Thursday, October 5, 2017

Purity by Jonathan Franzen (revisited)

Reading something twice creates an interesting second perspective. New details emerge, as the reader is free to let his mind wander through a familiar book. Characters may become more believable, when viewed with the benefit of hindsight. Overall, the story may come to make more sense. On the other hand, a second reading may reveal serious flaws that were missed on the first go. As the reader gains familiarity with the material, the suspension of disbelief that hid the most glaring problems may begin to subside. Often, repeated readings reveal the author’s quirks and weaknesses more than new elements of the story.

Rereading Purity had a bit of them all. There were parts that were more enjoyable, because I could look past the immediate storyline and see how the different puzzle pieces fit together. This is true of most books that are worth a second outing: Slaughterhouse-five, Freedom and (surprisingly) A Clash of Kings.

Franzen has once again created a structure that is closer to Pulp Fiction than to Reservoir Dogs – the narrative doesn’t follow a single character and the chapters are not in chronological order. This was frustrating, when I first encountered it, because you are forced to take on new people and places with each new chapter. However, once I was free of the burden of trying to guess how it all fit in, the individual stories seemed more coherent and pleasing.

That being said, it became clearer why Purity didn’t receive the same praise as Freedom or The Corrections. I was especially disappointed to realize that although Purity ought to be about Pip and her travails in the modern world, it is more concerned with practically anyone else. Above all, Purity is the story of Andreas Wolf, the youth worker who becomes a leaker and exposer of secrets. His character arc is enthralling and, at best, visionary, but he is also the villain in a nonconventional sense. More accurately, he is a psychopath and an asshole. While his demise is satisfying, his actions are not. Compared to Richard in Freedom (who has a similar but less creepy role), he is frustrating and, at times, insufferable. Andreas’s motives are sinister or narcissistic, so even his more noble actions are put in doubt.

So here is my list of gripes after a second reading: Pip is the most interesting character, but is left in a supporting role. Anabel and Tom almost get back together despite having an absolutely ridiculous marriage. Tom helps Andreas hide a body, but it is completely out of his character. There is too much talk about masturbation, perhaps by a factor of five. And someone’s mother gets her own backstory of moving out of Germany, but even after a second round, I still have trouble understanding why it is there and whose mother it was in the first place. But as I’ve mentioned before, Franzen has a way of describing the world around us that has always delighted and inspired me. Purity may not be his best work, but it did keep my attention through a second reading.

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