Book review: Franzen’s “Purity” hits close to home
by Jonathan Franzen
“But what if ordinary is an unrealistic ambition for you?” the charismatic billionaire asks his new intern when she arrives in Bolivia to work for his organization, the ambiguously-titled Sunshine Project.
Andreas Wolf is the man whose money and manipulation fuels the plot of “Purity,” Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, and he has never doubted his own extraordinary capability. Wolf’s story begins in East Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with his stealing government documents and parading them in front of reporters.
“I’m going to be famous, Mother,” he boasts as a young man, and he fulfills his promise readily.
His intern, on the other hand, has her self-doubts.
The girl is called Pip Tyler, and she comes from California. She is the standard of what we have come to call the Millennial generation: $130,000 in student-loan debt, over-educated and under-employed, raised by her divorced Baby-Boomer mother, with whom she has a slightly co-dependent relationship. Pip feels anything but extraordinary. Yet as her story unfolds, the reader learns that Pip is so much more than her self-loathing and self-doubt. Just as her name recalls the plucky Pip of “Great Expectations,” who was likable despite his faults, so too is Pip Tyler.
Franzen’s novels have been called conventional, focusing on ordinary people and following generally linear plotlines. Yet his writing is anything but conventional; his sentences are concise and quick-witted, with perfect turns of phrase. His characters are genuine, and their dialogue is humorous and unrestrained. His portraits of their reactions and relationships are believable, even when their situations stretch our imaginations.
“Purity” shows Franzen’s mastery of capturing America in this particular historical moment — an America reader will readily recognize as our own — and it comes as close to home as Denver, Colorado.
Yet the novel also transcends and transports to East Germany and Bolivia, where much of the action of the story takes place. The author readily blends genre, infusing his novel with the signs of modern life: text messages and emails.
He also offers several different lines of perspective, giving intimate views of each character and developing them fully. The reader follows several stories that contribute to the primary plot until finally, I thought to myself, “What about Pip Tyler?”
As the reader learns early in the novel, Pip is not named after a Dickens character. She is, in fact, the title character of the book; her given name is Purity. And despite her desire to change her name along with her circumstances, she truly embodies this purity.
The other characters feel genuine but less memorable. Andreas Wolf is bewitching but disposable; Pip’s parents are exciting in the explosiveness of their arguments but lose their luster and lead meager lives; other characters wash and fade.
But Pip, for all her recognizable ordinariness and conventionality, is at the very heart of this novel. She is redemptive, idealistic and, despite all her self-doubts, wonderfully likable. She is perhaps the first likable portrait of the Millennial in modern literature and hopefully will prove a lasting one.
Jamie Burgess is a bookseller and barista at Off the Beaten Path.
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