Review: Franzen's 'Purity' superior to 'Freedom' with less hype

Published Sept. 2, 2015

Since Jonathan Franzen's last novel, Freedom, appeared in 2010, he and his publishers seem to have thought a lot about great expectations.

The publication of Freedom was touted as a major literary event, marked by Franzen's appearance on the cover of Time magazine with the headline "Great American Novelist."

Freedom garnered some ecstatic reviews, some skeptical ones, but it didn't vault Franzen to the pinnacle of the literary pantheon. In fact, it was one inspiration for a phenomenon dubbed Franzenfreude, the author's running battle with some female writers about whether his career and work embody white male privilege.

This time around, the publicity has been more measured — although Purity is a better novel than Freedom.

The new book is, among many other things, a tip of Franzen's cap to Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations. It has a plucky young main character nicknamed Pip who's burdened with debt and in the dark about her parentage, an older woman who's a crunchy California version of Miss Havisham, and a plot that includes manipulation, murder and deep dark secrets.

Franzen's Pip, real name Purity Tyler, is an engaging but aimless 23-year-old woman who has $130,000 in student loans, a dead-end job and chaotic living quarters among squatters in a foreclosed house in Oakland, Calif. She is still, in some ways, acclimating to the 21st century, having been raised in low-tech isolation in a cabin in the hills south of San Francisco.

Penelope Tyler (not her real name), Pip's chronically depressed, hypochondriac mother, works in a grocery store, wears thrift-store frocks and pursues a vague self-realization project she calls her Endeavor. Yet Pip sees in her "an ineffable sort of greatness. ... back in a pre-Pip past that she categorically refused to talk about," except to assure her daughter that their carefully maintained anonymity and avoidance of Pip's mystery father are for her own protection. Although Pip is frustrated by this, she and her mother share an unconditional love: "She was like a bank too big in her mother's economy to fail."

That bond is one reason Pip hesitates when a seductive middle-aged German woman named Annagret shows up to recruit her to go to Bolivia to work for the Sunlight Project, which is sort of Wikileaks with hifalutin philosophical trappings — "secrecy was oppression, transparency freedom." (Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are name-checked often as the project's rivals.)

Pip has a pretty clear-eyed view of her own capabilities, and she doesn't think she has the tech skills for the job. She also smells something "possibly cultish" in the devotion of the Sunlight Project's members, not to mention something a little creepy in the contact she soon has with its founder, Andreas Wolf.

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Pip will go to Bolivia (largely in hopes of using the project's hacking power to find her father), and Andreas will become another of the novel's trio of main characters, whose stories are unfolded and connected in several sections, told from various points of view. Andreas was born in East Germany to a powerful Communist Party bureaucrat and his beautiful, steely, mentally ill wife: "My father is a professional liar, my mother a gifted amateur." Andreas, like Pip, is aimless early on. He turns his counseling work at a church into a means of preying sexually on at-risk teenage girls — 52 of them, by his count, until he meets one whose "purity" (that word again) will turn his life upside down.

Pretty much accidentally, he becomes a political dissident; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that evolves into his creation of the Sunlight Project, whose main asset is his boundless charisma. Of course, given his obsession with transparency, he is a man with terrible, dangerous secrets, including some that involve Pip.

The third member of the trio is an American journalist, Tom Aberant. (Yes, Franzen is on a Dickensian naming spree.) Tom runs the Denver Independent, a nonprofit investigative journalism operation. His ace reporter is also his longtime partner, Leila Helou. Their personal situation is complicated: Although they love each other deeply, they only live together part of the time because Leila is married to a once-famous novelist, Charles Blenheim, who is struggling "to write the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon" (a situation that gives Franzen the opportunity to make wicked fun of himself and of his critics).

Tom and Leila meet Pip after her sojourn in Bolivia, when she comes to work with them on a story about a nuclear warhead that goes missing from a Texas military base (to be used, it turns out, as a sex toy). If the couple thought their relationship was odd before, Pip's presence will raise it to the next level of strangeness.

Purity resonates with many of Franzen's familiar themes, and it draws intriguing parallels between the tyranny of Communist regimes and the intrusiveness of the online age. But it also plays with genre and style in surprising ways. Besides the domestic drama and satire that are Franzen's usual territory, this book has sections that read like everything from crime thrillers to rom-coms, all of them working together as Franzen creates utterly convincing stories of events — and then spins us around and shows us a completely different side.

A note on the Franzenfreude questions about his attitudes toward women: Yes, Purity does have some hair-raising female characters, notably several toxic mothers (although we grow to understand how they got that way). But the unpleasantness is equal opportunity: Many of the male characters are absent fathers, questionable husbands or sexual predators, and some of them are much worse. In other words, this is a novel populated by complex characters who, just like people in real life, are neither purely good nor purely bad.

Purity is not a litmus test, it's a notable literary accomplishment — and it's also the most fun I've ever had reading a Franzen novel.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.