I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Franzen. In recent years, or perhaps always, he has become a writer that people either love or hate. Many of my friends are quite vocal on Twitter about his loud white-male opinions and his flawed writing of female characters. But despite his luddite ways and general cantankerous nature, I’m always sucked back in to his writing. I hesitated before picking up his latest novel, Purity, but then I suddenly found myself with a long flight ahead of me and an inevitable slog through jet-lag and it seemed like the perfect time to begin reading. Of course reading a 550-odd page hardcover is a ridiculous thing to think you’ll do on a twenty-four-hour journey across the globe, when in reality you’ll end up watching terrible movies and television, napping and spending hours just staring out the window as the plane flies over continents and endless timezones. But it was the perfect thing to read when trying to remember where you are, who you are, what time it is. Because love him or hate him, Franzen creates big, broad sweeping worlds from the confines of domestic drama.
Purity is the story of Purity Tyler (who goes by the name Pip), and her search to find out who she really is and where she really comes from. Her mother has changed her name and has kept Pip’s fathers’ identity hidden from her daughter since birth, but now that Pip is out of college and stuck in crippling debt from student-loans, now seems like as good a time as any to find out. From here, the story opens up to include an online information empire rivalling WikiLeaks, an online news masthead, a murder, and a string of characters all seeking to prove that they are the good guys: that they are more pure than those around them may believe. The story takes the reader across America, to a secret compound in Bolivia and to East Germany at the fall of the Berlin Wall, weaving together Pip’s backstory and that of her parents.
This may sound ambitious and it is. There’s a lot of ground covered but there’s also plenty of scope within the novel’s length. I was reminded reading Purity of Franzen’s ability to create great big American novels that feel immersive and sweeping in a way that few others are able to pull off. His tone remains loose and approachable with a strong sense of being self-aware, evidenced in several rather pointed yet always self-deprecating hat-tilts. As Tim Adams says in The Guardian, Franzen ‘consistently rejects the American dream of individuals as authors of their own destiny, however much his characters aspire to it’, and this is what makes his books such perfect snapshots of contemporary America. Just as Freedom spoke to George W Bush’s stifling and reactionary reign, Purity captures in many ways the failings of the Obama years — the continuance of the military-industrial complex and it’s frankly icky codependency with multinational corporations, which is playing out in every day America through preemptive surveillance and online intelligence, which is seemingly for security but has primarily become fodder for advertising revenue.
While many have spoken of Franzen’s inability to portray female characters sympathetically, I really loved the character of Pip. Her ability to call out the bullshit of the so-called more mature characters around her and her sense of purpose gave her a real truth that kept me engaged with the novel. At no point did I feel Pip was dumbed down or disrespected — she was given an emotional maturity that spoke perfectly to an educated, self-aware and independent twenty-three year-old woman. My main complaint with the novel is that she didn’t feature enough — around half-way to two-thirds of the way through I felt like too much time was dedicated to the supporting cast of the novel, I wanted to see more of Pip and to have her commentary to bring structure to the book.
I also felt that Franzen gave a really true account of the German elements of the story. As someone who has a strong connection with the country (and has previously published German-English translations) he refused to give in to the clunkiness of American, British and Australian authors writing about Cold-War Germany in particular — their desire for underground worlds, fumbling spies and communist corruption that modern-day Germany has so little connection to, and is so eager to distance itself from. Franzen avoids creating a far-fetched James Bond style spy drama and instead creates links to the Cold War that are relevant to Germany in the present day — the fear that the American and British coalition (particularly through the USA’s National Security Agency) are creating a spy network far greater and more invasive than anything ever seen during the Cold War, but even more importantly, are spying on their own citizens in ways that are far less transparent than either West or East Germany ever were. Seeing Jenny Erpenbeck (one of my absolute favourite German writers who’s books Visitation and The End of Days I’ve written about here previously) speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2015, a rather blunt and ill-mannered member of the audience asked her to speak about her experiences of living in Cold-War era East Berlin, to which Erpenbeck was keen to point this out. And it was easy to connect for me having flown to the UK from Germany where residents are treated with far more openness and respect by the government in terms of surveillance and privacy of information than the CCTV-laden streets of the UK — in 2013 there was one surveillance camera for every 11 people in Britain according to The Telegraph, up from one per 32 people in 2011, when the Evening Standard reported that ‘the average Briton is caught on camera 70 times a day’ — and this is of course without thinking of how much personal information global corporations like Google and Facebook hold on each of us.
