Read Remark Book Review - Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Book Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Published September 2015
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

One-sentence summary:
A young woman named Purity has a tumultuous upbringing and burgeoning adulthood while a cast of ancillary characters deal with their own dramas.

There’s a lot going on in this book. A. Lot.

Purity has multiple storylines that follow multiple characters. Their trails intersect, but sometimes only in the faintest, barest crossing.

Characters abound in this story. Purity has ridiculous amounts of student debt, and a possible personality disorder. Anabel is secretive, codependent, and significantly neurotic. Journalist Tom and his lover with split loyalties are looking for the next big story. Cut to Andreas Wolf, a German sneaky sneak who, in the course of wrongdoing, accidentally stumbles onto fame as a Julian Assange-esque whistleblower.

It’s like a game of one-upmanship of disordered behavior. It doesn’t help that all of the characters are so aggressively unlikeable.

This doorstop of an opus covers every storyline at meticulous length. Franzen could have cut each person’s story at least in half without losing value. And Andreas Wolf could have easily lived in his own, separate novel without changing Purity’s narrative significantly.

Do not fret; I’m not mistaking unlikeable characters for a bad book.

Many authors are able to pull off deeply flawed characters beautifully. See Lindsey Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry for a prime example, and also marvel in how she got across a powerful and fully drawn story in 224 pages.

It’s okay for a book to be long. But every one of those pages must matter. The Nix, for example, accomplishes this. I’m not convinced every page of Purity does.

This presents a fine line I’m extremely aware of as a book reviewer. If the characters are abhorrent or if a storyline goes in a different direction than I personally would prefer, it’s okay. It’s not okay to make readers slog through an overly long ode to one’s own literary genius.

“Fog spilled from the heights of San Francisco like the liquid it almost was. On better days it spread across the bay and took over Oakland street by street, a thing you saw coming, a change you watched happening to you, a season on the move. Where it encountered redwoods, the most local of rains fell. Where it found open space, its weightless pale passage seemed both endless and like the end of all things. It was a temporary sadness, the more beautiful for being sad, the more precious for being temporary. It was the slow song in minor that the rock-and-roll sun then chased away.” – Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Like that.

The reason this book gets three stars instead of two is because of Anabel.

Crazy, destructive, beautiful Anabel. She’s a cartoonish and almost offensive portrait of mental illness and neuroses. Perhaps I should have subtracted a star for that instead.

But darned if those neuroses aren’t entertaining to read.

Reading about Anabel is like peeling off a bandage to look at an oozing scab. It’s disgusting, but I can’t help but stare.