A magnum opus for our morally complex times from the author of Freedom.
Young Pip Tyler doesn't know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she's saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she's squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother - her only family - is hazardous. But she doesn't have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she'll ever have a normal life.
Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world - including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now on the lam in Bolivia, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn't understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong.
Purity is a grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder. The author of The Corrections and Freedom has imagined a world of vividly original characters - Californians and East Germans, good parents and bad parents, journalists and leakers - and he follows their intertwining paths through landscapes as contemporary as the omnipresent Internet and as ancient as the war between the sexes. Purity is the most daring and penetrating book yet by one of the major writers of our time.
This audiobook includes a bonus conversation with the author.
©2015 Jonathan Franzen (P)2015 Macmillan Audio
"In short, the book is a dream for any narrator who is itching to demonstrate his or her acting range, as Jenna Lamia, Dylan Baker, and Robert Petkoff handily do. Their performances are uniformly engaging and engrossing; together, they make the listening time fly by. Anyone weighing the potential return on investment of reading all 587 pages can safely turn the heavy lifting over to them." (AudioFile)
You see, women supposedly can't criticize this author's novels without being accused of resentment towards the author. A long story that dates back to 2010: "[Jennifer] Weiner, Jodi Picoult, and other prominent female writers argued that acclaim for Franzen came at the expense of women writers, whose work has historically been ignored by book reviewers—in particular those on staff at The New York Times." I read his first book... I stand Corrected; I tried. I picked up Freedom, I put it down. Seemed I just couldn't do whiny, and didn't want to review and add substance to either side of the debate.
Determined to get one down by this "Great American Novelist," I figured I would do a read along with my superior reading pal Darwin. I texted him this message when I finished: "I have never been so happy to have a book come to an end than I was with this!" And I meant it: even while I was dazzled by Franzen's intelligence that highlighted my own inferiority; the elegant technical structure and his dexterity in steering these detailed threads (each of them their own novella) towards his end goal; his ability to keep his clutches tightened around my throat when I wanted nothing more than to just to get away.
Regardless of the oodles of talent Franzen has been blessed with and/or developed, I mostly disliked this very good book. My general dissatisfaction -- a few degrees short of hostility -- is not because of the gratuitous onanism; I read Portnoy's Complaint, loved Suttree with the watermelon violator (though I do feel the need to throw in a foul flag here and issue a warning to readers). It is because of his gross misrepresentation of women across the board, and from what I've read elsewhere, not just with this book. Now don't go pegging me an ultra feminist; I haven't burned a bra and I shave under my arms, and I have never stamped the anti-fem label on anything, but I don't like when my gender is made to look like the doors of mental institutions have sprung wide, spitting from their maws nothing but XX chromosome fruitcakes. Right now, I dislike him, I think I even dislike his mocking, misogynist face!
I can't help myself from wondering, why should it be any more acceptable to continually generalize women this way (or men) than it is to write that all white people can't dance, that all black Americans like chicken and waffles, that all Mexicans hate Donald Trump? -- in my mind, it is offensive, demeaning, and wrong. How far do we broaden the parameters of the literary-tactic-by-a-literary-superstar pass? Isn't a blatant and morally disparaging generalization a blatant and morally disparaging generalization -- hiding behind artistic expression to hurl boulders... ah, what do I know? Maybe Franzen's portrayal of women is nothing more than Sam Tanenhaus' statement: "Franzen has an “otherworldly feel for female characters.” [The New Republic]. I hope Mr. T is not offended by me saying his minimization shows his "vast male dullness or sensitivity of a fence post -- which may or may not be gender related, I have to add to be fair. Because I wouldn't want to assume that all men are like [him]." (Chosen from the words of Patricia Cornwell; The Body Farm.)
I won't deny Franzen's talent. If I could be just pragmatic after reading this instead of embarrassed to be a female, I could recommend. My XX chromosome deleted the fourth *. Franzen was too visible in this novel, too aware of his own intellectual power just beneath the nearly perfect style. I felt like he was mocking me as a reader with his low rung "otherworldly" portrayals juxtaposed with his clever insights into society, as if he was challenging me to fight passed the insults purposely flung, to grab the prize. (Darwin8U-XY gave the perfect example with Andy Kaufman analogy.)
What are those lyrics?: "I hate myself for loving you?" "I love myself for hating you"...Right now I seem to be a little confused.
