So I finished the 563 pages that was Jonathan Franzen‘s latest tome Purity, and my mind is not changed about him. I still think he’s the definition of a literary snob, but he’s also a fantastic writer. Sigh, I hate being so conflicted about books; if I really like the book, I really want to like the writer, but for some reason I just can’t do that with Franzen.

It’s not even really fair, this assumption of mine that Franzen is a jerk, I probably overheard some rumors about it when I worked in publishing, and I know there’s a few articles out there about it, but I don’t think this opinion can be considered fact. However, I can confidently state that he’s a bit of a chauvinist, because I’ve read both Freedom and Purity, adding up to about 1000 pages of writing, and he has never once portrayed an independent woman undefined by her male counterparts. I can’t remember Freedom that clearly because it was a few years ago that I read it, but Purity solidified the fact for me that Franzen doesn’t really give much thought to women, or if he does, it’s always in relation to men, and how they act around men. However, he’s a man himself, so I can’t really fault him that much for this. Moving on…

I love this picture of Franzen because it makes him look like an asshole
I love this picture of Franzen because it makes him look like an asshole

I love his writing despite this issue. I always sigh inwardly when I begin reading him, because the type is so damn small, and there are so many pages that I know it’s going to take me forever to slog through it, but after just a few paragraphs, I’m already engrossed in the book. Not engrossed in a page-turning thriller kind of way, but intellectually engrossed. What he has to say interests me, and I believe he’s writing to a specific audience (mainly, middle-class, post-secondary educated people). Again, one could point out this is a flaw in his writing, but I don’t think that’s fair. Franzen himself is upper-middle class and highly educated, so you can’t really blame him for writing to people that he knows.Β Am I making excuses for him? Maybe. He’s like that overly-attractive bad boy that women love to hate, but hate to leave. I wish I found his books tedious, but I don’t.

As a feminist, Smokey refuses to even look at Franzen's writing, due to his one-dimensional portrayal of women
As a feminist, Smokey refuses to even look at Franzen’s writing due to his one-dimensional portrayal of women

The plot of Purity is complicated, but it centers around a young woman named Purity (what a shocker!), who takes a job with a secret-busting internet organization called “The Sunshine Project”, which dedicates itself to unleashing the dirty secrets of corporations and governments to the public in order to make a better world for everyone. But Purity had a unique childhood (with a name like that, that fact is quite obvious), growing up in an isolated cabin with her overly protective mother and never knowing her father. When she takes a job at this famous but covert Sunshine Project, she meets its enigmatic, famous and very attractive male leader Andreas Wolf, who has an ugly past he surprisingly reveals to her shortly after they meet. And the secrets of her life start to unravel shortly afterwards.

The novel continues into lots of little tangents, giving in-depth explanations of people’s backgrounds as they come in and out of the story. This can be frustrating at times, but also highly entertaining, and I think it’s Franzen’s way of giving us context for everyone’s actions. It’s quite brilliant, I promise. So you have to set aside a week or two for this book, and I recommend reading it in complete silence because it requires quite a bit of concentration, but it’s totally worth it.

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