The Long of It

It's always a pleasure to encounter a beautifully constructed novel, the embodiment of what a fine contemporary novel -- sprawling, with multiple subplots -- is considered to be. Jonathan Franzen's Purity is one of those, and the big American book that occupied me during lulls in the holiday action.

Grantham's Landing, late December
Franzen gets a complex plot going right off the bat, and peoples it with several characters I'm glad I will never meet in person. Two exceptions are the title character and the Jason we first encounter as he is waiting in Purity's bedroom while she runs downstairs for her purse, which contains a package of condoms. She doesn't return. Not for an hour or so, maybe longer, because she is waylaid by the German beauty who will be the focus of another plot line. When she does return, Jason is putting his jeans back on. But he hasn't been idle. He has texted a friend about his spontaneous and weird encounter and Purity sees the texts. That's it for Purity and Jason. But is he really gone? As Chekov famously said, "If you're going to put a rifle on the wall in the first act, it must definitely go off in the second." Franzen, however, keeps Jason out of the picture until much later in this multi-act drama.

Meantime he transports the reader to East Germany before the wall came down. The dirty dealings of the Stasi, the cold greyness you can feel. Then Bolivia, where a charismatic former East German is directing a wikileak-like organization. These places and periods allow him to comment on the times, directly, by comparing the paltriness of life in East Germany to the paltriness of a life whose worth is measured by "likes" and "hits." And indirectly, through dialogue and detail.  In the grand old tradition of serious American novelists, he teaches as he entertains with a complex story, unique characters, and wickedly vivid scenes.

Besides brilliance, an achievment like this takes time. No wonder Franzen rails against some aspects of the internet. E-bookworld lore includes the advice to publish often. A young woman writer I met in the fall felt the pressure of continuing to provide new content. To get her career going, her aim was to publish two books a year. That's a newer tradition, and time will test it. The girl admitted that while she respects literary fiction and is a graduate of an established creative writing program, she wants a career, ie, to make money, to be known, to be invited places.

Franzen enjoys all the benefits that young writer craves, but, in my mind, he didn't start with her goals. Instead, as Dostoyevsky thought writers should do, he engages in a dialogue with our times. He builds his fictional world meticulously and at a pace that allows full development, because, unlike in the sphere of emoticons, as he was quoted saying, ...β€œit takes 600 pages to convey emotion.”