I picked up Purity because I heard that it had a great female character, and in that regard I was not let down. I would actually argue that there are two. From what I know of his other books (which I’ve never read, but The Corrections is in that ever-growing pile of books-I-own-and-will-definitely-maybe-someday-read), Franzen is incredibly talented at filling his books with fully realized characters. Purity features a main cast of five very complex characters who you get to know very well and I really wish that I hadn’t.
Pip Tyler is a recent college graduate struggling with her loans in Oakland when she gets recruited to join a hacker collective in Bolivia called “the Sunshine Project” led by the enigmatic Andreas Wolf. As you can see already, Franzen is very hip to the zeitgeist and is totally capturing Our Time. It’s all very edgy and with-it. After Bolivia she winds up working at an online investigative newspaper led by Tom Aberrant (yes really), who has a mysterious connection to Wolf. The novel switches between the perspectives of Pip, Andreas, Tom, and Tom’s girlfriend/coworker Leila with varying success. Tom is a respectable and interesting enough character, but most of the chapter is spent examining his toxic relationship with his ex-wife which is not even interesting. If Franzen’s goal was for the reader to feel as trapped and abused as Tom, it worked. And the Andreas chapters are spent either blaming his (mentally ill) mother for not loving him enough and causing him to pursue unsatisfying sexual relationships (usually with teenage girls), or pondering the connection between the German socialist experiment and the internet surveillance state. Suffice to say it was insufferable.
Franzen is trying to tell two stories at once. One is an intimate portrait of families and how we spend our lives trying to avoid making the same mistakes as our parents. It’s in these close relationships that the book is the most successful, breaking down unhealthy relationships and how we should expect better for ourselves. But he’s also trying to make Big Statements about the State of Modern Society and frankly I found them incredibly boring, especially because they’re mostly delivered by an insufferable character who uses these statements as a way of bolstering his own ego. He makes smaller points about activism through Pip and Tom that work much better, but Andreas is so insufferable that any points he tries to make about activism fall flat. And maybe that was intentional on Franzen’s part, but that doesn’t make those chapters any less of a slog. There is eventually a good payoff to the inclusion of the Andreas character but it came way too late in the game for me. Maybe more empathetic readers will feel sympathy for Andreas, who admittedly is still a very real-seeming character, but I just could not get there.
The characters are mostly very well drawn and honest, although he tries harder than necessary to make sure we Get them and their issues, and it removes some of the nuance that makes weak characters interesting. On the flip side, he over complicates the novel by throwing in connections to economic theory, security, and the digital age which mostly don’t work. Purity is just not as clever as Franzen wants it to be.