Jonathan Franzen is a writer who swings for the fences, an ambition that attracts terabytes of online derision. Hold the derision. Franzen’s fifth novel, Purity, is quite simply his best, most textured, most plot-driven and, oddly enough, most optimistic novel to date.
The book’s epigraph is a line from Goethe’s Faust, uttered by Mephistopheles, the devil to whom Faust sells his soul. One of the questions Franzen, ever the unsettling, ironic, literary provocateur, wants his readers to consider is the complicated masquerade of good and evil: how the most seemingly well-intended actions sometimes arrive at evil results, how seemingly bad actors occasionally engender good, and how sometimes we don’t know the difference.
A reader is free to avoid thinking about any of these questions, however. There are plenty of sharply drawn characters, fast-moving, seemingly coincidental events, beautifully rendered—often funny and satirical—observations, and excellent sentences to sustain unflagging interest. The narrative moves with astonishing confidence through time and geography, from contemporary Oakland, California, to East Germany before, during and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to Texas and Denver and points in between. There is a murder. There is a missing nuclear warhead. There are conflicts between believers in a freewheeling, no-secrets-allowed Internet and traditional journalists bent on sourcing a story. There are fraught, intimate family dramas and heartrending betrayals. And that’s just for starters.
As the novel opens, its title character, Purity Tyler, known as Pip, squats in a foreclosed house in West Oakland and works as a telemarketer trying to pay down $130,000 in college debt. Her mother, an aging hippie living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, snatched her away from her father, moved to California and changed their identities when Pip was an infant. Pip, one of those young, worldly innocents, is unbearably close to her mother, walks around with a “ready-to-combust anger” and wants nothing more than to learn who her father is.
A visiting German anarchist puts Pip in touch with Andreas Wolf, media sensation and founder of an outlawed idealist organization headquartered in a remote paradisaical valley in Bolivia, trying to bring the worst government secrets to light around the world. Wolf offers her an internship to help with the loan and promises computing power to help locate her father. After a flirty email exchange with the charismatic, beguiling Wolf, Pip heads for Bolivia. The plot thickens. And Purity becomes a novel that is impossible to put down—and impossible to stop thinking about once you have put it down.