Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: Purity

From Purity, by Jonathan Franzen
Open quote 

When Pip was very young, vague stories had satisfied her, but by the time she was eleven her questions had grown so insistent that her mother agreed to tell her the 'full' story. Once upon a time, she said, she'd had a different name and a different life, in a state that wasn't California, and she'd married a man who as she discovered only after Pip was born had a propensity to violence."

This is the story of Pip (Purity) Tyler, a young adult with huge student loan debt and unpromising career prospects, and her search for who she is. It's also the story of her mother, a reclusive, fragile free spirit. It's the story of Andreas Wolf, an East German who finds his life-calling as a trafficker of state secrets after the fall of the Berlin Wall leaves him adrift in the world. It's the story of Tom Aberant, a middle-aged American who married young and became a journalist instead of a writer. It takes a long time to give each character his full due. In other words, it's a long novel. Is it a good novel?

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

You may know Jonathan Franzen not from his books but from his reputation. His critically acclaimed novel, "The Corrections" was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club. He turned up his nose at the honor, implying that a television talk show host's book club was beneath him. Thus he earned a reputation for being arrogant. He survived the gaffe, maybe even earning more book sales from it. Oprah, of course, also survived the snub.

"Purity" is a character study concerning characters from bad upbringings, bad marriages, bad choices. Its plot covers decades, weaving between the past and present, slowing knitting the different characters together into a well constructed whole. It takes a good while for the reader to figure out whether or not there's a main character. There's not really a plot much beyond watching these characters' reactions as their lives slowly come together.

The writing is sometimes dazzling, the insights sometimes profound. And since this is Jonathan Franzen, who has a reputation of alleged sexism, the writing is sometimes cringe-worthy. Here are examples of each:

How many smells the earth alone had! One kind of soil was distinctly like cloves, another like catfish; one sandy loam was like citrus and chalk, others had elements of patchouli or fresh horseradish. And was there anything a fungus couldn’t smell like in the tropics? She searched in the woods, off the trail, until she found the mushroom with a roasted-coffee smell so powerful it reminded her of skunk, which reminded her of chocolate, which reminded her of tuna; smells in the woods rang each of these notes and made her aware, for the first time, of the distinguishing receptors for them in her nose. The receptor that had fired at Californian cannabis also fired at Bolivian wild onions. Within half a mile of the compound were five different flower smells in the neighborhood of daisy, which itself was close to sun-dried goat urine.
Source: Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.

If time was infinite, then three seconds and three years represented the same infinitely small fraction of it. And so, if inflicting three years of fear and suffering was wrong, as everyone would agree, then inflicting three seconds of it was no less wrong. He caught a fleeting glimpse of God in the math here, in the infinitesimal duration of a life. No death could be quick enough to excuse inflicting pain. If you were capable of doing the math, it meant that a morality was lurking in it.
Source: Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.

She was wearing a patriotically colored bikini and drinking beer. Her body looked to be only a healthy diet and some regular exercise away from greatness, but her face and hair were on the verge of confirming a wicked little dictum of Leila’s: Blondes don’t age well. (Leila saw middle age as the Revenge of the Brunettes.)
Source: Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.

There's even insight into Texas:
Every facet of Amarillo a testament to a nation of bad-ass firsts: first in prison population, first in meat consumption, first in operational strategic warheads, first in per-capita carbon emissions, first in line for the Rapture. Whether American liberals liked it or not, Amarillo was how the rest of the world saw their country.
Source: Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.

In the end, I think Franzen should have gone on Oprah. He's a fine writer, but his novels are not filling. There's no danger of any of them being judged the Great American Novel. But they are good stories, well told. "Purity" is like that.

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