Sunday 22 April 2018

Books: Franzen weaves another web of family sagas

Fiction: Purity, Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, hbk, 563 pages, €29.50

Bias: Jonathan Franzen does not seem interested in his female characters
Bias: Jonathan Franzen does not seem interested in his female characters
Jonathan Franzen's Purity

Readers may feel that 'Purity', the much-anticipated new novel from Jonathan Franzen, is a bit of a bloated whale.

Size isn't everything, though try telling that to US authors who are intent on coming up with the Great American Novel and who seem to equate size with significance. Recent contenders for this much-coveted honour have included Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch (880 pages), Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves (620 pages) and Hanna Yanaghihara's currently acclaimed A Little Life (736 pages). Why don't these writers take as their classic model the 160-page The Great Gatsby rather than the 550-page Moby-Dick.

Jonathan Franzen's novels are also whales rather than minnows. The Corrections, which made him famous in 2001, runs to 670 pages, while its 2010 follow-up Freedom is just 100 pages less. And his new novel is a mere seven pages shorter than that.

Well, I suppose considerable length is what it often takes to tell family sagas, which is what these three novels can be fairly called, and though dysfunction is what marks each of these families, Franzen's adherence to traditional storytelling arcs is so determinedly old-fashioned as to reassure those readers who have enough troubles in their own life to make them hanker for resolution in fiction.

Indeed, despite some annoyingly postmodern stylistic tics, The Corrections was clearly just what American readers felt they needed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities: a narrative that comfortingly reminded them of old familiar bonds, no matter how frayed these bonds had become.

And Freedom, which is a much finer novel and more socially and politically attuned to its particular time, also provided traditional narrative comforts with its engrossing family storyline and its satisfyingly complicated characters, almost all of them shrewdly observed.

Purity continues the family theme, though this time round Franzen includes a number of families and a greater variety of locations and timelines - including California and Bolivia today, East Germany under Stasi rule and West Germany after the wall came down. But domestic dysfunction remains a constant, this time largely caused by mothers. Andreas, an East German radical opportunist and Assange-like internet purveyor of global secrets (though he despises Assange), reflects from his Bolivian hideaway that his academic mother, Katya, was not just "vileness personified" but "the world's shittiest mother".

Back in California, 20-something Purity, known to everyone as Pip because the name Purity "made her shudder", has spent her life dealing with a reclusive, needy and emotionally blackmailing mother who has always refused to divulge the identity of Pip's father.

And then there's Denver-based middle-aged Tom, a crusading journalist of the old Woodward-Bernstein variety, who has had to cope not just with his unstable heiress wife Anabel but also with an East German mother whose loneliness in the America to which her husband brought her is exacerbated by illness.

Yet while all of these separate stories are absorbingly told, and with the tantalising promise that they'll eventually interconnect, it's hard not to feel that Franzen is far more interested in his male rather than his female characters.

Pip, the book's nominal heroine, is for most of the time too angry and snide to elicit genuine sympathy, and is not especially bright or alluring, either, and it remains mysterious just why Andreas (a self-confessed serial connoisseur of "teen pussy") falls madly in love with her when she arrives in his Bolivian hacking headquarters. She also disappears for large swathes of the novel, so that when the reader re-encounters her, it's difficult to recall what she was up to a hundred pages earlier.

Meanwhile, the lengthy feuding between Tom and the increasingly off-the-wall Anabel makes for tedious reading - it's like eavesdropping on a horrible domestic spat - with Anabel depicted as the venomously vindictive cause of her husband's marital woes. And quite why Katya is "the world's shittiest mother" remains another mystery.

But Andreas, despite - or perhaps because of - his addiction to "teen pussy" and other transgressive behaviour (including murder), is mostly portrayed in dashingly romantic terms: a troubled maverick with oodles of charm and sex appeal. And the dutiful and decent Tom is viewed admiringly, too - unlike his long-suffering journalist mistress Leila, in whom the author clearly can't summon up much interest.

Along the way, there are memorable encounters, confronations and observations - quite a few at the expense of mass communications and social media. The Stasi, Andreas reflects, was "the best friend he'd ever had - until he met the internet". And that's even though the aim of the internet "and its associated technologies was to 'liberate' humanity from the tasks - making things, learning things, remembering things - that had previously given meaning to life and thus constituted life". Indeed, Andreas's online existence "was coming to seem realer than his physical self".

There are many other such pithy asides, but the book is too long and a scrupulous editor could profitably have reduced it by at least 150 pages. No one in the publishing business, of course, would ever dare suggest that to this powerful author.

Instead he permits himself a joke about Leila's university teacher, who had unsuccessfully attempted to write "the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon. Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential".

The reader, though, may well feel that the bigness of Purity wasn't essential at all.

Jonathan Franzen will be reading from Purity at the International Literature Festival Dublin in the RDS Concert Hall on October 5 at 8pm. Tickets at €18/20 are available from

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