The story wandered back and forth in a slow, plotting, manner. every movement, every intimation, every vista was described in nauseating detail. The characters were very depressing. Every relationship ended in madness or hatred. I appreciate the thoughts of characters but this story went overboard. The narration was not good. Particularly whoever narrated Tom. I could not complete the last 10 chapters and I seldom end a book before completion.
Purity is no Corrections. I loved The Corrections and will go back to it again and again. I loved the wit, the neurotic, yet self-aware characters. This novel is different. Far more complex, and an amazing intellectual achievement. I am glad I engaged with the book for this reason. But it is dark, and despite Franzen's assertion that it is a comic novel, it is nearly devoid of wit. It is totally charmless, and I grew increasingly depressed during the time I was listening. The characters are nearly all sick unhappy people who had terrible mothers and absent fathers (therefore, they cannot be whole). Further, he just gets women wrong. It's been said repeatedly about Franzen, and it's true. It is astonishingly arrogant for a male author to embody the mind of a young woman to this degree with such male gusto. It is utterly unimaginative that his conclusion is that woman want to give themselves sexually, always, to the most powerful man in the room. We just don't. In Franzen's world view, women are total victims of their hormones: our drive to reproduce and to do it with the most powerful man we can get. Men are victims too, but they are able, unlike women, to embrace reason and intellect.
But: Franzen. We have to get used to this side of his character if we want to experience his otherwise brilliant storytelling. He deeply dislikes women despite his constant protestations to the contrary. He does not understand women. He doesn't. He thinks he does and he thinks so with such imperious delusion that many people believe him. He is a victim, no doubt, of his own weird relationship with his mother and doesn't seem to grasp that it was a highly personal, idiosyncratic experience exclusive to him. It was not universal. Even his one glorious female character, 55-year-old career woman Leila, only pines for the child she never had, and is jealous of women who come into her partner Tom's life. Women are thus reduced by Franzen to non-intellectual sacks of hormones who cannot choose to not breed or hump the most powerful man in the room. That said, he does not like men either, but prefers them to women. Men can be reasonable despite the fact that they are also, all of them, driven to hump the most comely woman in the room. They can be reasonable despite the fact that they are all predators, it seems.
And yet: Franzen. We can't expect otherwise. It's like going to see a Tarantino movie and being shocked by self-satisfied dialog and grotesque violence.
This story, while complex and satisfying, suffers from melodrama. One of its set pieces is the alpha male Andres Wolf coming to grips with a murder. It is set up as a justifiable murder and he is set up as the sort of man who could intellectualize it out of his conscience, and yet there is a rippling overreaction to it that is entirely overwrought and ultimately unbelievable. Since this overreaction provides the ultimate denouement of the entire novel, the reader is left unsatisfied after having had such a massive slog through pathos.
In short, there is so much to respect, and much to be grateful isn't real.
I found myself gritting my teeth and pushing through to complete this book. A sad statement from a Franzen fan who pre-ordered the book as soon as I heard he had another one. I just finished re-reading Freedom, which I found to be a big, important, American novel. Purity is a pale shadow of the same sorts of tropes found in Freedom, but treated with far less humor, wit, or dimension. It was like watching your fourth Scorsese film that uses the same recognizable techniques - but with no DiCaprio.
There are the usual neurotic characters - in fact, I could only find two neurosis-free characters (Pip's erstwhile boyfriend from the coffee shop and Tom's reporter love interest.) The main character, Pip, is as indistinct as the cover art - just really an outline of a character, snarky but not unkind, in debt, not much personality or detail. She has an unpleasantly nutty mother who has changed her identity - and about whom we find out more in the middle of the book, but 100% of the more is tiresome and irritating in the extreme. Her mother's relationship with her father is one long, overblown series of boring domestic arguments with about 40 examples too many of dysfunction. Franzen, we get it already.
There is another key character - a Wikileaks type mad genius named Andreas Wolf, who is meant to be unpleasant and certainly is. Although readers are told he is charismatic, there is no evidence of this in his actions or decisions. It's all tell, no show in the narrative and both boring and irritating during the bits where we're locked inside Wolf's head and not allowed to get out for many pages.
Pip's father is a nice enough chap, but there's nothing special about him - in fact, there's nothing particularly special about any of these characters that makes you want to root for them or stick with them.
