Purity, Jonathan Franzen, author; narrators, Dylan Baker, Jenna Lamia, Robert Petkoff
Jonathan Franzen has produced a novel about unlikeable people, each with a peculiar need or dysfunction. The language is foul and the sex is in every conceivable form. It seems to be written not for a literary purpose, but for shock purpose. I will say, though, that at the end, I was surprised he was able to knit all of the characters together, in one narrative and then tie up all of the loose ends, connecting all of the threads. It was, at times, tedious and unpleasant to read; I can’t recommend it. The story was sometimes humorous and very creative, but it was a kind of originality that had no redeeming features for me. The subject matter could have been interesting if that was developed rather than the deviant behaviors. The characters were preoccupied with ridiculous romances and projects that seemed totally meaningless. Most of the characters simply wanted to jump into someone's bed, if not literally, than figuratively.
Purity Tyler, 23, known as pussy cat to her mother and Pip to her classmates and friends, was obsessed with learning the identity of her father. She was brought up at or below the poverty line by her mother, Anabel Laird, an emotionally arrested and disturbed woman whom she utterly adored or hated, alternately. Unknown to most who knew her, Annabel was an heiress who had disavowed her extreme wealth along with animal products and had become a Buddhist. She manipulated everyone with her infantile, demanding behavior. The modus operandi of her daughter, Pip, was to entice and then sleep her way through her boyfriends. She did awful things, then lied about them and then apologized for doing them, believing that she would always be forgiven by all, as she had been forgiven by her mother; she seemed to be nothing more than an obsessed, immature young woman who did not often think before she acted. Katya was Annabel’s mother-in-law. She was domineering and most often verbalized whatever was on her mind, making her extremely rude and easy to dislike. Her son Tom adored her, but she was a thorn in Annabel’s back, pretty much for good reason. Their dislike for each other was mutual. When Tom could no longer tolerate Annabel’s behavior, they divorced. Tom remained in love with her and kept her secrets from Pip in an act of loyalty. David Laird, Annabel’s father, was very wealthy and that was his fatal flaw. Annabel hated him for exploiting animals to make his money. He, however, loves Annabel and often seeks reconciliation with her. His enormous wealth has, ironically, made unhappy victims of all of his children. When Annabel’s husband, Tom, accepts money from him to start a magazine to do investigative reporting, she is furious with him. She believes her father controls people with his gifts and cannot understand Tom‘s betrayal. Yet Anabel betrays those who care for her by keeping secrets and not divulging very important, personal information. Another female character is Leila. She is a self-sacrificing woman who is jealous of her lover’s (Tom) ex-wife (Annabel) and still takes care of her disabled husband (Charles), who is kind and was paralyzed in an accident. It was an undeserved cruel act of fate. Tom is jealous of her kindness to Chalres even though he still maintains a relationship with Anabel, on occasion.
Now we get to Annagret, a young, unhappy 15 year old who meets Andreas Wolf when he worked as a counselor at a church she would escape to in order to get away from her stepfather, Horst. She presented herself as the sexually abused victim of Horst. Andreas, almost twice her age, at 27, immediately fell in love with her, and when she expresses her desire to get rid of Horst permanently, Andreas jumps in with a plan. It is intimated that Annagret is sometimes unsure about her own sexuality and is also an accomplished liar. For his part, Andreas is sexually deviant and prefers masturbation and other sexual pleasures to intercourse. He believes he is destined for greatness and eventually becomes a famous personage who brings sunlight to the world by exposing people and events in much the same way as Julian Assange does in the present day. He is worshipped and revered by those who know him. All the females want to take him to bed. To the world, although he is quite insane, he seems quite charming and very successful, using the internet as his tool to inform on others.
As the story develops, Pip becomes involved with Andreas in her search for the identity of her father. A friend tells her that he can surely help and she takes a job as an intern with his company. It is through Andreas that she makes a connection with Tom, working as a kind of undercover agent for his organization, but she soon develops a close relationship with Tom and his lover, Leila and wants to discontinue working for him. Andreas, meanwhile is now in love with Pip, although she is much younger. His relationship with Anigret is over. Most of the time, Pip ends up in love/hate relationships with almost everyone she becomes involved. She often betrays them in one way or another, and afterwards, she is consumed with guilt and remorse. However, she rarely changes her pattern of behavior or matures until she meets Jason, at which time her life turns in another healthier, more positive direction.
Along with constant sexual references of one kind or another, the reader will be submerged in filthy language using the most despicable words to describe women. Many of the characters are introduced early and then explored later on in each successive chapter as the story develops. As a result, often the timeline goes back and forth and it can grow confusing and repetitive. All told, it is a book about socially maladjusted men, spoiled, dysfunctional women, foul language, sexual deviancy in many arenas, the thrill that a disturbed person might feel after committing a murder and the ramifications of the guilt that person carries with them ever after, the internet and social media with its incumbent dangers and benefits to individuals and society, mayhem, immaturity, secrets, lies and denials, suicide and hero worship, socialism and capitalism, politics, self-destruction and ambition, greed and selflessness with a lot of less than stellar characters. It is an examination of the behavior of an odd assortment of damaged characters. If this is your kind of book, have at it.
I read the book until the end because of the reputation of the author, so perhaps I am guilty of an offense some of the female characters were guilty of, hero worship, and like them, I was eventually disappointed. Perhaps, it would have been a better read, absent the overdone sex, filthy language, completely disturbed cast, and the not so subtle expression of the author’s personal politics. The author sent a bit of a mixed message with the extreme left and right positions voiced, although the obvious agenda was largely on the left. The love of money, corrupt governments and politics, the abuse of the environment, and animal rights took the center stage. While it has been referred to by some as a remodeling of Dicken’s “Great Expectations”, I think Dickens might turn over in his grave if he heard that!
I gave it two stars...one for both effort and content and one for reputation. It could have been a more interesting story about the growth of individuals who once lived in fear in a divided Germany, under the ever watchful eye of the Stasi, the brutal Secret Police force in East Germany. It could have catalogued their evolution as they traveled about and away, and developed their futures in places that offered more freedom of choice, like the United States. Instead, it was about victims who continued to carry with them the effect of their former lives, their former fears, the fears they had felt while living in an oppressive environment, society or home, a place that inhibited growth, diversity and success. Their futures and that of their offspring, coupled with the future of all those with whom they dealt, afterwards, would face serious consequences; there would be a price to be paid for their behavior.
The audio was effective although some of the voices ran into each other. Annabel’s sounded like Pip’s which was too young, but perhaps that was because Annabel was immature. I had difficulty discerning the voices of individual characters. The tone and expression sometimes felt overdone, as well, but mostly it was well done. Just beware, though, you, the reader, will be drowned in a sea of dirty words and dysfunctional sexual desire.