Jonathan Franzen spotlights spotlessness in his epic of the zeitgeist.

Taken at the Guiness brewery, Dublin, Ireland

[Taken at the Guinness brewery, Dublin, Ireland, @Richard Gilbert.]

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $28.00 hardcover (September 1, 2015, 576 pages); also available as ebook, CD, large type, and digital audio. US trade paperback edition due out September 6, 2016, from Picador.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

Purity is the power to contemplate defilement.

Extreme purity can contemplate both the pure and the impure; impurity can do neither: the pure frightens it, the impure absorbs it. It has to have a mixture.

—Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace


[Does Jonathan Franzen’s latest surpass Freedom?]

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, if you like to hold an actual book, 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. I’ve reviewed an earlier book, Freedom (Part 1 and Part 2).  In this novel, he’s opened himself up in far more personal and vulnerable ways, which is rare for a writer. The chapter titles alone are intriguing:

Purity in Oakland

The Republic of Bad Taste

Too Much Information

Moonglow Dairy


The Killer

The Rain Comes

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.

So much spot-on social observation takes place. One finds inside jokes from the literary world about other writers. There are thoughts about fame and its loneliness shared by someone who is famous. We encounter male-dominated Silicon Valley and the paucity of girls writing code. Then, along come Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos—side by side with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Proust, and Dickens. The settings roam the world.

The overlooked humor in Franzen’s writing

Jonthan Franzen happy

[Jonathan Franzen sees himself as a comic writer.]

Franzen delves, in occasionally hilarious ways, into practically every academic discipline across any university campus. He explores such ideas as “moral hazard” from economics, renewable energy, interventions used in attempts to change norms (“Quite a few of your neighbors have expressed strong interest in…”), branding, transparency, privacy, eye contact, TMI, the British versus American pronunciation of “a,” thermodynamics contrasted with integral calculus, individualism and collectivism . . . the list goes on.

Here’s what Franzen himself had to say about his book a couple weeks after it was released. I caught him in a full house at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, on September 19, 2015. He walked out attired in dark tones: black jeans, brown shoes, black frame glasses, and gray shirt—with shirtsleeves rolled halfway up to his elbows.

“Hottest it’s ever been since I’ve been coming here,” he noted, toting a water bottle. “I see a lot of people standing, but I’m comforting myself by realizing I’m standing, too.”

And standing before me was a far more jovial, relaxed, and bantering Jonathan Franzen than the one I had heard in the very same spot five years earlier on his book tour for Freedom. He began by reading from Purity, playing to the Texas locale with one selection. In a paragraph about a thermonuclear warhead in Amarillo, he totally cracked himself up over the author’s humor when he spoke a certain line (“Why would you do that?”). He took a minute to regain his composure, perhaps underscoring a self-observation he made in a 2010 interview in The Paris Review. The question had been: “What are people missing or overlooking in your work?” Franzen replied: “…what seems to me most often overlooked is that I consider myself essentially a comic writer.”

Still, one student in the Austin audience wanted to know: “My professor said it’s good when writing stories to get at universal truths. Do you agree? What are your goals?” Franzen pondered before saying, “I do know about Universal Truths, but trying to arrive at one is perhaps not the best way to get there.”

How Franzen distills his ideas into an overriding concern

The epigraph Franzen used in Purity is:

…Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft


[Purity‘s Faust connection: Does evil do the good?]

It’s a line in Goethe’s German play Faust from a conversation between Heinrich Faust (a scholar) and Mephistopheles (the devil, also called Mephisto). Faust asks, “Well, who are you?” Mephistopheles answers with Franzen’s epigraph, which can be cryptically translated as: “A part of that power, The Evil ever do, and ever does the good.” The riddle addresses human nature’s duality, or the fight between good and evil. Does darkness give birth to light or does light give birth to darkness? Is it a cyclical process? In Purity, Franzen delves into principles that Hegel believed ran the world’s history.

I asked Franzen if he had rewritten the Faust legend in Purity to capture the zeitgeist of this century.

“Hmmm, not consciously,” he said. “I like Goethe’s Faust so much, but it was all done after the fact. I was having fun with it.” Franzen later noted that Purity was “strict realism, about an embittered novelist who had once been somebody and now was nothing.”

Another audience member wondered whether Franzen had been trying to honor the character of Tyrone Slothrop from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, but Franzen denied it.

“I don’t really do homage,” he responded. “Pynchon was not the first person to notice what rockets look like.”

Franzen’s research process?

“It does not merit the dignity of a word like ‘process.’ I love reading but I hate research,” he stated. “You don’t want to let facts stand in the way of what you’re making up.”

