Pip Pip Hooray!

Purity by Jonathan Franzen.  Picador.  598 pp.  $17.00. *****

I had an odd and unique experience reading Purity.  I got slightly bogged down in the book’s first section, which focuses on the title character; her name is Purity but she goes by Pip.  She seemed clueless and helpless, living with a collection of strange roommates, burdened by huge college loans, dealing with a mother who adores her but is needy and smothering (and who hasn’t told Pip some crucial details from her life, including who her father is).

Pip picks up a young man toward the beginning of the story, takes him back to her place to have sex, but gets caught up in various interruptions—searching for a condom (since when was it up to the woman to supply condoms?), eating a couple of bowls of cornflakes to keep her stomach from growling, filling out a questionnaire for one of her weird housemates—so that she doesn’t get back to her partner for over an hour.  (No, he didn’t maintain his erection).  Pip seemed to be one of those multi-tasking ditzy young people who can’t get anything done, not even an act of intercourse.  A wan eccentric character I wasn’t taking seriously.

The second section was so different that I thought I’d fallen into a different book.  It concerns a young man named Andreas, a Julian Assange type character who runs a political group that leaks information.  This section concerns his East German past, which was extraordinarily strange, weird parents, weird obsessions (one with the female sex organ, for instance, and a compulsive masturbation habit that makes Portnoy look celibate) and eventually, a serious crime he seems to carry off successfully.  That section of the novel was so dark and strange that I found myself cringing, hurrying through to see if things got more interesting.

Imagine my surprise in the third section when Pip has moved to Bolivia, where Andreas now is, and not does she fall for him (she seems an easy target at this moment in her life), but every woman in his general vicinity, practically every woman in the world, finds him overwhelmingly attractive.  A pussy-obsessed compulsive masturbator (we’re talking about a guy with a perpetually sore penis.  And he’s not twelve years old) who’s concealing a dark crime.  At that point I felt I had misunderstood, more or less missed, the first two sections of the novel.  But the section was so compelling, that—despite how engrossed I was—I went back and read them again.  I was in the middle of what might be a great novel, and didn’t want to give it short shrift.

For much of the book I was thinking, what is it about Jonathan Franzen and women?  Pip was a dip, her mother needy and impossible, Andreas’ mother weird almost beyond belief (she showed the young man her genitals when he was at a formative age, which may account for his obsession; there was a strong incestuous feeling to his childhood), and all kinds of politically correct women down in Bolivia seemed to be gaga for Andreas.  Soon he has persuaded Pip to do some dirty work for him back in the states, and by the time we realize her actual connection with the people around her, we understand what an incredibly intricate novel Franzen has created, and what a fascinating situation.  Other than that second section, in fact—which I found difficult even the second time—the whole thing was marvelous to read.

I eventually felt differently about the women.  Pip’s mother—who despite her general talents has been working as a checkout person at a grocery store, devoting her life to a spiritual path she calls her Endeavor—is the daughter of a billionaire.  Early in her life—when she was involved with Pip’s father—she was weird and talented and volatile but deeply conflicted about her background and her father’s dirty money, his obvious charm and seductiveness.  The way she turned her back on all that, not letting Pip in on any of it—does seem extreme, but it’s understandable, and somehow admirable.  And the way that Pip—once she’s escaped the clutches of Andreas—discovers what she needs to know, and brings the various parts of her life together, is nothing short of miraculous.

The novel turns out to be about Purity after all, though the point is that she rejects her mother’s kind of purity.  We see her grow up, become a woman, before our very eyes, and in doing that she helps those around her grow and reconcile as well.  On the basis of the three novels I’ve read, I’m ready to crown Jonathan Franzen the most interesting novelist of his generation[1], at least in terms of sustained work (Infinite Jest surpasses any other single book).  Purity may be his most compelling novel yet.

[1] I’d love to hear about some other candidates.