The Great American Novelist – Jonathan Franzen and his latest novel, Purity

I discovered Franzen when I read Freedom at University. I have been hooked ever since.

Franzen is fantastic. There are many who will disagree with me, many who think he’s a bore and others who think he’s downright offensive. The reason I love his novels is because, through his writing and his characters, Franzen lays down 21st Century America on an operating table and then rips it apart.

There’s some cynicism to his writing, something about how he takes a character who, on paper, looks to be a ‘good’ person, chasing the American dream,  and he shows them up for what they are. There aren’t any heroes in his novels, I don’t think, but rather wayward characters who on the face of it are very much middle America, yet there is a darkness inside them all. Franzen shines a light on that, he sees through all their vacuous vanity and pretention and without moving more than the few muscles it takes to type a paragraph, exposes them with a funny riposte.

You might think that’s a negative way of writing, but actually it’s refreshingly honest. In his way, his books are positive, because what happens after he strips back the facades and the fakery is usually a happy ending; his characters are flawed, terrible people who make lots of mistakes but if they’re honest enough about it, they can try their best to live well. Nothing and no one is immune to Franzen’s pen. Not hipsters, not capitalists, not dot com geniuses, truth seeking hackers or smarmy journalists.

Franzen’s most recent novel is Purity and one  I enjoyed perhaps because of the heavy parallels to Dickens’ Great Expectations. Here, Purity Tyler, self-nicknamed Pip, copes with the weight of the great expectations on her shoulders. She’s  the daughter of a neurotic woman, a modern day Miss Havisham, and finds herself a recipient of some unexpected attention from Andreas Wolf, the Julian Assange of Purity’s world. Pip lands in Bolivia, working as a researcher for The Sunlight Project but global justice is far from her mind as the only thing she’s looking for is her father who she hopes might solve her college debt woes. This storyline is typical of Franzen – he captures the American times very well and exposes the darkness within. Wolf, revered around the world as  a hero, is actually a bit of a sleazebag, and Pip, in debt and young, bouncing from career mistake to relationship mistake, like a human ping pong ball, is actually full of just the right amount of cynicism and disillusion to make a good go of today’s world.

Although not as good as The Corrections, which to me will stand the test of time as epitomising turn-of-the-21st-century American family life, Purity is wonderful and full of enough humour and sadness to make the 563 page wrist sprainer worth it. Plus the cover is really cool and shiny.

2 thoughts on “The Great American Novelist – Jonathan Franzen and his latest novel, Purity

  1. I just finished it and loved it. He hates everybody equally but he has a way of exposing the phoniness of dogma. I enjoyed Freedom but liked Purity a lot more, largely because of the Andreus character. I’ll get to The Corrections eventually.

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