The only thing the book as going for it is a couple of interesting unresolved plot lines that do take till the end of the book to wind out. I wanted to see how it ended (but I shouldn't have been made to suffer so to find out.) Even at his worst, Franzen is a good writer, so there's that.
Re: the audiobook: there are three narrators, none particularly great. They're not bad, but I thought Freedom's wry narrator was much better.
Jonathan Franzen. A man who is clearly obsessed with himself and with sex. A man who adores creating unlikeable characters and writing novels about politically relevant events that are far longer than they need to be. I am not a fan.
Cons: The characters are uniformly unlikable, and there are many of them. The amount of sexual content is overwhelming, and I'm no prude. The story can really creep at times.
Pros: Perhaps Franzen's only redeeming quality is that he knows how to tell a good story, unraveling it over the course of the book. I'm also a big fan of the ending. And of course it's 26 hours so if you need to kill time...you know what to buy.
I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^
"So many Jonathans. A Plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you'd think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.”
- Jonathan Franzen, Purity
I went into this novel with the same trepidation I approach all of Jonathan Franzen's novels. I admire his talent. Generally like his fiction, style, and prose, but also end up worn out and wrung out after reading them. The Corrections and Freedom wore me out with the struggle. The Kampf of Kinder. His prose in those two novels was amazing. The characters were fascinating. The plot and narrative was kinda sluggish. It was like a nature hike through an overgrown wood. Lots to appreciate, but moving forward was kinda a pain in the ass.
His debut novel The Twenty-Seventh City had more narrative thrust, but the plot was a bit labyrinthine. It moved, but you just seemed a bit dazed after. Talent was there. Excess of talent really, but unbridled. Unrestrained.
'Purity' seems to give us a fsster-paced, more plot-driven family novel. So, some of the excesses of his last two novels seem to be trimmed. It also is less of a puzzle. Even the structure was clean and clear. So, while I think this might be Franzen's most enjoyable novel to-date, I'd still rank 'The Corrections' as his best (despite its flaws). If that doesn't make sense. It might just be me. I have a history of mixed signals. I think Pynchon's Mason and Dixon is his most enjoyable novel, even though I think Against the Day is a superior book. Anyway, I do digress.
Let's get back to the structure of this novel. Franzen gives hints at his plan with this novel with way he divides the novel. The novel is divided thus:
Section 1: Purity in Oakland; perspective = PIP, aka Purity Tyler
Section 2: The Republic of Bad Taste; perspective = Andreas Wolf
Section 3: Too Much Information; perspective = Leila Helou
Section 4: Moonglow Dairy: perspective = PIP, aka Purity Tyler
Section 5: [lelo9n8aOrd]: perspective = Tom Aberant
Section 6: The Killer; perspective = Andreas Wolf
Section 7: The Rain Comes; perspective = PIP, aka Purity Tyler
So, just incase the title doesn't give it away. This novel is Pip's. She is the actual beginning, middle and end of this story. But Andreas Wolf is the anti-hero, the counterpoint, the response to Pip's call. The ebb to her flow?
So here are my three main gripes about the book. My trinity of reasons for the missing star:
1. FRANZEN'S LIBS
Some of my old gripes about Franzen still exist. Sometimes, I can't decide if he exists in an obnoxious liberal fairy tale, or is just really good writing about liberal fairy tales. If I was a betting man, I'd lay a Billion he gets a kick out of all his blatent self-parody. Franzen seems über self-aware and seems to enjoy using Pip's mom to poke a bit of fun at the extreme end of the cartoonish, obnoxious, west coast liberal... but at other times Franzen himself seems to fully embody and gloat in this same cartoon. It wasn't obnoxious enough to distract me for long from the novel, and look I'm a pretty liberal guy myself, but sometimes Franzen's approach to capitalism, feminism, privacy, animal rights and global warming seems a bit clumsy. Perhaps, it might just all be me.
