Purity: A Novel
by jonathan franzen
farrar, straus and giroux, 563 pages, $28
An awful lot of summer blockbusters in 2014 seemed to be about young people dying. Of terminal illnesses in The Fault in Our Stars, as far as I could tell from the previews, and at one another’s hands in convoluted, dystopian competitions in The Maze Runner and the third installment of The Hunger Games. “What does it all mean?” I asked at the time, and eventually decided that the trend reflected anxieties about a discouraging economy and the dismal state of the environment.
Since then, I’ve wondered what it means that several major American novelists have likewise taken on the plight of youth in their recent work. Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child gets the point across right there on the cover, while Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which I reviewed for these pages last February, is about a girl, neglected and untaught, who manages through love and grace to become a good wife and mother.
And now, with Purity, Jonathan Franzen has given us another novel of mothers and sons, fathers and daughters—“good parents and bad parents,” as it says on the book jacket—that traces a legacy of trauma and forgiveness through two countries and three generations. At the center of its elaborate and carefully woven plot is Purity Tyler, or Pip for short (the first of many literary allusions in the book). A recent college graduate, Pip is struggling when we meet her not to collapse under the weight of student loans, the vagaries of twenty-first-century dating, and the mystery of her own identity. Raised by an eccentric single mother in a remote cabin two hours from San Francisco, she doesn’t know who her father is, or even her mother’s real name.
When an opportunity comes to work for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-style website headquartered in Bolivia, Pip jumps at the chance to unravel her family’s complicated past. It takes her the whole novel to do so, and I won’t give away here what she finds out. But suffice to say that the plot’s many and varied strands are beautifully, and for the most part satisfyingly, tied up in the end.
At the Sunlight Project’s compound in Los Volcanes, Pip meets the organization’s charismatic leader, Andreas Wolf, whose motto “Sunshine is the best disinfectant” masks his own dark past in East Germany. “The place was a cult more diabolical for pretending not to be one,” Pip reflects, and Franzen cleverly uses the Sunlight Project plotline to criticize the contemporary conflation of technology and theology—the assumption, more dangerous for existing at a level below consciousness, that iPhones and their ilk are omniscient, omnipotent, and ultimately salvific. Funding for the project comes from Tad Milliken, a venture-capitalist cad who records every second of his existence for use in an Internet afterlife. “The data’s in the cloud, and the cloud is eternally self-renewing,” he tells Wolf, assuredly. “Everything will be there, pristinely preserved, when they reboot me.”
Technology threatens to eclipse this world as well as the world to come. The tasks it offers to “liberate” us from—namely, “making things, learning things, remembering things”—are, ironically, exactly those actions that “had previously given meaning to life and thus had constituted life.” In many ways, Wolf muses at one point, technology has grown into a system as totalitarian—that is, as “impossible to opt out of”—as the German Democratic Republic of his youth, where “the answer to every question large or small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet. Its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence.”
Wolf’s backstory in East Germany and his run-ins with the Stasi also allow Franzen to explore the nature of secrets and revelation. A good part of the family drama in the novel is generated by the discrepancies, sometimes vast, between what characters feel and what they say, or between what they know and what they let on to others that they know. A man recalls a fight near the start of his disastrous marriage: “She began to weep, and I began the long search for the cause of her distress.” A woman regrets acquiescing to her partner’s decision not to have children: “Without a child, it was a life of leaving things unspoken.” All the while, Pip must come to terms with both the truth about her family and the reasons why it was kept from her in the first place.
Ultimately, the novel posits a kind of via media: Too little truth and openness, and things will fester; too much openness, and people can be unnecessarily hurt. “Filtering isn’t phoniness” or hypocrisy, one critic of the Sunshine Project insists; “it’s civilization.” What is more, learning how to balance two contradictory impulses—“the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known”—may be at the heart of developing and maintaining a healthy identity. Wolf is an unreliable character in many ways, but Franzen uses him as a mouthpiece for some fascinating ideas about selfhood:
How do you know that you’re a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don’t, there’s no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a person who is all interiority, a solipsist, fares no better. “Identity in a vacuum is also meaningless,” Wolf explains. “To have an identity, you have to believe that other identities equally exist. You need closeness with other people.”
This idea that a meaningful self can only be achieved within the context of an other, a community, is picked up again in a subplot about an experimental film. Anabel, the filmmaker, is perplexed by the fact that “a person can live for fifty or seventy or ninety years and die without having made the most basic acquaintance with the body that is the sum of her existence.” So she draws a grid on her skin, and methodically devotes a week to filming and contemplating each square. “After ten years,” she figures, “she’d own herself entirely.” But like David Foster Wallace’s short story “Backbone,” in which a young boy tries to “press his lips to every square inch of his own body,” Anabel’s film project, eventually abandoned, reminds readers that it cannot be done: We cannot master ourselves. Some aspects of our physical selves—and, one suspects, our psychological and metaphysical selves, too—will always remain mysterious and inaccessible to their owners. (Do you know what your face looks like at rest? Or in a moment of genuine surprise or pleasure?)
This incompleteness can leave us in a position of terrifying vulnerability. Anabel has a horror of physicality and visibility, and repeatedly lashes out at those around her. As it is for many characters in the book, her abrasiveness is ultimately shown to be a call for help, as well as an expression of frustration at her own hard-wired need for someone to respond. Though Purity detours into masculine apologetics at times (“I felt as if I was up against a structural unfairness; as if simply being male . . . placed me ineluctably in the wrong”), the novel repeatedly suggests that mothers are primarily the people whom, when we cry out, we most need to respond. Anabel is anxiously attached, her partner avoidantly so; Andreas Wolf has a mentally ill mother. All three regress to childlike behavior in difficult circumstances.
Pip alone, by some miracle, manages to grow up, though she is not entirely unscathed. In one particularly moving passage, she finds a way to forgive the mother who had loved her too fiercely and unhealthily, to the point of hiding her existence from her father and that of her father from Pip. While others criticize her mother’s actions, attributing them to selfishness and a need for control, Pip sees them as borne of privation: “Her mother had needed to give love and receive it. This was why she’d had Pip. Was that so monstrous? Wasn’t it more like miraculously resourceful?”
The novel falters near the end, comes too close to wish fulfillment to be fulfilling. It also re-creates, presumably purposefully, the ending of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland in important ways, right down to the rural Pacific Northwest setting and a sweet-natured, absurdly proportioned dog for comic relief. Where Purity most succeeds is in its reckoning with what Martin Heidegger called Geworfenheit, usually translated into English as “thrownness.” Individuals are thrown into the world at birth, entering into a complex matrix of circumstances entirely out of their control. We don’t get to choose these circumstances, but nor must we be bound and defined by them. As one character nears death, her son reflects, “the more sure of herself she became. She’d concluded that the meaning of a life was in the form of it. There was no answering the question of why she’d been born, she could only take what she’d been given and try to make it end well.”
Cassandra Nelson is an Assistant Professor of English at the United States Military Academy.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?