Purity by Jonathan Franzen

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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Jonathan Franzen

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