If you’re looking for purity in this world, and I’m pretty damn sure there is only this world, then don’t bother being born. It’s as simple as that. Because, sure enough, the moment you pop your messy head out of that messy womb, you’re bound to compromise your messy arse until the day you die. Your family will compromise you; your political world will comprise you, your work, or lack of it will compromise you; and for absolute certain, any and all of the relationships you stumble into will bury you up to the neck and beyond in all manner of messy compromises. And all of your ideals, slippery as they invariably are, will definitely land you in a quagmire of compromise. So, if you’re foolish enough to be looking for some sort of purity, then planet earth is definitely not the place for you. Jonathan Franzen, in his third major novel, makes this point abundantly clear over every page of his engrossing tale of the fruitless search for purity.

 Freudian throughout, with a Dickensian twist, Franzen serves up his readers a potent cocktail of overlapping family relationships; mother-daughter, father-son, father-daughter and mother-son stuff being central to the story. Everybody it seems is looking for some form of purity but surprise, surprise, purity proves to be damn elusive. Cleverly interlacing life in the old German Democratic Republic with life in modern day America, with a brief sojourn in the rainforests of Bolivia, there seems no escaping from compromise and disappointment. It simply oozes from every pore of every relationship be they personal, family or state. All the main protagonists are looking for a slice of uncompromised purity but life keeps getting in the way.  Now if the reader is of the purity persuasion the book could make for rather depressing reading, but if you are old enough or wise enough to know that the holy grail of purity is just a fantasy, then Franzen’s work can be considered rather life-affirming.

A lot of noise is made of Franzen’s novels, particularly in his home country. There is no doubting that they are extremely contemporary, dealing as they do with our increasingly atomised state of being. His last novel was big on the environmental questions of the day, while this one muses on the inherent contradictions within the age of the internet.  So when one reads a Franzen novel one feels absolutely bang up to date. Yet the funny thing is, Franzen’s novels seem remarkably forgettable. I can remember almost nothing about ‘Corrections’ and precious little about ‘Freedom’ other than one of the key characters made a deal with a mining company to mine some unspoiled land in return for the company turning the area into a protected nature reserve once the mining had been exhausted. A weighty compromise indeed. But I can’t remember much else. And I have a sneaking suspicion that after a few months, Purity will similarly fade from memory. It’s not that I haven’t enjoy these novels, because I have. It’s just that they seem to struggle to reach the pinnacle of the ‘great American novel’ in the way that say Steinbeck or Hemmingway  novels effortlessly do. Maybe they will in time but not yet I fear.

Having somewhat disparaged Franzen’s work I feel I should make amends. Flicking through the book and the passages I have underlined, I accept that Franzen is a voice for our times. He gets contradictions and he gets alienation. There are countless examples where Franzen captures perfectly the human condition as lived in the post industrial world of the ‘developed’ west.  A human condition that is beginning to know what it doesn’t want but has yet to define what it might need. It is as if we, the lucky ones, are caught in a time warp where our material needs have been roughly met yet our metaphysical needs have yet to be defined. To even talk of metaphysical needs seem a stupid indulgence yet more ‘things’ certainly don’t seem to be bringing us any measure of contentment. One of ‘Purity’s’ key protagonists puts the matter in a grimly succinct manner;

‘Matter was information, information matter, and only in the brain did matter organise itself sufficiently to be aware of itself; only in the brain could the information of which the world consisted manipulate itself. The human brain was a very special case. He ought to have felt grateful for the privilege of having one, of having played his small part in being’s knowledge of itself. But something was very wrong with his particular brain. It now seemed able to know only the emptiness and pointlessness of being.’ P504       

And there, perfectly expressed, is the central contradiction of our existence. Having, through the millennia of evolution, reached the stage where we can grasp the reality of our own existence and our inevitable demise, it befalls us to create some meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe. Most great novelists grapple with this contradiction one way or another but one would probably have go back to Camus to find someone at the astute level of Jonathan Franzen. Yet to reiterate my earlier point, I can recall Camus’ novels, particularly ‘The Outsider’ as clear as day, even though I read them many decade ago, yet Franzen’s novels seem to shine ever so brightly then just as quickly fade away. ‘Purity’, like his earlier big novels, stimulates intellectually but emotionally left me rather cold. Still, don’t be put off by this rather negative review. Franzen’s ‘Purity’ is definitely a good read and a worthy contribution to the collective knowledge that we have of ourselves. That it will be memorable is another matter.

End JPK Copyright, 13/3/16

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 13 March 2016 15:44 )