Purity is a novel by American author Jonathan Franzen.
Jonathan Earl Franzen (born August 17, 1959) is an American novelist and essayist. His 2001 novel The Corrections, a sprawling, satirical family drama, drew widespread critical acclaim, earned Franzen a National Book Award, was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, earned a James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. His novel Freedom (2010) garnered similar praise and led to an appearance on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline "Great American Novelist".
Franzen has contributed to The New Yorker magazine since 1994. His 1996 Harper's essay Perchance to Dream bemoaned the state of contemporary literature. Oprah Winfrey's book club selection in2001 of The Corrections led to a much publicized feud with the talk show host.In recent years, Franzen has become recognized for his opinions on everything from social networking services such as Twitter ("What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word?"; "the actual substance of our daily lives is total electronic distraction") to the impermanence of e-books ("All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.") and the self-destruction of America.
Awards and honors
1981 Fulbright Scholarship to Germany
1988 Whiting Award
1996 Guggenheim Fellowship
2000 Berlin Prize (American Academy in Berlin)
2001 National Book Award (Fiction) for The Corrections
2001 Salon Book Award (Fiction) for The Corrections
2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner (Fiction) for The Corrections
2010 Salon Book Award (Fiction) for Freedom
2010 Galaxy National Book Awards, International Author of the Year, Freedom
2011 Heartland Prize for Freedom
2011 John Gardner Award (Fiction) for Freedom
2012 Carlos Fuentes Medal (Inaugural award)
2015 Budapest Grand Prize
2015 Euronatur Award for outstanding commitment to nature conservation in Europe
2017 Frank Schirrmacher Preis
Honors and other recognition
1996 Granta's Best Of Young American Novelists
2001 New York Times Best Books of the Year for The Corrections
2001 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for The Corrections)
2001 Oprah's Book Club Selection (for The Corrections)
2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist (Fiction)
2002 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist
2003 International Dublin Literary Award (short list)
2009 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Visitor American Academy in Berlin
2010 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (for Freedom)
2010 New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2010 list (for Freedom)
2010 New York Times Best Books of the Year (for Freedom)
2010 Oprah's Book Club selection (for Freedom)
2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction) finalist (for Freedom)
2010 Elected to the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin
2011 Named one of Time Magazine's Time 100
2012 Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
2012 Elected to the French Ordres des Arts et Lettres
2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism) shortlist for The Kraus Project
In January 2011, The Observer named him as one of "20 activists, filmmakers, writers, politicians and celebrities who will be setting the global environmental agenda in the coming year".
On May 21, 2011, Franzen delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College to the class of 2011.
On June 16, 2012, Franzen delivered the commencement address at Cowell College, UC Santa Cruz
The first international academic symposium solely dedicated to Franzen's work took place at Glasgow University, UK, 22 March 2013. Another one, "Jonathan Franzen: Identity and Crisis of the American Novel", was scheduled to take place at the University of Córdoba, Spain, 18–19 April 2013.
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The Twenty–Seventh City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1988.
Strong Motion. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1992.
The Corrections (2001) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Freedom (2010) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Purity (2015) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
"Facts," Fiction International 17:1, 1987
"Argilla Road," Grand Street #39, 1991
"Somewhere North of Wilmington". Blind Spot 8. (1996):116.
"How He Came to Be Nowhere." Granta 54 (1996):111–23
"Chez Lambert." The Paris Review 139 (1996): 29–41
"On the Nordic Pleasurelines Fall Color Cruise," Conjunctions, Spring 1998
"The Failure," The New Yorker, 5 July 1999.
"At the Party for the Artists with No Last Name." Blind Spot 14 (1999): n.pag.
"The Fall," folio in Harper's, April 2000
"When the new wing broke away from the old mansion." The Guardian. 25 March 2003: n.pag.
"Breakup Stories." The New Yorker. 6 October. 2004.: 85–99
"Two's Company." The New Yorker. 23 May 2005.: 78–81
"Good Neighbors." The New Yorker. 8 June 2009.: n.pag.
"Agreeable." The New Yorker. 31 May 2010: n. pag.
"Ambition," McSweeney's 37, 2011
"The Republic of Bad Taste." The New Yorker. 8 June 2015: n.pag.
2002 How to Be Alone (essays)
2006 The Discomfort Zone (memoir)
2012 Farther Away (essays)
2012 "A Critic at Large: A Rooting Interest". The New Yorker. 88 (1): 60–65. February 13–20, 2012.
2016 (Guest Editor) The Best American Essays 2016. ISBN 9780544812109
2016 "The End of the End of the World". Our Far–Flung Correspondents. The New Yorker. 92 (15): 44–55. May 23, 2016.
2018 The End of the End of the Earth (essays)
2018 "Why Birds Matter". National Geographic. 233 (1): 32–43. January 2018.
