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“Reporting was imitation life, imitation expertise, imitation worldliness, imitation intimacy; mastering a subject only to forget it, befriending people only to drop them,” the journalist Leila muses in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Purity.” “And yet, like so many imitative pleasures, it was highly addictive.” The same description may apply to “Purity” itself, an apparent self-parody of the bildungsroman. The central character, Purity, is nicknamed “Pip” after the protagonist in Charles Dickens’s classic “Great Expectations.” And the novel even becomes like Miss Havisham’s cobwebby house, as Franzen writes and writes, letting dust collect over and bury a collection of characters’ lives to the point of feeling obscuring. The novel’s length, too, suggests that its author found the writing of it “highly addictive.” The story takes a very long time to move forward and is bogged down by rambling subsections. As Pip begins to tie the pieces of her life together it does pick up some speed, but this does not nearly compensate. Although Franzen succeeds in rendering several exquisite passages and characters on a micro scale, “Purity” ultimately struggles to pack a punch on a macro scale, thanks in part to its lagging beginning.
"Purity" initially has trouble sticking in part because of its knotty plotlines, which span too much time and geography. Many characters introduce themselves and then drop off the map without warning. There is Pip, a young woman with massive student loan debts on a quest to find her father. And there’s her mother, a deeply troubled recluse with, of course, a history of family dysfunction. Then there’s also Andreas Wolf, originally from East Germany, who navigated his country’s sociopolitical systems to become a modern media maven with dirty secrets that could be his downfall. And still there’s Tom Aberrant, an editor with the Denver Independent, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Leila, who is working on a story that has nothing to do with the central threads of the novel. And that’s not even mentioning the many other characters whom Franzen semi-fleshes out and then leaves behind. All of these people have backstories and baggage, some of which “Purity” treats at great length, but, for the most part, the information overload makes the novel simultaneously hyper-focused and unwieldy.
Take, for example, Pip’s paragraph-long reflection about her mother’s aging body, a close reading Franzen draws out very early in the story. For an adult, Pip spends too much time with a strange mother and feels unable to extricate herself from the situation. Feeling trapped, she instead fixates on minute details. “The skin on the back of [her mother’s hands] wasn’t pink and opaque like her own skin. It was as if the bones and veins were working their way to the surface; as if the skin were water receding to expose shapes at the bottom of a harbor. Although her hair was thick and very long, there were dry-looking strands of gray in it, and the skin at the base of her throat was like a peach a day past ripe. That night, Pip lay awake in bed and worried that her mother might die soon.” It’s a beautifully successful description, true. The bumps and depressions of her hands feel real and textured, revealing the age of their owner, and such imagery connects well with Pip’s supposed anxiety about her mother’s death. Franzen shows how Pip realizes that her relationship with her mother feels different from those her contemporaries have with their parents. “Some of [Pip’s] friends in Oakland also had problematic parents, but they still managed to speak to them daily without undue weirdness transpiring, because even the most problematic of them had resources that consisted of more than just their single offspring,” Franzen writes. “Pip was it, as far as her own mother was concerned.” He is insightful, but stitch together nearly 600 pages of these slow explanations and “Purity” grows far too long and preachy.
To Franzen’s credit, once “Purity” reaches the 200-page mark and all characters important to Pip’s development have entered the story, the novel begins to examine seriously the questions it should have from the outset. Who is Pip? What kind of mother names her child “Purity” anyway? And why should all of these seemingly random people matter to her? The most engaging part of “Purity” lies with the way these flawed people weave in and out of one another’s lives. But it’s hard to ask those questions without having the necessary information—about the characters, about their entangled lives—on the table. “Purity” risks failing to maintain interest in its narrative on account of its plotlines, which do not connect in an organized way, and despite several intriguing character studies, the relations between people in “Purity,” in the end, still feel murky. As if he realizes that such close scrutiny of his damaged main actors deviates from an ultimate point, Franzen wraps up the novel quickly.
“Purity” flits among genres, at the same time satire, comitragedy, and a girl-finding-her-father narrative, yet feels frustrating as it never seems to have a clear identity. What remains clear, though, is that the novel’s sprawling elements render it complicated, unresolved.
—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.
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