Jonathan Franzen’s fifth novel, Purity, is a sprawling, ambitious work that revolves around the quest for truth and love. Or is it about secrets and lies? As with all of Franzen’s novels, there are several layers to this hefty, complex story.
Eschewing a linear narrative, Franzen takes the reader backwards and forward in time on a journey that spans six decades and covers three continents. He introduces seemingly random characters whom he skilfully ties to the main plot. The story is organized into seven linked sections that transport the reader to such locales as modern-day Berkeley, Cold War-era East Germany, Bolivia, Texas, and Denver, just to name a few locations.
The main story centers on Pip Tyler, a recent college graduate saddled with a $130,000 student loan debt, a mentally unstable and manipulative mother, a dreary, dead-end job, and a burning desire to learn the identity of her father. Pip, whose birth name is Purity, has a love-hate relationship with her mother, who refuses to divulge any information about Pip’s dad. She lives in a squatter’s house in Berkeley with a bunch of oddball radicals and anarchists. This is where she meets Annagret, an attractive German woman who makes an irresistible offer: a paid internship at The Sunlight Project (TSP), a Wiki-leaks-type operation that uses web technology to expose the secrets of governments and corrupt corporations. She is also told she can use TSP’s technical savvy to help her find her father.
Located deep in the jungle of Bolivia, TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic and troubled former East German dissident. Wolf has a fascinating and creepy back story. The son of a high ranking East German official and an unhinged college professor, Wolf throws away his chance at a comfortable life in Communist East Germany by publishing a scandalous poem. Due to his father’s intervention, Wolf escapes a harsh prison term, but he is banished from the family. He ends up as a counselor to troubled youth at a church, a lowly job that he parlays into sexual conquests of teen-age girls. Until he falls for Annagret.
Like all of the book’s characters, Wolf carries a dark secret from his past. He shared his secret with Tom Aberrant (I love these character names), an American journalist who was in Berlin to cover the collapse of Communism in 1989. Tom is the most decent and likeable character in the story, but he has secrets of his own. His volatile marriage to Anabel Laird, the unstable heiress to a fortune, is a toxic train wreck. It ends in divorce, but Tom finds himself drawn to her and begins a doomed post-divorce affair with Anabel.
As in his other works, Franzen raises knotty questions about the way we live and he incorporates the great issues of the day into this story. In this case, the internet is the centerpiece around which much of the modern-day part of the story pivots. The internet is portrayed here as both a “disinfectant,” exposing the dark secrets and lies of the powerful to sunlight, and a pervasive intruder on the privacy of individuals.
At its core, though, “Purity” is less about ideas and more about the dysfunction of families and the individual’s search for identity. The characters are defined and constrained by their family relationships. Pip’s mother conceives her as an act of self-validation. She wants someone she can love and call her own, but she can never let go. Wolf’s mother sees him almost as an extension of herself, and he ultimately rebels against her. Tom’s mother projects her own values onto him, but his early attempts to be his own person have disastrous consequences. It is to Pip’s credit that she is able to wriggle free of the bonds of her mother’s oppressive love. In this story, as in life, nobody is truly pure.