Purity, by Jonathan Franzen, is a story about power – within relationships and across nations – and the psychological damage it can cause to the powerful and the overpowered. Several of the key characters appear to be mentally unbalanced, forever seeking validation through emotional blackmail. What they think of as love is possession and control.
The story, which spans more than half a century, is told from the perspectives of each of these characters in turn. As with memory, the details vary depending on who is recalling events and where they currently are in their lives. What is common to each thread is the visceral honesty which can be disturbing and distasteful to read. The animal instincts and selfishness are presented unadorned.
The reader is first introduced to Purity Tyler who considers her name an embarrassment so calls herself Pip. She is working in telesales and living in a squat having amassed a huge debt getting through college. She is a good daughter, regularly phoning her needy mother, but has many neuroses including a lack of impulse control. She wishes to find out who her father is, a subject that her single mother has always refused to discuss.
A German visitor to the squat, Annagret, invites Purity to join a collective in Bolivia run by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. His Sunlight Project is presented as something akin to Wikileaks, shining light into the corners of the internet which the powerful prefer to keep hidden. Andreas grew up in East Germany, the child of prominent government employees. It soon becomes clear that he himself has plenty he wishes to hide.
When the Berlin Wall comes down Andreas meets Tom Aberant, an American journalist who is, at that time, facing the end of his ten year marriage to the mentally deranged Anabel. Andreas wishes to pursue a beautiful young girl whom he has come to know through his work as a counsellor at a church where he has been living. He asks Tom to help him, regarding him as a friend despite having only just met. The secrets he confides and the actions they take will haunt Andreas for the rest of his life.
The background to and inter-relationships between these characters are explored in excoriating detail. There is a great deal of masturbation and sex, there is cunilingus, porn and abuse. All of this is recounted alongside, and perhaps as a reaction to, the mental gymnastics that the parents and partners play as they attempt to bend those they claim to love to their will.
I found elements of the story difficult to read but consider it well written. The author gets under his reader’s skin with memorable characters and challenging situations. Do we blame upbringing or mental illness for a character’s flaws? Is it mental illness or an honest representation of base thoughts to which many are prone?
The search for purity is a recurring theme as well as a play on the protagonists name. Beauty and purity are mistakenly conflated, guilt excised by distance from the harmed. That each of the characters made mistakes in their treatment of others is undeniable. The exploration of the extenuating circumstances of those failures, the deliberation over how typical these experiences may be, are what give this tale its strength.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fourth Estate.