While others were off working on sourdough starters, I spent quarantine somewhat obsessively reading all of Jonathan Franzen’s books (yes, even his admittedly dreadful first effort, The 27th City). Purity is his most recent novel, and probably his best reviewed, but for me it failed to stick the landing.
Franzen divides his books into sections told from different characters’ points of view. Big, long sections. When you’re with Andreas Wolf, you don’t care about anybody else, but then the section ends and then BAM, you are totally engrossed in Tom. Purity makes the best use of this of any of his books, starting out small with Pip, a smart, well-educated recent grad drowning in student debt in San Francisco, who has a strangely co-dependent relationship with her mother, Annabel. The only thing interesting about Pip is her housing situation – she’s more or less a squatter in a house with several other similarly situated people and some German houseguests who have taken a suspiciously obsessive interest in her. Pip initially seems like she’ll turn out to be just a whiny millennial hipster, but Franzen paints a stark picture of the effects of crippling debt on an otherwise bright and creative young person. Pip is obsessed with her lack of money. It colors everything she does, every choice she makes. Her mother wanted only the best for her, and she loves her mother but clearly resents being pushed into an education she could ill afford. It’s a stunning indictment of the cost of higher education and the burden placed on a young adult, and it leaves you wondering how Pip’s mother, who clearly loves her obsessively, could be so unable to appreciate Pip’s struggles. Pip begs to know the identity of her father, not because she doesn’t love her mother, but purely out of financial need. The father who missed her whole life could surely save her from her debts. It’s her desperation that makes her a prime target for Andreas Wolf, who, like his real-life counterpart Julian Assange, is slightly motivated by righteousness but mostly by a self-destructive desire to fuck around and find out.
A few hundred pages later, we’ve seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dawn of internet privacy issues, and traveled from San Francisco to Denver, Belize, and Pittsburg. The story moves back and forth in time, revealing the secret of Pip’s identity and all about the origins of Andreas and how he came to be pulling all the strings. We meet Pip’s father, and watch his romance with her mother ignite, flourish, and ultimately combust. We are presented with several different perspectives on Annabel, the connection between Pip and her father, and ultimately everyone’s connection to Andreas.
And then it ends.
As I drew closer to the end, I became filled with dread. I could tell that there physically wasn’t enough book left for a section from Annabel’s perspective. When I reached that last page, as Pip and her new love watch the reunion Pip has staged between her parents out of a naïve belief that they just need to “work it out” almost literally go up in flames, I was stunned that Franzen felt no need to give Annabel at least one section. Tom’s girlfriend, a fascinating but ultimately tertiary character with little tie to the others gets a section. Andreas, Pip – they get two. But we are only allowed to see Annabel, this enigmatic person – described alternately as a talented artist and loving mother, and as an insecure, barely functional woman who is desperate for love but also desperately cruel to the man who loves her – through the largely unsympathetic eyes of others. Why does she think she needs to hide from the world, and particularly from Tom? Is she just paranoid, or does she have a point? She hides Pip’s true identity from her for her entire life out of fear that Pip would leave her, and that’s more or less what happens. Pip finds out about her father, about her mother’s family, about her inheritance, and pretty much looks on her mother as a crazed hermit, just like everyone else.
Franzen sets up an intriguing world with this woman at the center, and carefully documents her effect on others. It’s not a pretty picture, but I think many readers will see a fairly realistic account of a person suffering from mental illness. Without her perspective however, she just becomes a demon, a madwoman, an evil temptress. Why go through such lengths to create a character, just to write them off as “crazy?”
Annabel makes a lot of people unhappy, but her own pain is so visceral, even through the eyes of others, particularly Tom. Tom loves her, Pip loves her, and yet we are left to believe that Franzen intends Annabel to be the bad guy, a destructive force that burns everyone she touches. That’s not just horrible and mean, it’s also lazy writing. How does she feel? Why does she treat Tom and Pip as she does? How can a person so sad and desperate for love be so destructive?
I loved this book until it broke my heart. Annabel is a tormented, unhappy woman, desperate to be loved but unable to trust anyone – even her own child. By not exploring her point of view, Franzen deprives her of her humanity. She’s not a damaged human like the others, she’s just a monster. I didn’t want redemption for Annabel or a happy ending (something Franzen toyed with in Freedom and clearly decided was not for him), I just wanted her to be a fully-developed character. Without it, I’m left with a distinctly misogynistic feeling. Annabel’s comeuppance feels vindictive and mean. Franzen asks the reader to witness the past trauma of a man who is a literal murderer – indeed, Andreas’ arc is weird and dark and rather satisfying. As for Annabel, her worst fears (at least what other characters believe her worst fears to be) are made manifest in such a cruel manner, I couldn’t help but think that Franzen thought she deserved it. I just wish he’d shown me why.