By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux | $28 | 563 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Jonathan Franzen

Life in the Fast Lanes

Once a long time ago, I found myself driving from New Haven, Connecticut to New York City with a law student I’ll call Jim.  The reason for our trip was to watch a boxing match. 


Having never attended a boxing match, this was a little thrilling to me; but, even more thrilling was the pre-boxing dinner conversation.  To summarize, Jim told us that he had gotten into a conversation with his fellow law students in which several of them admitted to being responsible for a person’s death and “getting away with it.” 


He related this matter-of-factly, as if it were a common occurrence.  For a long time afterwards, I thought of this group as particularly special, made up of smart and “deadly” individuals.  It wasn’t until I read Purity by Jonathan Franzen that I revisited my thoughts.

In Purity, the hero, Andreas Wolf, clobbers a foe with a shovel and then buries him in a shallow grave in East Germany.  The reason for the killing is simple—a stepfather had sexually abused his stepdaughter and Wolf is in love with this girl.

No punishment seemed too harsh for the perpetrator.

So, too, the reader feels that the killing is perhaps justified.  Franzen makes the killing a burden for Wolf that compels him to act a certain way (as could be imagined).   And yet because of the tone and style of the novel, a deeper question of moral culpability is lost. 

Wolf certainly isn’t in anguish over the murder; he is just worried that he won’t get away with it, which brings me back to the law students. 

As related by Jim, they viewed their crimes as deep dark stories, something apart of them and buried deep.  Perhaps we should take things into our own hands more often.

A more compelling part of the murder rests on the idea of communism and the East German Stasi police (something I know little about, but learned about through this book).  Franzen brings up the sense of paranoia East Germans lived under when there was the veil of surveillance suffocating them.  Born into parents who embraced communism, Wolf chose to rebel in the form of a poem that slips through the cracks of censorship. 

Learning about East Germany under communist restraint was just one of many things I learned about in Purity.  In fact, one of the joys of reading a Franzen novel is the glittering expanse of the author’s knowledge. Franzen seems to know a little bit about everything (or maybe it is a lot about everything).  If you like to soak up some facts as you read a novel, then Franzen is the writer for you.

He shows great dexterity as he navigates endless topics and writes with a zestful, funny way about everything from East Germany’s economy to nuclear weapons to spying to the types of flora and fauna in exotic lands, 

Here is a passage about alcoholics: “With whiskey, the capillary bloom was more diffusely rosy than with gin and less purple than with wine.  Every university dinner party was a study in blooms.”  Not something I needed to know, but amusing none-the-less. 

Similarly, Franzen can write gorgeously--he just doesn’t choose to do so very often.  Listen to this passage about smells:

“She hadn’t wanted to believe this, but the smells at Los Volcanes were convincing her.  How many smells the earth alone had!  One kind of soil was distinctly like cloves, another like catfish; one sandy loam was like citrus and chalk, others has elements of patchouli or fresh horseradish.  And was there anything a fungus couldn’t smell like in the tropics?  She searched in the woods, off the trail, until she found the mushrooms with a roasted-coffee smell so powerful it reminded her of skunk, which reminded her of chocolate, which reminded her of tuna; smells in the woods rang each of these notes and made her aware for the first time…”

All of his meanderings lead to the questions of origins. He is interested in the complex mechanisms (luck, chance, and happenstance) that lead to a person’s conception.   In other words, he may start with the central character’s story—Pip’s story where he hints at an unconventional mother and a missing father, but then we eventually get the entire story of the courtship of Pip’s parents.  Sometimes the backstory of the characters would burden the narrative.  The novel moves forward slowly as it taps into the lengthy past.

You probably know the feeling—you are interested in a certain character in a book, but then are yanked into a different world and time altogether—and you wait (sometimes impatiently) for the author to get back to the present.

Similarly, the pacing of the novel feels off at times.  Pip, the heroine, leaves her transient home as a squatter in Oakland, California to live in a commune sort of situation in South America called the Sunlight Project, which is run by the above-mentioned murderer who fled East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This utopia relies on the adrenalin rush of computer hackers (do-gooders) who believe in the power of transparency. 

This rush of information is the counterpoint to Wolf’s earlier life in a restricted communist state.  The setting of the commune feels like a summer camp, as Pip takes daily hikes, gossips with the girls, and imagines being the chosen one of Wolf.  The idealism of Pip and her sense of integrity is compromised by her desire to sleep with the boss.

Her indecisiveness perhaps gets too much play in the novel.  She decides not to sleep with the boss at the last minute (a long scene leading to the fact), followed by her decision to sleep with the boss, followed by yet another long scene when she again changes her mind.  This is fine—yes, realistic, too—and yet as I read it I felt myself impatiently waiting for this part of the novel to be over.  I understand the value of a good sex scene (or lack-thereof), but the book has so many of these sexual teases that it starts to get predictable.

When Pip comes back to the United States (after being ordered to return by Wolf) she ends up working for a newspaper in Denver.  This newspaper is a counterpoint to the computer hacking at the Sunlight Project.  Coincidentally enough, her long lost father runs to the newspaper.  (Actually it is not a coincidence because her boss has ordered her to go there.)  At the paper she runs in to the same set off toxic problems that occur throughout the book, namely how her sexuality and identity have become intertwined.

If the questions of Pip’s love life and origins become cumbersome, Franzen’s side stories are imaginative bulls-eyes.  My favorite part of the book is when a reporter tracks down a story about nuclear weapons.  The reporter tracks down the source at a fast-food restaurant.  As she squats on the floor, she hears the story of a fake nuclear weapon getting used as a prop in a Facebook photo.  The story is wonderfully outlandish and over-the-top and in this Franzen is perhaps making a comment about our society’s thirst for knowledge as if knowledge is just another commodity. 

Franzen doesn’t come down on one political side or the other—he parodies the seekers of knowledge as well as the ones who leak knowledge.  He looks at our modern world with eyes wide open and hints at a crumbling future, as well as a crumbling past. 

Franzen’s style is to write big, blocky books with lots of words.  Sometimes these words seem to be too much, but that is what it is all about—an overabundance of info.

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