2. FRANZEN + SEX
Also, I could say the same thing about Franzen and sex. To be fair, most writers can't write about sex. They either take themselves way too seriously or not seriously enough. Franzen seems a bit more comfortable writing about spanking the monkey (perhaps that is the danger of being a writer) than sex between man and woman (or woman and woman, or man and man). But, that said, his awkward sex scenes were mostly ALL supposed to be awkward. These aren't healthy adult couples manifesting their love or desire for another person through physical contact. These are issues of power, control, obsession, oedipal longing, etc. So, like his writing about the liberal extremities, I can't quite decide if his writing about sex is perfectly awkward or just awkward. It is a bit like watching Andy Kaufman. You aren't sure when he is joking or if the joke is on you. He just doesn't see to have grown much past his Freedom days. Yes, you all know what I mean: "the hot, hungry microcosm of Patti's c#nt"*. See? I can't even write it or not write it without barfing and giggling at the same time.
3. FRANZEN & WOMEN
Sometimes when I read Franzen writing about women, or as a woman (read PIP), I'm reminded of that fantastic Jack Nicholson's quip from 'As Good As It Gets'. Except...AGAIN I'm not sure if Franzen is doing this on purpose. Perhaps, the whole reason I gave this book only four stars is the one star is all about my uncertainty. Is Franzen truly a d!ck or is he just playing with the idea of being a d!ck? I dunno. For sure he isn't folding to Jennifer Weiner's attack on his pr!ckish prose.
So, I guess that is what I'm asking. Is Franzen's prose pose about women, sex, liberals a put on or is it just Franzen being Franzen? I'm not sure. And to be fair. I'm not sure I really care. In a lot of ways it is like Mailer being Mailer. Did I ever want Norman Mailer to start wearing cardigans and sticking his pinky out while drinking mixed drinks? I liked Franzen's book. And while I've set out my three little gripes, they weren't THAT big. I don't want them to seem more than what they were. I'd probably find a couple reasons to bitch about Ecclesiastes too.
* From his previous novel 'Freedom'.
How hard could it have been to find some bilingual narrators for this audio book!?! Franzen apparently prides himself on his being fluent in German, so why would he allow these narrators to read half of all the dialogues in this book with these totally fake German accents?! The pronunciation of actual German words and place names was even worse ("Friedrichshain" was near unrecognizable)! It was a terrible decision to let the narrators do that - it was so painful to my German ears, I almost gave up!
I also agree with many of the other critical reviews here - this is no Corrections. The biggest problem with Purity is that it is surprisingly humorless (the satire is what made the Corrections so great) and that the novel's characters, especially Andreas Wolf and Annabel, are not only very unlikable but also come across as caricatures.
Long commutes and long training runs are the reasons I stuck with this one. I wish I had picked Freedom instead.
I'm a geologist and I use Audible books to while away long hours on the road... My pickup truck is my reading room!
Clever but not profound. Prurient but not sensual. Sex without love. Love Without sex. Mothers without daughters; daughters without fathers. Obsession without inspiration. Questions with no answers. Answers without epiphanies. Facts devoid of truth. In sum: art that entertains but does not edify.
Driving over 100,000 mile a year since 1983, I got hooked on audible books on tape 30 years back. I now listen from my bicycle 2 hours a day
The Corrections and Freedom still echo in my memory and I spend almost all my time with input - audio books, movies, the inter-webs - so my memory warehouse is stuffed and it is so easy for things to get lost.
I fell asleep several times from exhaustion and found myself out of time and place with the books of Purity - and it's like books plural. This is one where it seems you can start anywhere and not get too lost so I got through all of it and much of it twice.
Pip Tyler is strange - and no wonder given Annabelle as a mother. Their interactions and life decisions got under my skin as an irritant. They did things I found to be unforgivable yet unforgettable - the final scene made it clear that Annabelle was and is beyond all hope of change. I think in the end I was relieved that I had never allowed any relationship to continue with anyone vaguely like Annabelle. Love with someone who is impossible is an impossible love - and I feel for those who have experienced such a relationship.
This is a frustrating experience but I have the feeling it will stick with me like JF's previous books. Going in I never think dysfunctional family stories would interest me - but now JF has proven me wrong again. If I had one strong objection it would be Andreas self-loathing over the murder of his love's abusive step-father. I thought it was a noble act of courage. Something that had to be done and 'made the world a better place' - like The Sunlight Project. Men immune to justice who rape their step-daughters deserve destruction. But it's part of JF's charm and allure I guess - his characters have thoughts and feelings that just don't fit with mine.
Kept wondering why I was still listening, but kept hoping for a twist. Pretty predictable. Great narration. Annabelle's character is beyond annoying...hard to believe anyone would put up with her.
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