2019 "What If We Stopped Pretending" The New Yorker September 2019
2007 Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind
2013 The Kraus Project (essays by Karl Kraus translated and annotated by Franzen)
His fifth novel, it was published on 1 September 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The novel is composed of six sections that focus on several different characters and tells the tale of Purity "Pip" Tyler and her quest to discover her biological father, leading her towards Andreas Wolf, a German born hacker based in Bolivia, and Tom Aberant, an editor and journalist based in Denver.
The novel had been in development since before December 18, 2012, when Franzen revealed that he had "a four-page, single-spaced proposal" for a fifth novel. A longer excerpt of the novel was published in The New Yorker in June 2015.
On November 17, 2014, The New York Times Artsbeat Blog reported that the novel, titled Purity, would be released in September. Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, described Purity as a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents.
Purity, according to Literary Hub's review aggregator Bookmarks, received a "mixed" response from book critics. The novel garnered high praise from some and negative reviews from others. Michiko Kakutani's review in The New York Times was favorable, calling the book "dynamic" and dubbing it Franzen's "most intimate novel yet." Harper's described the novel's plot as a "beautiful arabesque," and suggests that Franzen seems to have responded to past accusations of anti-feminist chauvinism with blunt clichés.
A review of the book in The Economist magazine stated Purity did not compare favorably with his previous works. It stated that the book "feels like an imitation of Mr. Franzen's earlier novels, without the emotional resonance and subtlety."
In a June 2018 profile of Franzen in New York Magazine, Purity was revealed to have been a relative commercial disappointment compared to Franzen's two previous novels. According to the article, Purity has only sold 255,476 copies to date since its release in 2015, compared to 1.15 million copies of Freedom sold since its publication in 2010, and 1.6 million copies of The Corrections sold since its publication in 2001.
In 2016, Daily Variety reported that the novel was in the process of being adapted into a 20-hour limited series for Showtime by Todd Field who would share writing duties with Franzen and the playwright Sir David Hare. It would star Daniel Craig as Andreas Wolf and be Executive Produced by Field, Franzen, Craig, Hare & Scott Rudin.
However, in a February 2018 interview with The Times London, Hare said that, given the budget for Field’s adaptation ($170 million), he doubted it would ever be made, but added “It was one of the richest and most interesting six weeks of my life, sitting in a room with Todd Field, Jonathan Franzen and Daniel Craig bashing out the story. They’re extremely interesting people.”
In June 2018, The New York Times Magazine published a profile of Franzen that reported Franzen receiving a phone call from series writer/director Todd Field to give the news that pre-production on the series had been halted. Star Daniel Craig also called to explain that he had "been summoned" to star in another James Bond movie. It remains unclear whether the series is dead or if a possibility exists for production to resume. In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter quoted Showtime CEO David Nevins as saying that after Craig's commitment to the 25th James Bond movie, the Purity adaptation was still on track. "He's doing Bond first and I can't say anything about what I know or don't know about Bond, [but] It's possible it may not shoot until 2019."
When I reached page 207 of my advance copy of Purity, I did something I’ve never before done as a reviewer, something that quite possibly was a breach of professional protocol but seemed so inevitable as to have been scripted by Jonathan Franzen himself: I used my iPhone to take a picture of a particular paragraph and tweeted it. The paragraph quotes a middle-aged writer and professor named Charles discussing contemporary publishing with a young woman named Pip:
‘So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.’ He arched an eyebrow at Pip. ‘And what about Zadie Smith? Great stuff, right?’
While Franzen has, since the 2001 publication of The Corrections, been hailed for his extraordinary sentences and ability to capture the American zeitgeist, as well as reviled for ostensible arrogance and sexism (more on those in a bit), his fiction had never struck me as overtly self-referential. With this passage, was he making fun of himself? Of a false public perception of him as egomaniacal? Of publishing culture? Presumably, at the least, he was baiting someone like me to do exactly what I did.
Depending on whom you ask, Franzen is either the premier living American writer or the last literary dinosaur: a pompous white male Luddite who gazes disdainfully down at us tweeting, Facebooking fools from his comfortable perch of astronomical sales and critical adulation. But it’s impossible to read more than a few pages of Purity without concluding that Franzen is as familiar with the internet as the rest of us – that, despite the wariness he has expressed about technology, he is conversant in not just Twitter and Facebook, but also pet videos, “those revenge-on-the-cheating-boyfriend websites”, and online pornography.
Indeed, the novel’s two central characters are men whose very professions rely on the internet’s existence: middle-aged American Tom Aberant runs an award-winning website for investigative journalism, while middle-aged German Andreas Wolf runs a WikiLeaks-like site called the Sunlight Project. The way we know Andreas Wolf isn’t Julian Assange, and that the Sunlight Project isn’t WikiLeaks, is that Assange and WikiLeaks receive numerous namechecks. That these might be preemptive libel-avoiding manoeuvres is a notion undermined by the none-too-flattering references to Assange, including that he’s “an autistic megalomaniac sex creep”.
