I generally love reading Franzen. However, I struggled through 'Purity', his latest book published last year. Structurally, Purity is true Franzen. It has its limited character set. The usual deep exploration of relationships. A largely American experience inexplicably tangled with an international connection. What it seems to lack is a central idea, some core value, the loss of which his last two books so cogently seemed to lament. Purity doesn't seem to lament anything. I get what Franzen perhaps set it out to be about but I don't really get why he ended up where he did.
If 'Corrections' was about a culture, 'Freedom' about a time then 'Purity' seems about the current generation: the millennials or more appropriately - people participating in the millennial experience or expressing millennialism through manners despite belonging to an earlier generation.
But 'Purity' doesn't stick. There really is nothing holding it together. Characters seem motivated by unclear reasons. They seem to lack any real goals. While Franzen's characters have never been likable people or good people, they have mostly been people whose follies we could relate to. We were curious about their fates. Not so much this time around.
Purity, the namesake, is the heroin or the central millennial of the book. She is often weak, mostly weird and sometimes strong. Andreas Wolf, the book's Julien Assange, is probably the worst Franzen character ever. He is just crushingly boring. His stories of eastern Europe are terribly irrelevant. Tom Aberrant, the newspaperman and Assange's frenemy, is another random, boring character. Annabel, Tom's elusive, crazy ex-wife is probably the most interesting person in the book. However, her quirkiness is overdone to the point of numbness. Leila Helou, Tom's sensible but lost wife, an investigative journalist is perhaps the best written, likable character that we can relate to. But Franzen spends way too much time and energy probing the nooks and crannies of the failed relationship between Tom and Anabel. Actually, Franzen spends way too much time with everything. And that only works if you are having fun. And while enjoying any Franzen requires some act of masochism, Purity demands a lot more than its fair share.
In conclusion, 'Purity' is a weak story full of insipid characters living in a shaky plot, falling apart in the absence of a compelling narrative. And that makes it, unfortunately, a pretty accurate description of our times - and that may be the value it lives to serve. Literary people, like Franzen, have often failed to grasp the randomness of the sudden shift in the value systems of a people and their art, like this book, have sometimes expressed that chaos, even if unwittingly.