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'Purity' shows a new Jonathan Franzen: funnier, looser, and more caring

'Purity,' Franzen's fifth novel, is the best book the prodigiously talented novelist has written.

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Purity
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
576 pp.

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One wonders if Jonathan Franzen’s publishers have ever thought about just skipping the whole book tour thing. At least since 2001’s “The Corrections,” when Franzen was widely seen as adopting a less-than-gracious attitude to having Oprah choose his novel for her book club, his interviews seem to have an unusual ability to irritate others.  

His fifth novel, “Purity,” comes out Sept. 1. There’s already a new Internet meme, inspired by certain ill-chosen remarks regarding women novelists who “need a villain” and have elected him for the purpose, and reportedly, his briefly considering adopting an Iraqi war orphan, in an effort to better understand Millennials. (He thought better of it and just met some college students, instead.)

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“Have you ever been tempted to leave a thought unspoken?” Leila Helou, one of the characters in “Purity,” asks her husband, an author.

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“I’m a writer, baby. Voicing thought is what I’m poorly paid and uncharitably reviewed for,” he replies.

Fair enough. And here’s the thing that shouldn’t get lost in the Twitter fuss: “Purity” is the best book the prodigiously talented novelist has written – funnier, looser, with more care for his characters and nary a hectoring lecture on saving songbirds in sight.

The toxic moms are still present, and there is a girlfriend whose every sentence is inked with a combination of self-pitying tears and coral snake venom. (It’s not like the dads in “Purity” are any good at parenting, and not every female character is written as insane or a shrew – several are downright likable. But to be a mom in a Franzen novel is to suffer a miserable fate.) Balancing that are shrewd observations on today’s society; witty dialogue; an intricate, ambitious plot; and Franzen’s ability to craft a truly memorable sentence.

“Purity” offers the sense of ease of a virtuoso giving every appearance of enjoying himself. During the novel, the plot ranges widely, moving with dexterity from California to South America to the waning days of East Germany and the Berlin Wall.

The novel’s ostensible main character is Purity Tyler, better known as Pip.

As in “Great Expectations,” this Pip has grown up with no idea who her father is. She could certainly use a mysterious benefactor, since she has a staggering $130,000 in student loans (“her student debt was functionally a vow of poverty”) and lives in a squatter’s commune. As with another of Dickens’s orphans, she also may not turn out to be the hero of her own life (or at least, the novel that bears her name).

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Her mother doesn’t swan around in a fraying wedding gown, a la Miss Havisham, but you could describe her as a man-hating recluse without going wide of the mark. And after an isolated childhood in a log cabin without even a TV as a buffer between Pip and her mom’s voracious neediness, Pip’s got a few trust issues. “Their dealings were all tainted by moral hazard, a useful phrase she’d learned in college economics,” Pip thinks.

Speaking of economics, Pip is determined to find dear old dad and see if he’d be willing to defray some of her loans, in lieu of a couple decades’ worth of child support. Her mom isn’t willing to tell her her dad’s identity, saying it would be dangerous. But Pip’s mom is so secretive – and Pip’s debts so extreme – that the young woman decides to press on.

Pip gets recruited by the Sunlight Project, an online organization run by a Julian Assange-type figure named Andreas Wolf. She’s understandably wary about taking an internship on their compound in Bolivia, but thinks that perhaps the resident hackers might be willing to put some of their computer skills to use on her behalf. Wolf is seen as a beacon of honesty and transparency by both the media and his acolytes  – mostly young, attractive women. Wolf, for his part, argues that, if he had and secrets, surely they would have come to light by now, given his legions of enemies. “Wolf is still reasonably pure," Pip's roommate assures her. "In fact, that’s his whole brand now: purity.”

That word alone is enough to make Pip shudder. And she isn’t sure she believes the hype. Neither is Leila, the investigative journalist who serves as Pip’s mentor.

“He gets carried around on people’s shoulders and hailed as a hero and a savior and a mighty feminist,” Leila tells her boss, Tom Aberant, who owns a nonprofit investigative magazine and met Wolf before he became an Internet icon. (Wolf’s and Aberant’s pasts factor highly in the plot.) “But always with the same flimflam. Shining his pure light on a world of corruption. Lecturing other men on their sexism. It’s like he wants there to be a world full of women and only one man who understands them. I know that kind of guy. They give me the creeps.”

Secrets, and how they are disseminated, loom large in “Purity.” The Sunlight Project wields the web to whip wrongdoers in the public sphere. Leila and Tom are part of the old guard of reporters for whom the Internet has become both an indispensable tool and the thing that is rendering them obsolete. “Easier to put journalists out of work than to find something to replace us with,” Leila comments.

For his part, Wolf, who run afoul of the Stasi as a student, sees certain similarities between the bureaucratic language of the Communist regime of his youth and the lingo employed by Internet start-ups.

“The apparatchiks … were an eternal type. The tone of the new ones, in their TED Talks, in PowerPointed product launches, in testimony to parliaments and congresses, in utopianly titled books, was a smarmy syrup of convenient conviction and personal surrender that he remembered well from the Republic,” Wolf thinks, in one of many passages that indicate that Franzen isn’t remotely the Luddite he’s painted as. “The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging…. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete.”

Part of the pleasure of “Purity” is seeing how the plot connects over the decades and continents, as its characters search for connections of their own. Franzen is famous for his big books known for their astute social commentary, but in this novel, he provides something more: room for them to change.