I read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity in one sitting: It came in the mail, I opened it up, and despite frequent breaks and every intention of doing something else with my time, I ended up finishing the novel before the next day broke.
This isn’t a ringing endorsement of Purity as a book. It is, I would say, an interesting mess. It has a huge plot in which everyone ends up connected to everyone else, but when the pieces come together, it’s not exciting—just over-determined. Franzen has continued his commitment to “transparent access” (i.e. uninteresting prose). The result is a certain predictability and a sentence-by-sentence flatness.
The Franzen news cycle has, by this point, come and gone, at least until Franzen himself gives another press interview and (inevitably) says something a little ill-considered (or at least easily misrepresented). But it reminded me of the cycle of coverage that surrounded another “big” novel this year—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There, too, the coverage ended up being linked to Ishiguro’s biography and to a remark he made in an interview about concerns that the book would be viewed as “fantasy.”
And, much like Purity, The Buried Giant was not a book that lent itself to an easy “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” It, too, was an interesting mess. It attempted a lot of things and failed at some of them. The best reviews were those that set aside the task of delivering some sort of definitive verdict to consider the novel as a complex whole. And this has been the case, too, with Purity. (For good reviews in the sense I mean, I would recommend Lydia Kiesling at the Millions and Elaine Blair at Harper’s, along with James Meek at the London Review of Books.)
An “interesting mess”–type book is a challenge for a reviewer because, as a category, it resists the somewhat more headline-friendly declaration that the novel is the “best yet,” the “worst yet,“ the “most challenging yet,” or the “most disappointing yet.” Or you can sidestep this kind of difficulty in order to talk about the author. Or you can simply make your declaration anyway. Continue reading
. . . . . . . .