Jonathan Franzen epitomizes the temperament of the American Midwest. In interviews, he speaks lightheartedly but with intensity, thinking carefully about each word. A devoted birdwatcher, Franzen is nothing if not mild-mannered, contrasting sharply with his bold new novel, “Purity.”
Set in present-day Oakland, California, mid-20th century East Berlin and at a 1980s University of Pennsylvania, among other places, “Purity” is the most intimate of epics. It follows young millennial Purity “Pip” Tyler, who goes in the course of the novel from working at a Bay Area start-up to interning at a WikiLeaks-like Internet company headquartered in Bolivia, and then to another job at an independent online newspaper in Denver. Ostensibly, Pip’s main problem — other than $130,000 of student loan debt — is that she doesn’t know who her father is. Pip’s mother, who raised Pip but whose past identity is still somewhat of a mystery as well, won’t give Pip any information about her father.
Besides Pip herself, Franzen moves between a number of characters, honing in on their perspectives one at a time. The level of depth with which Franzen is able to convey his characters’ inner worlds is at once disquieting and reassuring — each one of the novel’s major characters thinks nauseatingly familiar personal thoughts that would erode the characters’ likability if they weren’t reflections of the (or at least this) reader’s own thoughts.
The book’s title, while serving as the name of its main character, hints at one of the book’s main themes as well: the search for purity, for some sort of redemption, and the pervasiveness of that search in the strange workings of the 21st century. The Sunlight Project, the Internet organization where Pip interns, is dedicated to a sort of purity through utter truthfulness. (Franzen skillfully stays away from any dystopian tropes, however.) One of the characters — “the kind of 'feminist' who gives feminism a bad name,” according to her friend in the novel — yearns for purity in her reckless relationship with her boyfriend, insisting that the two be equal in every way and keep nothing from each other.
While Franzen insists that “Purity” is a comic novel, it is deeply effective throughout. It’s cliché to mention, but echoes of Franzen’s close friend, the late David Foster Wallace, abound in the novel, though Franzen’s writing takes less effort on the part of the reader than Wallace’s. Its length might seem like a major commitment to read, but reading “Purity” flies by like novels rarely do, enjoyable on every page and singularly poignant in its magnitude.