I read this book in-between worlds in many ways. Back in Melbourne with Berlin still feeling very present to me through this book, on my Instagram feed and in my mind. With a part of me still coming to terms with the end of 2015 and the big personal decisions made while 2016 began to unfurl and those decisions becoming actions. In setting out to make a new life for myself in many ways, yet doing so by reconnecting with friends, family and places I’ve called home. So I was completely on board with Pip’s journey and that of her parents and the people around them as the story flitted between worlds and while Pip tried to make sense of what it meant to her identity and her future. And I think Franzen makes some really interesting points (despite the frivolousness of what he’s been quoted as saying about Twitter, for example, in interviews previously) about our lives online and the extent of government surveillance in the NSA age.
But I did also find myself thinking about how Pip would have been handled in the hands of Anne Tyler, a wonderful writer of family drama across generations. While Franzen excels at creating these big sweeping American dramas, I think he perhaps doesn’t always hit on the so-called domestic elements of his stories. When I think of the emotion and range of Anne Tyler’s characters in books like A Spool of Blue Thread and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (both of which I’ve written about here previously), she is able to capture the dualities of generations and the conflicted politics and beliefs facings families within a much more tightly structured form. Tyler is also far better at portraying foreboding matriarchal figures — Franzen’s Anabel Laird, Pip’s mother, is a messy character not fully formed or realised with the same integrity and care as Pip, and her backstory became quite far-fetched and given unnecessary attention in my mind. Purity is also the first time I’ve not felt quite so propelled within Franzen’s fiction as I was with The Corrections and Freedom. But while I understand those that criticise Franzen’s work, I also feel like they’re missing out on his ability to speak to broad issues of contemporary society in a way that is immersive whilst remaining approachable. He may rightly have his detractors, but Franzen will still be looked back on as one of the most important writers of our time.
I made these Breakfast Cookies on a day where I needed to feel more in control. I’d just spent the afternoon stressing about how I was going to get everything into my suitcase and under the weight allowance. I had spent the week or so leading up to that day making lists, organising paperwork, sorting through clothes and using my type-A Virgoan tendencies as a way to feel on top of everything. Then suddenly the only thing left on my list was to pack, and when I started to stack books and clothes into my bag, well, shit got real. So I emailed one of my best mates, and then I baked these cookies. They were a great way to use up some bits and pieces in the pantry, plus would be perfect snacks for an early morning flight to Amsterdam the next morning, and for my epic flight to Australia a few days later. I used butter instead of coconut oil because life is short. I meant to add a tablespoon of sultanas or cranberries and forgot, but I think they’d make a nice addition. I substituted buckwheat flour for the spelt and added an extra half-teaspoon of ground ginger. The cookies didn’t spread much at all, so they were still round scoops out of the oven, but that gave them a moist and chewy centre. I ate some on the way to the airport, I ate some in Amsterdam, I ate some on the flight back to Australia, and I ate the rest from my hotel room in Melbourne jet-lagged as hell. And I’d happily make them again — they’d be great for travelling but also for early mornings at work, or healthy afternoon snacks. From snowy Berlin to drizzly Amsterdam and back, and then to sun-lit Australian summer in a week of upheaval and change, these simple little cookies became a constant in my life and a chance to carry some little morsels of homeliness around with me, no matter where I was. It’s a recipe that reminded me that food can nourish the soul, and how important that becomes at times of stress and change.
Looking ahead to the big books of this year, I’m so far most excited about local Australian releases, including A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe, Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down, and later in the year the new novel by Burial Rites’ author Hannah Kent. Readings have put together a great outline of what’s coming out in the first six months of the year here.