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Jonathan Franzen

A magnum opus for our morally complex times from the author of Freedom and The Corrections

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 has always concealed her own real name, or how she can ever have a normal life. Enter the Germans.

A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organisation 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 a dark-hued comedy of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder.

The author of Freedom and The Corrections has created yet another cast of vividly original characters, Californians and East Germans, good parents and bad parents, journalists and leakers, and he follows their intertwining paths through landscapes as contemporary as the omnipresent Internet and as ancient as the war between the sexes. Jonathan Franzen is a major author of our time, and Purity is his edgiest and most searching book yet.


Fellow lovers of Big American Novels, clear your diaries: the new Jonathan Franzen is here. It has been five long years since Franzen’s last work of fiction, Freedom, and it has been worth the wait. I’ll be thinking about Purity and its characters – the kinds of flawed, odious, endearing messes that are both familiar and alien at their extremes – for years to come.

It would be ludicrous for me even to try to gesture towards the complexities of this 600-odd page work’s plot in a 300-word review, so instead let me highlight some (but not all) of the themes it toys with: it’s about secrets and lies and truth and living in the internet age. It’s about inappropriate relationships, self-loathing, and (ultimately) the human need for intimacy, family and belonging in a world where the performance of intimacy online can be mistaken for really knowing someone. It’s about the oppressiveness of information. Its moods encompass the paranoia, anxiety and discomfort of surveillance, across the eras of Stasi East Germany and post-Wikileaks USA, dispositions that are terrifying in their ordinariness. It explores the tensions between old media morality as it sits against new media’s eagerness for openness that is served with a side effect of corporate exploitation. Franzen asks, what is left of privacy, what value truth, what morality and ethics of care exist when everything secret is recorded, everything personal is almost always exposed? In the end, when will the jig be up for all of us?

An elliptical narrative structure takes the reader off on tangents of faith, but be assured that each diversion wends its way back towards the centre, and as this masterfully constructed plot winds tighter and tighter towards the novel’s conclusion, the tension builds to an almost unbearable level. This is writing to marvel at, its writer a soothsaying chronicler of the age. Can you tell that I loved this book? Please, read it now.

Alison Huber is the head books buyer for Readings

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