Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, comes with great expectations. Its author’s awareness of this fact is signalled by a series of lampoons of writers expected to produce ‘big books’, writers named Jonathan and an assortment of other self-referential gags, but also the fact that its eponymous heroine, Purity Tyler, is nicknamed Pip. This Pip’s expectations are played off against those of Franzen’s readers: she won’t get what she expects, of course, any more than Dickens’s original Pip did. But to a great extent, our expectations will be met: this is a ‘big book’, a rollicking, sharply observed contemporary satire of family life and cultural politics.
There are other burdens for our heroine beyond her highly charged names: she also has $130,000 of college debt and an emotionally demanding, apparently unstable mother, who lives in seclusion and refuses to tell Pip anything about her family, including who her father is. Pip lives with Marxist protestors, squatters and a kind-hearted paranoid schizophrenic in a house that once would have been described as countercultural, but now is probably just alt-cultural. A transient German woman named Annagret offers Pip an opportunity to intern for Andreas Wolf, a famous digital provocateur in the style of Julian Assange (cast as an off-stage rival, and thoroughly skewered), who promises the purity of radical digital transparency by leaking dirty secrets. Hoping that Wolf’s hackers might locate her father, Pip agrees to join the demagogue at the Sunlight Project, a setup that mostly resembles a summer camp for nubile hacker Girl Fridays in the Bolivian rainforest.
Why someone of Wolf’s global fame is interested in Pip is the suspense driving Franzen’s increasingly elaborate and ultimately absurd plot. There are flashes back to Wolf’s youth in East Berlin, where he was the arrogant, brilliant, pampered son of apparatchiks, including an(other) unstable mother. His oedipally motivated act of political rebellion turns him into a token dissident whose only zealotry is reserved for sexual conquest, until he falls for Annagret, whose stepfather sexually abuses her. The rest of the plot depends upon the reader believing that the only solution someone of exceptional intelligence — albeit one with sociopathic tendencies — can imagine to this problem is an act of mind-boggling imbecility, which he keeps confessing to strangers.
Meanwhile, Pip’s adventures have taken her to the home of two old-school journalists, who advocate for quixotic standards like multiply sourcing stories. The story sails merrily through deep geopolitical waters, dropping down through the fall of the Berlin Wall, cresting on the rise of internet activism, buffeted by the fall of traditional journalism, gliding past a stolen nuclear warhead. It runs into dangerous waters, however, when it turns to the memoir of one of the journalists, Tom, who details his obsessive, co-dependent, deeply destructive failed marriage to a feminist aspiring artist who is the daughter of a billionaire.
There are wonderful observations about the way we live now, the Trollopian subject matter that Franzen has famously claimed: Pip’s mother reads the papers only ‘for the small daily pleasure of being appalled by the world’, and gives ‘a little laugh intended to be winsome’. Tom thinks of his younger self as ‘like a thing drawn by Joan Miró. I was all idea’. As a student journalist he achieves ‘levels of self-importance that I wouldn’t encounter again until I met people from the New York Times’. Digital campaigners have a ‘savage naïveté, like the kids who think that adults are hypocrites for filtering what comes out of their mouths’.
If this suggests another ‘big book’ about a young person coming of age in a corrupt country, it should, for Franzen adds: ‘Filtering isn’t phoniness — it’s civilisation.’ (Take that, Holden Caulfield, and quite right too.) Reflecting on the nuclear subplot, a character realises that although fusion chain reactions occur naturally, fission doesn’t: ‘Fissile plutonium atoms were nature’s unicorns.’ Remembering East Germany, Wolf sees a new culture of apparatchiks in TED talks and product launches, complete with their ‘smarmy syrup of convenient conviction’, realising that ‘if you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet’. Both are totalitarian systems, ‘united in their ambition to define every term of your existence’.
The implication, perhaps, is that a world willing to make evil banal will have no trouble doing the same thing to good. And Purity opens with an epigraph from Goethe’s Faust: ‘Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.’ This is Mephistopheles introducing himself as part of the power ‘that eternally wills evil and eternally creates good’. But Purity never quite brings all these ideas together, in part because it has no fewer than three characters who are more or less certifiable, which is a lot even for a ‘big book’ to manage. Tom’s ex-wife, in particular, just isn’t credible, and yet the plot depends upon Franzen’s ability to bring together her far-fetched choices with Wolf’s equally unconvincing ones. Tom tells us that his ex-wife left him with ‘an allergy to unrealistic women’. It’s an allergy I share, and I’m not gender-specific about it. The deeper problem is that ideas that remain only gestural risk being just another symptom of the culture of banality Purity seeks to excoriate.
Although Franzen invokes purity throughout, it would be too much to say that he riffs on it: the book considers it, without really reflecting upon it. That Andreas ‘took ironic satisfaction in being famed for his purity’ doesn’t add to our idea of purity: it’s treated as a transparent concept, what philosophers call ordinary language, doing what it says on the tin. ‘Big books’, surely, need figurative language to set ideas into play, to create literary fusion: bumping words against each other to make ideas explode. Purity is topical, freewheeling, immensely readable and highly entertaining, but the centripetal force of a surfeit of madness and too many pinwheeling ideas finally pull the novel apart, its satire too broad to hold together.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16 Tel: 08430 600033. Sarah Churchwell teaches at the University of East Anglia and is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby.