Reviews — From the September 2015 issue

The Prisoner of Sex

Franzen and the women

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Discussed in this essay:

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 576 pages. $28.

Purity Tyler, Pip to her friends, is a recent Berkeley graduate with $130,000 in student debt. Raised by a socially isolated single mother who works as a checkout clerk in a grocery store, Pip has no connections or mentors, only a vague notion of “doing good in the world” and the ambition “not to end up like her mother.” She’s a squatter in a makeshift household of activists and Occupy sympathizers in Oakland. She barely ekes out a living at a Bay Area startup, a shady operation that “bundles” and “brokers” clean-energy systems for suburban communities in exchange for a large cut of the tax-incentive payments.

Nobody had warned her that the figure to pay attention to when she was being interviewed by Igor, the head of consumer outreach at Renewable Solutions, was not the “thirty or forty thousand dollars” in commissions that he foresaw her earning in her very first year but the $21,000 base salary he was offering, or that a salesman as persuasive as Igor might also be skilled at selling shit jobs to unsuspecting twenty-one-year-olds.

Pip could use some guidance, and also some money. Faced with the hard work of making a life for herself under these not horrible but not terribly promising conditions, Pip wishes she had an exit strategy. Somewhere, she has a father whose identity her mother has always refused to reveal. Maybe he has money. Maybe he can pay off her debt.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Many in Pip’s position would daydream in just this way. Fortunately for her, she is a character at the beginning of a novel, and it’s not the kind of novel that chronicles ordinary daily life. One evening, a representative of the Sunlight Project, an international organization devoted to leaking classified information in the manner of WikiLeaks, gets in touch. The representative suggests that Pip apply for a paid internship, pointing out that the organization has an expert team of hackers and researchers who can help Pip find her father. Soon the famous founder of the Sunlight Project, a former East Berliner called Andreas Wolf, is personally exchanging emails with Pip, urging her aboard. Pip is suspicious, but the offer is too intriguing, the money too good, and Andreas’s attentions too flattering to refuse. His unexpected summons offers “the thrill of imagining that she really was an extraordinary person, and that this was the true reason her life was such a mess.”

Some important things happen to Pip while she’s in Bolivia, and then in Denver, and then back home in the Bay Area. Pip’s mother had feared that Andreas was luring her daughter to South America for sex. In one of the novel’s many ironic twists, he turns out to be using her for other things; when it comes to sex, Pip uses him. But the larger surprise is that Pip, unlike her namesake in Great Expectations, proves not to be the center of the novel. She is being manipulated by Andreas in his attempt to get close to another man, an American journalist named Tom Aberant. The stories of these two men, both old enough to be Pip’s father, form the heart of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.

Tom is the founder and editor of the Denver Independent, an online-only newspaper. He has led the life of an ordinary middle-class professional, with two exceptions. On a trip to Germany as a young man, he played a minor role in helping to cover up a murder that Andreas committed. Some twenty years later, after becoming a world-renowned leaker, Andreas develops an obsession with Tom, ostensibly because he’s worried that Tom will give away his secret but really because he is a lonely megalomaniac who has sort of platonically fallen in love with Tom; he has perceived in Tom a strong moral compass that he himself lacks, and desperately seeks his approval.

But how to get Tom’s attention? After some digging, Andreas uncovers the second unusual thing about Tom: he has a daughter he doesn’t know about. The daughter, of course, is Pip. After luring her to Bolivia, Andreas arranges for her to get a job at the Denver Independent, at which point she is spontaneously befriended by Tom and his girlfriend, Leila. Tom eventually discovers Pip’s identity and, through several more plot loops, is led into a dramatic confrontation with Andreas. The Tom–Andreas relationship is reminiscent of the conflict between nice Walter Berglund and bad boy Richard Katz in Freedom, but it transpires in a very different key. The actual contact between the two men is brief, their thirty-year-old cover-up turns out to have geopolitical implications in the present, and their final scene together involves literally cliff-hanging suspense.

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