The question is not whether to read Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity if you haven’t by now. Rather, the question is when. This latest novel from one of America’s finest writers appeared September 1, 2015. Now we’re at the midpoint between last fall’s published hardback and this fall’s anticipated paper, which won’t come out until September 6. And that creates a small dilemma—which version to select? Grab what’s available now and delve right in? Or hold back another six months and snag the US trade paperback edition with a yet-to-be-revealed mystery cover?
Franzen’s an artist who mixes an era’s most salient ideas on his palette to paint the spirit of the times in the novels on his easel. In contrast to his earlier novel, Freedom, he’s opened himself up in far more personal and vulnerable ways, which is rare for a writer.
With certain characters, Franzen creates a fictional pastiche of actual people. The tension buildup in several sections made my heart race. His timing is impeccable. I noticed I was holding my breath as I read lines such as “Everyone thinks they have strict limits…until they cross them.” Franzen subtly primes his canvas with a layer of deep questions as if he were applying gesso, building it up in a leisurely manner with wit and wisdom combined. Readers hardly realize the plotline they’re following is tossing out reflections: Is madness inherited? Can we be sure there’s not a god? They anchor the surrounding action.