his pr!ckish prose.
So, I guess that is what I'm asking. Is Franzen's prose pose about women, sex, liberals a put on or is it just Franzen being Franzen? I'm not sure. And to be fair. I'm not sure I really care. In a lot of ways it is like Mailer being Mailer. Did I ever want Norman Mailer to start wearing cardigans and sticking his pinky out while drinking mixed drinks? I liked Franzen's book. And while I've set out my three little gripes, they weren't THAT big. I don't want them to seem more than what they were. I'd probably find a couple reasons to bitch about Ecclesiastes too.