I will start by saying that I fell in love with Jonathan Franzen on a bus. Multiple buses actually. I read his novel, Freedom, just after moving to Denver. I took the bus to work each day and fell into his story and his intricately woven relational struggle. I loved him.
And, like most of his readers, I wanted that same experience with Purity. What I got was some truly unlikeable characters and some extreme discomfort in the happenings.
As with all excellent authors who write a book that just doesn't measure up, there were obviously moments of such clarity and brilliance throughout this novel that it kept my attention. Franzen is incredible and I don't want this unappetizing storyline to derail my assessment of his skill.
This book felt almost political—Ayn Rand-esque at points. He had an agenda and it felt like a personal one that he was forcing on the story. Even in that awkward pushing though, what he was saying came across.
Franzen clearly has some feelings about the internet. He gave me some feelings about it too. I found myself thinking that the internet is often accused of creating a separation between people, making connections less personal and intimate.
But there was a line about a character's password that was heartbreakingly significant. It was a password that alluded to a time that he was in love, and decades later, would have probably been difficult or at the very nostalgic to enter. It was a poignant moment buried in the ordinary which is what the best authors do.
I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy this book. Or even that I'm not impressed by it. I think I just wanted it to be Freedom and it wasn't. And I can't blame an author for not writing the same book twice. (You shouldn't either.)
I haven't read other reviews of this book yet because I don't like to cloud my own judgment before I write my own. But as soon as I hit publish on this post, I'm going to read what other, much smarter, people have to say about this book. If you've read it, will you let me know how you felt?
Who is this book for?
People who enjoyed Freedom: Perhaps if you're someone who likes to be disappointed?
Conservative people: Conservative is a very vague, general term. So I will narrow it. If slightly less than mainstream ideas about sex, porn, difficult mental health struggles make you uncomfortable, I don't think you'll enjoy it.
People who have uneasy feelings about the internet: Yes. This is a fascinating look at how the world wide web, secrets, anonymity, and an on-line presence can connect and separate us all.
What does this book say?
If time was infinite, then three seconds and three years represented the same infinitely small fraction of it. And so, if inflicting three years of fear and suffering was wrong, as everyone would agree, then inflicting three seconds of it was no less wrong. He caught a fleeting glimpse of God in the math here, in the infinitesimal duration of life.
Reporting was imitation life, imitation expertise, imitation worldliness, imitation intimacy; mastering a subject only to forget it, befriending people only to drop them.
..."But it's like, with the really close couples I know, there's no room for anybody else. It's all about their wonderfulness as a couple. There's kind of an old-sock smell to them, a this-morning's-pancake smell."
"Have you ever been tempted to leave a thought unspoken?"
"I'm a writer, baby. Voicing thought is what I'm poorly paid and uncharitably reviewed for."
"It just seems like it must get very tiring."