Would he ever write a historical novel? “No,” but acknowledged several authors he felt had done an excellent job with them: Jane Smiley and Penelope Fitzgerald.

“In The Blue Flower,” he said, Fitzgerald drew such a totally believable historical period she totally forgot about it and was immersed in the era she’d created.”

Franzen confided he’d sprinkled throughout Purity what he called “love poems” to various entities like journalism and birds, and mentioned he’d indulged his fondness for birds while on his current book tour: “I try to multitask, so I went to Hornsby Bend [a bird observatory near Austin] this morning, past the sewage ponds. Why did I do that? I fell in love with birds.”

Franzen confessed he’d approached the publication of Purity with a sense of dread. “I’m shocked it’s been well reviewed….I felt so beat up when I finished. Writing books has become a personal matter.”

How do you feel when you notice people reading your books?

“There’s no author in the world who doesn’t look at the bookshelves when they go to someone’s home, to see if their books are there.”

Is Purity on your bookshelf? It’s not a quick beach read. It’s long and thought provoking, but also funny—possibly one of the best investments of a reader’s attention to come along in decades. So many books; so little time. Decisions, decisions. Hardback or paperback? Electronic or audio? Now or later? Your choice, but don’t miss Purity.

Lanie Tankard 12Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. She is a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, and has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.


  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Terrific review! I just ordered it.

  • Richard says:

    Lanie, I love this review because I too loved Purity, having recently finished it, and am grateful to see angles here I hadn’t considered. I admire the way Franzen animates interesting ideas and concerns.

    I found the protagonist Pip interesting but annoying at first (as intended) and gradually fell under her wayward spell and rooted for her. I think she really grows, too, while the other characters seem more stuck. But how does this relate to the key, as you see it, the epigraph? Without giving anything away, I think it applies perfectly to her. So interesting how Franzen distills his concern into an epigraph. In Freedom, as I recall, I think it was, “Use well thy freedom.” The novel is so long, but merits rereading—I didn’t think he could top Freedom but believe he did, at least for me.

    What do you think of Pip and her growth? As well as the fact that she seems the only character to see parents (in her case just her mother) clearly? Do you agree that how children see their parents in a skewed way is a key theme?

    • LanieTankard says:

      Yes, I see the connection between the Faust quote and Pip, and it does parallel the “Use well thy freedom” phrase from Franzen’s novel FREEDOM. That phrase was engraved on a stone noticed by a character, Patty Berglund, when she visited her daughter’s fictional East Coast college in the earlier book, but is a phrase found on the true-life Swarthmore campus:

      The actual epigraph in FREEDOM, though, is from Shakespeare:

      “Go together,
      You precious winners all; your exultation
      Partake to everyone. I, an old turtle,
      Will wing me to some withered bough, and there
      My mate, that’s never to be found again,
      Lament till I am lost.”

      And yes, Pip does seem to be the character who perhaps changes the most from beginning to end in PURITY. The blurriness of her photo on the cover even suggests an identity that’s not clearly in focus. I definitely agree there’s a theme of children viewing their parents woven throughout, which Franzen most certainly affirms in the next-to-the-last sentence of the whole book (which begins “It had to be possible…”). Children, of course, can’t know their parents’ complete backstory, but an author can make a reader privy to this information to give a bird’s eye view of characters.

  • Hi, Lanie and Richard. Jonathan Franzen has always seemed very intimidating to me as a writer, but if he says his avowed intent is mainly comic, then perhaps I can feel more sanguine about approaching him. Though many another intimating writer has claimed to be comic as well….

    • Richard says:

      Is it his books’ lengths, Victoria? Because really fat books intimidate me. But he’s about as easy to read as they come. He just deals with modern situations and the weirdness of our global world. With that context, his larger concern, like everyone’s, seems to be human nature. In this book I did find Pip’s mother, Anabel, and the portrait of her marriage hilarious.

      • No, it’s the depth of his immersion in the various kinds of knowledge of the modern world. I am hopelessly undereducated in science and technology, and basically in things outside the humanities. I always feel underequipped to read people like him.

  • LanieTankard says:

    Franzen can be read on so many levels. One doesn’t have to go deeply into subtexts in order to enjoy the observations of our era—which make a reader so much more aware of this particular time on our planet together. I do find his work thought provoking, but I also laugh out loud from time to time while reading.

  • LanieTankard says:

    Another choice for PURITY: Wait until the serialized TV version comes out with Daniel Craig! I’m glad to see Franzen will be collaborating on the script.

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