Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: A Fun Read but Dead Inside

An epic saga of family secrets, surveillance, dissent, and compulsive masturbation.

If you’re tempted to read Jonathan Franzen’s sprawling new novel for the sex scenes, don’t. I’ll save you the trouble: The book’s fumbling stabs at eroticism, while plentiful, are no less cringe-worthy that the ones in Freedom that got relentlessly mocked author shortlisted for a “bad sex” award and brought on a literary wedgie from Jezebel.

At this point it’s clear Franzen relishes the hate. It’s a thing with him. In Purity, he even uses words like loins and stiffy, so you know he’s trolling, just as he was trolling when he dissed Oprah, or dissed e-books, or dissed Twitter, or talked about adopting an Iraqi infant, or maybe even when he took up bird watching. He thinks contemporary culture is dumb (he’s right) and seems to have decided that the cascade of disdain directed his way is evidence of his superiority (nice try).

Franzen’s public psychodrama has become a type of performance art in its own right, but it’s not nearly as interesting as his writing. Purity, which is sure the be one of the fall’s most talked about books, is an ambitious effort that deserves to be apprised on its own merits. Although its title character, a recent college grad named Purity Tyler, is the book’s ostensible protagonist, at heart, it’s actually the story of Andreas Wolf. As a teen growing up in East Germany, Wolf compulsively masturbates to his own sketches, a habit that raises some uncomfortable questions about Franzen’s own oeuvre (we’ll leave those questions to the generations of academics yet to matriculate). Before long, Andreas moves on to womanizing. He becomes a dissident, commits a murder on behalf of a beautiful teenage girl, and eventually goes on to establish the Sunlight Foundation, a Bolivia-based hacker collective that publishes state secrets a la Wikileaks. Into his orbit comes brash young Purity, nicknamed Pip (yes, as in Great Expectations), seeking to shed some light on her own family secrets.

Never mind the side-plot about a couple having sex while straddling a nuclear missile. Seriously, forget I mentioned it.

Purity’s a fun, occasionally dazzling, read, at its best when detailing life under the East German surveillance state. As literature, it feels weightless, a strangely empty display of control — tempered by occasional flights of silliness — that inadvertently serves to highlight the author’s Spocklike emotional detachment from his own finely drawn characters. Clearly Franzen has embarked on a careful, almost obsessive study of humans and their eccentric ways, but his featured players, for all their authenticity, seem like strangers to their creator in the ways that matter most.

Still, one can’t deny Franzen’s talent for imagining colorful characters and shuffling them into appealingly convoluted narratives. In fact, he should probably be writing for television. Years ago, he tried — a halfhearted attempt he made note of in his 1996 essay Perchance to Dream. It didn’t work out, but TV’s gotten a lot better since then, and Franzen’s literary approach has gotten a little stale. Maybe it’s time to give it another shot. 

A version of this review ran in the September issue of Maxim.