"WOMEN, AM I RIGHT?" That's the cool new margin note I had to invent while struggling through Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Purity. I wrote it over and over again while I read Franzen's dull, long-winded prose, the only thing propelling me forward being the knowledge that perhaps my suffering could prevent others from getting tangled up in the same chore.
Well, let's dive in! Purity is so named for Franzen's protagonist, a smart but feckless millennial invented by someone who has clearly never been a young woman in her twenties. Purity—who prefers the nickname Pip, lest we forget for a moment that this is a riff on Dickens—is contacted by Julian Assange and invited to work for WikiLeaks, basically, except in Purity, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have different names (Andreas Wolf and the Sunlight Project, which I wish could've simply remained an excellent band name). Also there's a journalist couple (Leila and Tom), an evil mother, another evil mother, and an evil ex-wife, who is maybe also one of the evil mothers (women, am I right?). Franzen faces his fear of computers through fiction, he attempts a joke about literature's "plague of Jonathans" that doesn't land, there's some coercive (badly written) sex, and a lot of dashed-off exposition ("the private fiber-optic line that Andreas had obtained in a deal to upgrade Bolivian army comms," ALL RIGHT SURE I GUESS).
Franzen makes two fatal assumptions in Purity: The first is that he understands young people (he considered adopting an Iraqi orphan to beef up his knowledge of the youths). He seems to harbor a queasy combination of scorn for and attraction to Generation Y. (Purity is full of asides that sound a lot like, "Oh, you kids!" This doesn't stop Franzen from devoting no shortage of his signature bad sex writing to an implausible affair between Pip and fake Julian Assange.)
The second fatal assumption is that he understands feminism (or possibly just women). It's an odd, uncomfortable thing to read the thoughts of a female character, written by a 56-year-old white dude, as she frets over her feminist ideals. But for the women in Purity, feminism is a vague, amorphous, life-dampening rulebook, and it's distinctly second-wave—either that, or carte blanche to straight-up abuse men. I suppose that's probably how some people—like, say, MRAs—view feminism. But most of the Leilas and Pips I know don't simply wander morosely through their lives because they don't feel feminist enough. As for Anabel, the evil ex-wife, she is a fiction, a militant straw-woman nightmare and product of antifeminist paranoia, a character likely to be glommed onto by the world's (book-loving) frothing dickbags, as evidence that feminism is indeed the enemy. Oh, you've really done it, J-Franz!
But Franzen's woman problem is merely his most obvious blind spot. From its epigraph in untranslated German to its deeply unnatural-sounding dialogue, Purity is a book that at no point lets you forget it's Important. It's a book that the novelist Roxane Gay has rightly described as "full of contempt for the reader," but it's also full of don't-you-love-me insecurity. There's a dissonance to this neediness: Jonathan Franzen, of all writers, has nothing to prove. He is loved. His reputation is sterling, seemingly un-killable, however polarizing he personally may be. And it is in this attention-seeking that Purity ultimately fails. It could well have been bold new territory for Franzen—the bones of something spare and more concentrated are here, but they're suffocated under pages of dense, numb text, and winking, self-serious turns of phrase. Under all this bloat, it collapses into a book that's interested in slick appearances, while taking none of the tangible risks required to make it anything more.