A former smoker’s lamentWhy do we smoke and why do we quit?
Jonathan Franzen is widely hailed as the patron saint of the Big Realist Novel. His best-known books, The Corrections and Freedom, are capacious creatures, parading a set of larger-than-life characters and intent on an encyclopaedic reiteration of contemporary American experience. In a promotional video clip for Freedom, Franzen says that part of what a novel is supposed to do is “find ways to connect the largest possible social picture with the most intimate, personal, difficult-to-express human stories”. His rambunctious new novel, Purity, strives to live up to this task.
The novel opens with the character of Purity, commonly known as Pip. She is in her early 20s, working at a thankless job and crippled by a student debt of $130,000. Her relationship with her mother is dysfunctional and she doesn’t know who her father is. Her hope is that she can track him down and he can relieve her of the financial burden. It is this desire that sets the book in motion. Fleeing a romantic embarrassment, Pip ends up in Bolivia at the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-type operation headed by the charismatic but shady Andreas Wolf. Around this point, the novel breaks up into its polyphonic parts as it reveals the dark histories of the various interconnecting characters: Andreas; his nemesis, Tom Aberant; Tom’s partner, Leila; and Pip’s hermit mother, Anabel.
The pleasure of the book lies in this wild sprawl of messed-up life. As readers, we are strung along by the desire to know how these parts fit together. In the midst of this labyrinthine structure we lose sight of the connections, and the disorientation that results is exhilarating. Franzen is brilliant when it comes to portraying people in extremis: we look on in horror as his characters accelerate towards self-destruction. But as Franzen pushes the characters to the limit, there are moments in Purity when his narrative disintegrates into farce.
More troubling is the routine portrayal of men as violent, sexual predators and women as the siren-like creatures that trap them. Franzen achieves his aim of connecting the big picture with the personal story by charting the antics of libidinous politicised men, and by imposing politicised language on domestic scenarios (“maybe it was gender politics”, “she is the kind of ‘feminist’ who gives feminism a bad name”, “the two of them had been careful never to discuss feminism again”).
If purity is the thing no one can attain because they are corrupted by power, then it is the men who have the power and who do the corrupting. Franzen is an outspoken believer in the realist novel as a democratic and news-bringing form; his literary universe aims to be representative. And so we must ask: is this how men are in the world? Franzen’s desire to be topical and political risks simplifying intimate life.
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