Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Purity,” is a big book, 563 pages long. Mr. Franzen is mindful of the pressure on male American novelists to write Big Books. In fact, one of his minor characters is a writer who tries to do just that. (He teaches creative writing to make a living.) “Purity” starts with Purity Tyler, the only child of single mother Penelope Tyler. Purity, called “Pip,” lives in Oakland California and works dead-end jobs with no hope of paying off a crushing load of college debt. But Purity’s nickname is a hint that life holds some surprises for her.
Pip obtains a desirable internship with the Sunlight Project, run by Andreas Wolf, the “famous internet outlaw” whose website is dedicated to airing the deliberations and secrets of governments and corporations obtained by hacking and leaks. Wolf was an East German dissident who stood up to the Stasi and, when the Berlin Wall came down, helped reveal its secrets. Wolf’s behavior was not entirely disinterested – his father was a high-level member of the East German power apparatus, and Wolf was an accidental dissident, trying to make sure a secret of his own remained buried.
After that internship Pip becomes an investigator for another main character, Tom Aberant, a respected writer who runs a website that publishes long-form investigative journalism. Tom is the domestic partner of one of his reporters, Leila Helou, but refuses to remarry, claiming his first marriage traumatized him. He started the website with funding from his former father-in-law whose daughter, Tom’s ex-wife, vanished without a trace after their divorce. As you might expect from his name, Tom also has a past, one that intersects, naturally enough, with Wolf’s.
Everyone’s choices, whether or not they come from the moral high ground or simple good intentions, have consequences, and Franzen explores the unintended ones that follow from the actions of Andreas, Tom and Anabel, Tom’s ex-wife, in this lengthy novel. He also, and this is what provides the novel’s bulk, provides detailed descriptions of the past actions of all three of them, the activities that brought Andreas and Tom into conflict and, in dreary detail, the workings of Andreas’ mind. Even so, there is much that is delightful in this uneven novel. Pip, for instance, is smart, driven and capable of working things out for herself, as is Leila Helou, and the beginning and ending are very good, as Franzen is at his very good best when he’s exploring Pip’s and Leila’s worlds. But there’s a good deal that’s annoying, not the least of which is Franzen’s disinclination to recognize that even Pip’s acts, generous and unselfish as they may be, might also have unintended consequences.
A book doesn’t have to be big to be memorable, and the list of writers who have written memorable small books – Alice Thomas Ellis, Tessa Hadley, William Maxwell, J.M. Coetzee, Barry Unsworth, even Charles Dickens spring to mind – is lengthy. Inside this so-so big book about men is a very good small book about women trying to get out.
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