Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review of Purity by Jonathan Franzen

I don’t even know where to begin with this review. I guess I’ll start by saying that I (usually) love Jonathan Franzen novels. I (usually) love his dysfunctional characters and the way they bring their crazy to the table.

In the years since he first made it big, Franzen has become less adept at concealing his…er…prejudices. First, he caused a ruckus when he didn’t want an Oprah sticker on his book when Oprah picked The Corrections for her book club. His resistance had something to do with his perceptions of what kinds of readers Oprah followers were (women?).  Then he angered lots of internetters by disparaging the internet. He also got into it with author Jennifer Weiner (on the internet) about the superiority of his work vs. “chick lit” when she questioned the fact that “domestic fiction” written by men is taken more seriously than books about similar topics that are written by women.

Purity, his newest book, is about the internet. (Red flag goes up!)

And the female characters in the book, with a few exceptions, are unpleasant people who holler irrationally at nice men about oppression, or they’re young and sexually exploitable. (Warning! Warning!).

There is a question of whether an author’s politics should influence how you experience a book. Last year, for example, Orson Scott Card made some inflammatory negative statements about gay rights and there was considerable discussion about whether readers should still read/appreciate/admire/buy Enders Game. Franzen has not been as clearly bigoted, but he has definitely scooted over to the side of the school yard where the jerks hang out.

And knowing that, I embarked on my reading adventure of this book with anticipation (because I have loved Franzen’s previous books) and also with trepidation (because I don’t like jerks).

Franzen's latest accomplisment: a story on a Chipotle bag
On the surface, Purity concerns a girl (named Purity) who does not know who her father is. She has a ton of school loan debt and is mired in a stupid job. She can’t seem to get herself together socially, and she has a complicated relationship with her mother. She has this thought that if she could find her father, he could help with her debt problem and clear up some of the mysteries about her past.  She also happens to be corresponding with the leader of a cultish group that leaks classified information and finds herself poised to become the group’s newest intern.

Under the surface, Franzen is asking questions about autonomy and freedom in the face of totalitarianism. He looks at the East German Ministry for State Security, which spied on and kept files on ordinary citizens, and compares/contrasts that institution with the current domination of the internet over all aspects of modern life. The way he pulls together all the pieces of this complicated topic is genuinely masterful.

I can say without hesitation that this would be a good book to discuss with others. Though there’s lots of family dysfunction here, this book is not a book about family dysfunction. There are Big Ideas to play around with, and for me, Big Idea Books are most fun if you read them in community.

However, there is something about reading this novel that resembles spending a really long holiday weekend with your sexist Uncle Fred who won’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton. Franzen has issues with women, and he explores those issues over the nearly 600 pages of this book. It’s true that the male characters are pretty awful, too, but it’s often because they can’t quite get over the problematic women in their lives.

If you like books that will get you riled up, this will fit the bill.  I’m glad I read it. I’m also glad it’s over.

Here’s a great interview with Franzen from The Guardian.


Lisa said...

I loved this review, and I'm still chortling over your line, "that resembles spending a really long holiday weekend with your sexist Uncle Fred who won’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton." Mr. Franzen is coming to Houston for a reading/signing in the next couple of weeks. It's already sold out, but I wasn't planning to go - or to read this.

jennifer said...

Thanks, Lisa! I bet he'd be really interesting to see/hear, though -- even if he said infuriating things.

Gabrielle Gerhard said...

Yeah, I have never read Franzen (feel free to lead the charge to toss me out of bookclub and steal my SPL card at our next meeting!)

Purity? Really? Thats the best he can do for a name? Does she wash her face with Ivory Soap? Who do these authors think reads their books? I always wonder. And I wonder how many women read it vs. how many men?

Would you read the next one he writes? I was intrigued that you thought the way he brought the other themes together was masterful. Maybe he should stick to topics that focus only on the bigger themes, or settings that are primarily male, like a book about a corporate board for example? Has there been one of those?

I personally think we can read a book or listen to music even if the author is a "jerk" as you term it. But as I write that I am remembering a book and an author I stopped mid stream after a hateful diatribe (on the radio years ago) it would have gone viral if it happened now. So it does shape my thinking about a book, and I guess it can to the point where I will drop a book.

Thanks for writing, you always give good questions to consider!

jennifer said...

I don't remember that incident with Naipaul. Thanks for sending the link.

The name Purity makes sense in the context of the novel. She's called "Pip."

I will read his next one. I know it doesn't make sense, given my reaction to Purity. There really is much to admire/enjoy in his writing. I think the problem with this one is that it's more political than his family dramas have been, and it's the politics that bring out his jerkiness. It's also possible that I just know too much about him now, because he's been in the news. I wonder if I were to re-read The Corrections, if I'd be just as irritated at the way he portrays women. Does knowing about an author's jerkishness influence how I read? Maybe....

Thanks, as always, for commenting.