Stuck aghast in the aisles of a bookstore? Overawed? Lazy? Well, let us quickly goose your purchase. First up, Purity from Jonathan Franzen, which charts the depth of the Internet.
Comparing writers of the 21st century to those of the 19th has an apples and oranges quality to it. But in the best traditions of those tales of yore, Dickensian allusions and such, we find at the centre of Jonathan Franzen’s stunning novel, Purity, a central character who goes by Pip. She is surrounded by people who substitute for parental figures in the void left by an unnamed father and a crackpot mother, all of whom hold high hopes for her. Great expectations, if you will.
Pip is not the main protagonist, however, just one of many – the one who binds them all together. She’s the story’s MacGuffin; a very human one at that. Structurally, the book is similar to the author’s earlier works, The Corrections and Freedom. A character is given reams of literary real estate in which to have their thoughts and actions, histories and flaws laid bare. But each character gets their full measure, and all arcs are completed well into the book’s hefty 500+ page duration. Connections do emerge, but slowly – this is literature, not cinema after all. We’re in no rush, and the eye of the mind can shape these people as it sees fit, only to have assumptions up-ended very quickly.
One of the central premises or underlying themes of Purity centres around the Internet, what became of journalism, and some very pointed observations about what it has done to society as a whole. Franzen blew my mind when he made the point that the web has essentially robbed us of curiosity by making life easier – that in the process of not finding out things, of investigating, of learning how to accomplish something by doing it, we have essentially lost the very reason we are alive. The meaning of life itself has been undone by the Internet. Not exactly a throw-away concept there.
The book is written in an often conversational style – you might think of it as being the conversation you would love to have with that person who is infinitely smarter than you whose insight you wish would just rub off by some kind of osmosis. But the story is dense, the characters complex and complicated. Franzen’s “purple prose” is exquisite, his writing constantly beautiful – his similes and metaphors often remarkable; comparisons of a woman’s body to the impression wind makes on snow drifts verged, for this writer at least, upon breathtaking.
This is an outstanding novel. Like his previous two, Franzen’s book stands very much as a chronicle of the times, of the verging gaps between generations, and the effect that time, progress and technology has on us. The emotional honesty is laid bare and brutal, his insights to human psychology are astonishing.
Purity is among the finest books I’ve ever read.