Travelling back and forth in time and across continents, the novel charts Tom and Andreas’s respective love affairs and professional ascents, including when, at two pivotal times, their paths intersect. Born in 1960 in East Germany to a high-ranking communist official father and professor mother, Andreas is brilliant and charismatic but often unpleasant, with a robust appetite for masturbation. Born around the same time in the United States to an American father and an East German immigrant mother, Tom is intelligent, responsible, and has either the luck or the misfortune to fall in love in college with an alluring and crazy heiress.
It takes a while to ascertain that the plot of Purity revolves around Andreas and Tom. The protagonist of the book’s first section, as well as two later sections, is Pip, the aforementioned young woman (and yes, Dickensian names and plot twists abound). Pip is a recent college graduate living in a group house in Oakland, California, making a mess of her love life, working at a crummy job, and maintaining a suffocatingly close relationship with her eccentric hippy mother while trying to discover the identity of her father. But perhaps because Andreas and Tom are much savvier than Pip – and quicker to discover secrets of which she’s ignorant – the weight of the novel doesn’t truly fall on her.
In theory – and as a woman – I wouldn’t be averse to reading an entire novel by Franzen from the point of view of a young woman: ventriloquism is an authorial right. And yet, with regard to the issue of gender, I came away from Purity feeling uneasy.
That Franzen’s very name is, in some quarters of the literary community, synonymous with sexism seems to me unfair. The resentment toward him, as I understand it, is due to the extraordinarily high level of media attention bestowed on him (by Oprah Winfrey and the New York Times alike) and due to the seriousness with which critics take his books, while women who write about similar subjects – screwed-up families and couples – aren’t accorded equivalent attention or respect. I agree that an imbalance exists; however, I don’t see the fault as lying with Franzen personally. Should he, for example, have told Time magazine not to feature him on its cover in 2010, along with the words “Great American Novelist”? And the reality is that Franzen is an exceptional writer, more skilled than most other men or women at producing brutal insights, perfectly evocative turns of phrase, and genuine hilarity: “Self-pity seeped into her, a conviction that for no one but her was sex so logistically ungainly, a tasty fish with so many small bones.”
Further, though Franzen himself has spoken out about gender inequities in publishing, it’s his defensive remarks that attract greater attention, along with those that appear to reflect crankiness about social media and life in general.
Given the minefield that he surely knows he is entering, it’s to Franzen’s credit that large chunks of Purity grapple with the question of how to redress inherent male privilege. In places, the book is steeped in gender awareness. And yet, if some passages are thoughtful, as when Andreas wonders whether “being male is like being born a predator”, other scenes in which characters are simply interacting rather than actively pondering feminism are gleefully (dare I say boyishly?) provocative. When Andreas is kept waiting by his girlfriend, who is visiting his mother, he thinks of the two women: “Talking, talking, talking. Cunts, cunts, cunts.”
Repeatedly, men experience homicidal urges toward their mothers, wives and paramours; I counted at least six examples of the impulse, which seems rather a lot for a novel that’s not a murder mystery (though one actual murder does occur). I trust that these men aren’t mouthpieces for Franzen himself, but I’m also not sure it matters – there’s only so much male rage I’m interested in immersing myself in.
Less provocative but more disappointing were the tedious stereotypes embodied by the female characters: crazy mothers, middle-aged women tormented about whether or not to have kids, girlfriends and wives who would rather endlessly discuss their feelings and the state of their relationship than have sex. That these cliches show up in multiple female characters reminded me of the notion that men who believe women are crazy attract crazy women (when all you have is a hammer, everything really does look like a nail). Clearly, Franzen means for Andreas’ and Tom’s lives to parallel each other – they have similar jobs and are entangled with similarly named women – but I couldn’t tell if the limitations of his female characters reflected a deliberate choice or a failure of imagination. An investigative reporter named Leila is the most appealingly complex, yet she more or less disappears for the last 120 pages.
Just as it’s impossible to watch a movie starring, say, Julia Roberts or Gwyneth Paltrow without ever losing awareness of their essential Julia-Roberts-ness or Gwyneth-Paltrow-ness, it’s impossible to read this novel without its author’s reputation looming on the periphery. I thought of Franzen himself particularly in the fascinating and poignant passages describing fame and how lonely it has made Andreas.
On the one hand, I’m disinclined to recommend this book to my female friends – I suspect that they’d feel their time is too precious for a 576-page novel in which a grown man is repelled by the “steroidal ugliness” of his mother’s face due to her medication, or another man wonders, “Might it be possible, now that he was well into his 50s, to settle down with a woman without becoming bored?”
On the other hand, if I’d been told Purity was a first novel by an unknown writer – male or female – I suspect I’d be dazzled by its rich scenes and crackling dialogue, its delicious observations about contemporary life, the breathtaking scope of its ambition. The person who wrote this, I’d think, has an amazing future.
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