“Purity” Review: Franzen’s Freudian Slip?


I like Jonathan Franzen. (Is this an #unpopularopinion? According to this Gawker review, yes!) His giant books give me an experience similar to binge watching a T.V. show. They’re long, they’re character driven, and they absorb a lot of your attention for three weeks.

I remember stealing my sister’s heavy hardcover copy of The Corrections in high school and lugging the thing around for weeks. Same with Freedom a few years later, although I could have done with less stuff about birds. (Related: If you enjoyed the bird-related parts of Freedom, definitely read his female bestie Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper.)

I bought Franzen’s new novel Purity expecting another good experience, although I had a vague sense from the Internet that it was somehow anti-feminist. (I don’t read reviews of books before I read them, so I didn’t know much about this issue.) This time I opted for an audiobook over a 6-pound tome.

I knew from his recent interview with Terri Gross (ok I had some spoilers) that Purity is, in part, Franzen’s attempt to explore his relationship with his mother. He had said something during that interview about how his mom was weird but not abusive, and hinted at a sort of physical-but-not-sexual-per-se element to their relationship. This was weird, so I was also reading to get a clearer understanding of this.

Purity is indeed about people having odd relationships with their parents. The first protag, Pip Tyler (insert obligatory Great Expectations pun here), doesn’t know who her dad is, although she’s close with her hypochondriac mother. Our second protag, Andreas Wolf, is a Julian Assange-type who is less visually creepy but possibly even more depraved, seemingly due to his nymphomaniac mother who showed him her naughty bits. Wolf has constant stiffies for everything — for friends, for ladies and for murder (!).

It’s clear from the depiction of Pip and Andreas that Franzen turned to Freud for to help crack the code of weird feelings about his mother. Both Pip and Andreas repeatedly seek out sexual partners to fill the gaps their parents left in their lives. Pip, as another character points out, seems to have a thing for daddy types. Her attempt to sleep with her much older roommate Stephen would seem to indicate this, as would her brief quasi-affair with Andreas. Andreas, scarred from his mother’s rotating cast of men creeping into her bed, is obsessed with the vagina, and enjoys cunnilingus-ing with every one he can find. At one point, he has an affair with the actress playing the mother in his own biopic.

In other words, the characters in Purity want to f@#$ their parents … in the Freudian sense. It’s such a tangible weirdness in the book that at one point it’s pointed out that Pip’s attraction to her mother’s body is “non-sexual.” As if we would assume it was sexual? Here, we just might I guess.

These allusions to Freud feel very blunt and stereotypical, as if Franzen opted for the pop psychology CliffsNotes over reading Freud himself. He alludes to almost all the most sensational takeaways from Freud. At one point, a character reveals her “penis envy” when she makes her husband sit down to pee. (Terri Gross, in her special bad-ass yet gentle way, gave Franzen shit for that passage, asking him if he thinks women actually think that way.) A true reading of Freud would provide more insight than just “deep down you’re attracted to your own mother.”

I didn’t find the book particularly anti-feminist until we get to see the world from the perspective of protag #4, Tom. We are first introduced to Tom through his girlfriend Leila, protag #3. From Leila’s vantage point, he seems like a pretty standup dude. He’s an investigative journalist, smart and mellow, a good boyfriend. But when we are in Tom’s head learning about his previous wife, things get a little uncomfortable.  This wife is a caricature of a radical feminist, to the point where she keeps track of how many orgasms both she and Tom have in a month to make sure it’s even. Tom’s scorn for her is rivaled only by his pity for himself, for giving in and giving away his very manhood in the process of loving her.

I get it that characters in books are not Political Statements. They’re depictions of what people are actually like rather than what the author actually believes. They’re deliberately provocative and we can’t take them too literally. BUT of all the characters to portray, why create one that is a caricature of feminism? I give Franzen credit for spending a lot of energy creating richly-detailed female characters and giving them inner lives that often feel incredibly relatable to me, as a woman. But why create a caricature of feminism in a time when people still don’t understand what it is and why it’s needed?

Another dimension of discomfort is added to this with Tom’s scorn for women, especially since he’s initially introduced as a mostly likable character.

Now that I’ve covered all the topics, is it a good book? Did I enjoy reading it? I think that Purity is a Franzen-esque book, and if you liked his other work you’ll probably like this too. It delivers the same amount of character development as you expect from him, but with a bit more of a suspenseful, masterful plot than his other work delivered. Disagreeable moments were never so offensive to me that I considered abandoning the book, as I did with The Martian after its first female character continually cried and peppered her sentences with “um.” I give Purity three purity rings out of five.

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