Truth and beauty in pure and polluted forms

Family conflicts and the breakdown of relationships are grist for the mill in much of popular fiction. Conversely, fiction that attempts to grapple with larger philosophical issues can all too often exploit the disconnectedness of modern life to make its points without creating believable characters that hold a reader’s interest or engender genuine affection or disgust.

What distinguishes Franzen’s work from this is his skillful intermingling of personal and philosophical issues. In Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections, Alfred Lambert’s deteriorating mind and body mirror the dissolution of corporate values and morality that was presumed to propel America’s shining exceptionalism. The characters in 2010’s Freedom seek liberation from the past, the present, each other, themselves and freedom for a particular endangered species of songbird.

Which brings us to Purity, the novel whose main character, Purity Tyler, is otherwise known as Pip. Unlike Charles Dickens’ famous character of the same name in Great Expectations, Franzen’s Pip isn’t an orphan. Nonetheless since Pip’s birth her single mother has devoted her life to hiding out from a father whose continued absence is equated by her mother with their very survival. Quite naturally, Pip is as curious as any orphan might be as to who this father is. The truth may set her free, at least financially.

The beginning of the novel finds Pip with a freshly minted university degree, $130,000 of student loan debt, a dead-end sales job, and few prospects for advancement on any front. Her surrogate family consists of an oracular schizophrenic, an intellectually challenged young man, a quarrelling Catholic Worker couple and a pair of left-leaning German visitors named Annagret and Martin. This group appears to be squatting in a home that is about to be foreclosed upon by a nasty old bank.

After some faltering attempts at sex and unrequited love on Pip’s part, Annagret manages to take her aside and convince her that her talents might be better appreciated by an infamous trader in exposé and Internet-generated secrets named Andreas Wolf. Like Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame, he’s on the outs with most law enforcement entities. Wolf has a quite a history of his own involving a misspent youth in East Germany as the son of privileged party operatives and eventually as a church youth counsellor who took an unseemly interest in the young females he was counselling. Along the way he’s managed to commit a great wrong for what some might construe as the right reasons.

As the Berlin Wall falls, the charismatic Wolf achieves an accidental notoriety as a shedder of light on East Germany’s dark past. His fame grows. For most of the rest of narrative he’s holed up in a paradisiacal valley in Bolivia with a coterie of male hackers and extraordinarily beautiful female researchers as leader of the Sunlight Project. Suffice it to say, past critics’ description of Franzen as a realistic novelist is somewhat strained by this.

Eventually Pip is dispatched by Wolf to Denver where she befriends Tom Aberant, a more traditional investigative journalist, and his journalist live-in companion Leila Helou. Aberant’s efforts as head of the Denver Independent have been bankrolled by his ex-wife Anabel Laird’s late father, much to his ex-wife’s chagrin and enduring animosity. 

As the twists of this fairly tall tail unfold by way of an omniscient narrator and the first-person accounts of the characters themselves, truth and beauty are examined in pure and polluted forms. As the plot develops, expectation and speculation by the reader resolves in a fashion that more than anything else resembles a whodunit.

What is lacking in Purity is sympathy for the characters involved. Many are somewhat likeable, yet not fully fleshed out. In The Corrections, by contrast, just about every character was a bona fide candidate for a prayer request – regardless of the author’s likely agnostic opinion of religion.

So once Franzen has revealed all there is to reveal and said all he has to say, what are we left with? We live in an age where sportswriters sometimes speak as truthfully as our novelists about the ties that bind us. Consider this from Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail in describing how veteran pitcher Mark Buehrle relates to near-rookie Marcus Stroman: “Since he is old, Buehrle believes the magic of texting is the new glue that binds people together. Sort of what the church used to be.”

In a somewhat glue-less society where family and other institutions seem to be faltering under the weight of pure truth or shameless lies, we could do worse than contemplate the characters and issues that this Franzen novel presents for our examination.

  • Tom Konyndyk’s working life has encompassed editing, proofreading, copy-writing and technical writing. Nowadays when he isn’t relaxing with a good book he operates White Rabbit Books, a mostly used book store in Georgetown, Ont.

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