Franzen’s ‘Purity’ Attempts to Squash Idealism – A Review by Sandra Tzvetkova


Jonathan Franzen’s 2015 book, Purity, argues that there is no purity– and by purity, he means idealism. Libertarian billionaires have it wrong, feminists have it wrong, and moderate – endearingly troubled, charmingly befuddled, but steadfastly moderate – men have it right. In a sprawling and captivating manner, Franzen reaches out to the ‘radicals’ who presumably want an equal gender playing field, transparency in journalism, or an alternative political system, and seems to suggest that they float down to reality on a pillow of only-slightly-suspicious money.

Idealism is woven into age, according to Franzen. The book is a 567 page take on the two-sentence adage, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” Purity, the namesake character of the book, is one of the youngest, and at first, most impressively believable protagonists. The over-influence of males in her life, possibly thanks to her glaringly missing father, brews in Purity a lack of confidence wrapped in snark and skepticism. But true to her name, which she hates but also represents, Purity tries to do good things that she really wants to do. She operates with some agency, speaking truth to power, and somehow carelessly waltzes around on the edge of poverty and rebuke. All of this is squashed when we find out (*vague spoiler ahead*) that she is in fact an instrument of revenge/communication/lust between two middle-aged men.

A strong message is leveled at the naïve youths who think they have impact or choice: you can try, but you’ll still end up stung by the forces of reality. Virtually every character in the book – even the marginal ones – carries a similar lesson. Most disappointing, however, is when the feminists of the book deliver the lesson. There are two self-declared ones, and they are both initially imbued with a certain sort of specialness. They’re attractive in physical terms – for one, it serves as her defining characteristic, for the other it’s a redeeming factor – and they viscerally or subtly attract everyone around them. But with time, they get to be annoying to their respective males. Either too radical (making her male pee sitting down!) or too plain and simple minded (disregarding her extraordinary male in exchange for the mundane problems of ordinary people). These women and their ideals, which the book doesn’t have time to elaborate on much, are too stubbornly pure to make any meaningful change in the world. Accordingly, one feminist shrinks back into the grainy landscape of the novel; and the other becomes a hermit. When they’re young, fiery idealism looks good on them, but with their advancing age, it’s less of a turn on.

Earlier in the year I was reading an article in the New Yorker, which bore a strikingly similar logic to Franzen’s. It stated:

“So purity, a highly useful principle to make use of while running for office, is all but useless to politicians who actually arrive there, and the voters least likely to see that are young ones. The belief in the possibility of true purity might be a delusion for most voters, but it’s a privilege of youth, the province of people for whom the thrill of theory hasn’t yet given way to the comparative disappointment of practice.”

The gist of it all seems to be that only young people can forgivably be idealists. That is because in the world, everyone will grind up against something disagreeable; and unless they are willing to compromise with it, there is no workable way forward. As the young idealists adapt to this, they become less pure and more pragmatic. They get on with it. But there is a major and perhaps purposeful blurring in this assertion. Under the loaded word “purity” lies everything and nothing in particular. Both The New Yorker and Franzen elaborately avoid discussing what values, exactly, are untenably puritanical. Is it the equality of men and women? Is it ending institutionalized corruption and racism? It’s hard to say. But with great certainty, they claim that if you pursue it too dogmatically, you are either young or foolish.

Franzen’s novel is amply entertaining and initially promises a lot. It kicks off like an alluring index finger coaxing the reader toward a nuanced understanding of a problematic world. See here this hint of rotten funding attached to an ostensibly good cause, see there that woman’s earnest struggle for true equality… There are plot twists – in different time periods, different parts of the world, different political and economic regimes – and they speed along in vehicles of risqué sexual machination. But as you read hungrily toward the middle, then – still hopeful – to the finale, you realize that the mass of flashy, tangled threads is little more than a colorful hairball coughed out of Franzen’s immense wish to be The Great American Novelist. The insidious ‘little more’ that it is, is a condescending condemnation of those who think the world can improve at a faster, less jaded pace.

I think it is condemnations like this one that buy the status quo that extra bit of time. And to be clear, the status quo has been (and still is) an organization of resources, power and rights decided primarily by older, white males. It would be at least as logical as the premise of Purity to take their wisdom with a grain of salt.


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