Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is a grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder. The author of The Corrections and Freedom has imagined a world of vividly original characters and he follows their intertwining paths through landscapes as contemporary as the omnipresent Internet and as ancient as the war between the sexes.
Young Pip Tyler doesn’t know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she’s saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she’s squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother – her only family – is hazardous. But she doesn’t have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she’ll ever have a normal life.
A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with the Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world – including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now on the lam in Bolivia, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn’t understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong.
Purity is the most daring and penetrating book yet by one of the major writers of our time. Laura Miller, one of the founders of Salon.com and frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review has interviewed Jonathan Franzen for insight on his latest daring creation – you can read an extract from the interview here, the full piece is available to read at 4thEstate.co.uk.
LAURA MILLER: I think Purity is a bit of a departure from at least the past two books… I’m just curious if that was something that just kind of happened in the process of writing the book or if you decided to do something that is a little bit more adventurous, or playful, or maybe even a little postmodern, dare I say it?
JONATHAN FRANZEN: I think the situation for the writer is that it gets harder to write novels, not easier, as time goes by. I had a couple of ideas batting around in my head for years. I spent a lot of time in Germany when I was a student for accidental reasons, and I’ve long had this idea of a young, East German dissident. So that’s kind of where I started and honestly I don’t remember where the girl came from—
MILLER: Your main character?
FRANZEN: Well she’s one of four, I see her as one of four or five main characters; she’s one of four point of view characters.
MILLER: Were there any particular challenges in the process of writing this book? I mean there are some things about it that remind me a little of your second book, there’s this kind of slightly conspiratorial plot.
FRANZEN: Somewhere in the course of overplotting The Corrections I just decided plot is wrong, what I need is story, and story is not the same as plot. Story is really simple, story is situational, and character driven, and the plot began to seem like a contrivance that was in the way. But wishing not to repeat myself or to repeat myself in a better way, I kind of went back and thought, let’s try doing that kind of conspiracy plotting again. The writer’s job is to really try to tell the truth, and we live in a world of cant, of received opinion, and widely shared ideologies, and the writer who is not satisfied with those sometimes simplistic ideologies is going to end up seeming to be in opposition to the vast majority of people who happen to hold those opinions. So that you say, ‘Oh, well, most people believe this, he attacks this, he must not like people’—something is being elided there.
MILLER: You know, when you talk about the writer’s responsibility to tell the truth, that is a particular characteristic of Pip—she’s one of those people that says what she thinks.
MILLER: And obviously there’s this theme of cleanliness and purity. I mean, that’s the title of the novel. Are those two things related, those two ideas for you?
FRANZEN: I don’t think so actually. I was really struck looking at Kraus’ fanatical followers and how attracted these young people were to this notion, this purity that he promised them, and the kind of notion of purity that informs fanatics of all kinds, seeing it in certain areas of American politics, too. To me that actually doesn’t have a lot to do with truth telling, because truth is more nuanced and frankly more unknowable than people who think, ‘Oh, all I have to do is be pure this way and I will be righteous.’ I think truth is sort of in opposition to that. One of the things I was trying to do is write about youthful idealism, and we see pretty much all the characters not only as adults but also as young people who are idealistic. Purity seems like something to aspire to—the pure artist, or pure writer, or purely serving the oppressed or whatever. And I wanted to write a book that was capacious enough to both encompass that youthful idealism and also see how it plays out for better or worse, usually for worse.
Jonathan Franzen is the author of four other novels, most recently The Corrections and Freedom, and five works of nonfiction and translation, including Farther Away and The Kraus Project. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the German Akademie der Künste, and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Jonathan lives in New York and California.