Jonathan Franzen's Purity is an eccentric blockbuster
Fourth Estate, $37
Since The Corrections made him famous in 2001, Jonathan Franzen has specialised in big, topical, highly readable social novels that display a talent for setting compelling family stories within the wider sweep of recent history. What that means in the case of his typically hefty and ambitious Purity is that a book about the perils of life in the internet age, informed by figures like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, is really a story about a young woman's search for her family, with its roots in the traditions of sprawling 19th century novels.
Purity lives in a squat in Oakland. Everyone calls her Pip, in one of Franzen's nods to Dickens. A life-changing meeting with a German activist sends her to South America, where Assange-like uber-hacker Andreas Wolf runs the Sunlight Project. Wolf grew up in the DDR, which lets Franzen riff on his weird belief that the internet is as sinister as the Stasi during the worst of communism. Don't ask what it means for Leon Trotsky to have been "the Bill Gates of the Soviet Union".
At least no one can accuse of Franzen of being mindlessly utopian about the internet's reach and potential. In that sense, and in others, Purity is a personal, even eccentric blockbuster. Franzen's writing is often dazzling and has a remarkable momentum, but the novel also feels overblown and indulgent: too many doubles, too many secrets, too many lost fathers and coincidences. Despite the title and the set-up, Pip's journey is not the centre of the book. She heads offstage while Franzen drills deeper into the backstories of two father figures. Wolf is one and investigative journalist Tom Aberant is the other.
They are similar characters, friends who clash. Franzen pushes into borderline Norman Mailer territory: Andreas and Tom's bromance is the novel's deepest and truest relationship while their lives with women have been absurd, soul-destroying or forgettable. Or sometimes all three at once. Accusations of misogyny would not be inaccurate, especially in Franzen's account of Ted's disastrous relationship with an artist who seems like a parody of 80s feminism (she makes body art on video and is sexually active during full moons).
But despite all this, something pushes the tired reader on to the end. It is that gift for story and our curiosity to see how these long, knotted sagas eventually play out. Franzen is doing some unfashionable things in Purity, setting himself against literary and popular culture more than he ever did in The Corrections and Freedom. You almost have to admire the chutzpah of a writer who would even make an enemy of the internet and everyone who uses it.