Purity in name only

Despite the fact that I have literally piles of books upstairs which I want to read, I still found myself standing in the library and seeing a book that I thought I would just have a quick look at while the girls were looking for something to borrow. But this one was right at the front, and it was big. And it was by Jonathan Franzen and I had had in the back of my mind for a while that I should read his book “Freedom” because it created a stir for some reason, although I still couldn’t tell you what it was for. This one was new though, “Purity“, and the back cover told me enough – it had parts set in East Germany. So that was a “go straight to the top of the reading list”. I’ve come across a few books set there recently, none so far very satisfying although Douglas Kennedy’s “The Moment” is an exception, and he’s one of my writing heroes, not only because he’s the only writer who’s managed to get me to start yelling out loud at a character.

But back to “Purity”. I will start with a warning. If you believe that others should live by your personal moral code, and that writers should only create and work with characters who share the same values as you, you should not read this book. Just stop now. This is not for you.

If you want to know what this novel “means”, look elsewhere. For me, it’s about a bunch of characters and their stories. They connect, both the characters and their personal stories, and that’s the first thing that is done really well. At one point, however, I started to think the level of coincidence was just too great and had tipped into the incredulous. But then I realised that the seemingly disparate stories are all connected and that we are actually observing a story over generations through multiple perspectives, each adding something to the others, none of them having all the facts or context.

And it is in this way that a debt-laden American girl called Pip, her reclusive and bizarre mother, an accidental East German dissident hero, Andreas Wolf, who has turned himself into a cross between Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and lives in Bolivia, and a Colorado-based editor of a newspaper all tell their stories. And we start to see that what they are experiencing is far from a succession of random events, but a combination of the consequences of choices they have made in the past and of what is driving them now. None of which is simple, just as none of us in real life are simple creatures.

Each of the character’s individual stories could just about stand alone. They could certainly make wonderful character sketches. We know what they want – Pip wants to know who her father was and her mother refuses to tell her or give her any information which could help Pip. What Andreas wants changes – girls, fame, to be a hero? I don’t think he knows himself.

I think it is the intersection of the stories and the overarching narrative which makes the book’s length both justified and necessary for me. Franzen brings out the complexity, absurdness and often hilarity of human beings. We start to think about who the characters really are, who they think they are, and who they portray themselves as to others, none of which is simple and certainly not consistent. And that means that the characters grow closer to each other at times, then more distant, and we are as perplexed by this as the character whose voice we are hearing at the time. Only later when we have another character’s perspective does much of make sense and seem inevitable. And of course we go through life only seeing our perspective or what other people choose to share of theirs, so the story feels very real.

I loved the writing itself. It felt like a demonstration of how to write fiction. Strong characters that you would hate in real life but love in a novel. Clever plot which reveals itself slowly but relentlessly. And lovely images throughout. Not just at the beginning when you expect that, but right the way through. Here’s one short passage from very close to the end (it doesn’t give anything away) on rain:

The cabin was dark. Inside it was the sound of her childhood, the patter of rain on a roof that consisted only of shingle and bare boards, no insulation or ceiling. She associated the sound with her mother’s love, which had been as reliable as the rain in its season. Waking up in the night and hearing the rain still pattering the same way it had when she’d fallen asleep, hearing it night after night, had felt so much like being loved that the rain might have been love itself. Rain pattering at dinner. Rain pattering while she did her homework. Rain pattering while her mother knitted. Rain pattering on Christmas with the sad little tree that you could get for free on Christmas Eve. Rain pattering while she opened presents that her mother had put aside money for all fall.

I loved the book. And promptly ordered “Freedom”. Which has joined the piles upstairs as I am currently reading “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffenegger (think “The Time Traveler’s Wife” – wonderful book, pity they ruined the film by changing the one part of the book that made me cry – I sat through the entire film waiting for the ending… and it wasn’t right. Read the book. I cried just explaining to the girls how the story actually ended, so all was not lost with the film.) This book has been recommended by Stephen King – there is a list of such books which will keep me busy for a while, but you can’t ignore the ones he says are worth reading, can you?

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