PURITY, by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 563 pp., $28.
Reading the first third of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Purity," is a little like standing by while German engineers painstakingly fabricate a handcrafted sport sedan for you. You're excited and you keep hoping this is going to be great, but you're a little worried the big investment won't be worthwhile.
Then you get to drive it.
On the open road at last in Franzen's new vehicle, the payoff is immense. At his best, Franzen -- author of four previous novels, including "The Corrections" and "Freedom" -- is funny, profound and uncannily good at capturing the zeitgeist through the stories of his powerfully realized characters. The result in this case is a compulsively readable morality tale on the ways ego and ethics are entwined, the tragic pitfalls of moral vanity and the inadequacy of love.
"Purity" is the story of Pip Tyler, a wisecracking postgraduate debt slave who works in telemarketing and squats with her colorful roommates in a house facing foreclosure in Oakland, California. Pip's hunt for her origins makes her easy prey for a charismatic East German named Andreas Wolf, who's established The Sunlight Project (in an Edenic glade in Bolivia) to torment corporations and governments by publishing their secrets on the Internet. The predatory Wolf proclaims truth an all-purpose disinfectant yet desperately guards a secret of his own, and his organization is a dystopian patriarchy with all the rivalries and status-seeking of a Long Island high school.
Pip is saddled with $130,000 in student loans and a mom, Penelope, who is an adorable monster of neurotic self-regard. Working in a grocery store, she hasn't any money, and won't tell Pip anything about the father who might be able to help repay her debt.
Pip's sojourn in Bolivia and Franzen's description of some investigative journalism are both delightful, but perhaps best of all is the section on Pip's mother as a young woman ("I don't want to be the person who waits," she says to her future Odysseus, Pip's father). The scathing comedy of this section is underlaid with poignance because we already know what an eccentric old fool this gorgeous and brilliant woman will become, her life laid waste by her penchant for childish moral absolutism.
It's impossible to say much more about the plot without spoiling the pleasure of this deeply pleasurable book. Suffice it to say that many of the author's characteristic concerns play out here, including the difficulty of sustaining love and the likelihood that crafting our lives in reaction to those of our parents will backfire. Now that we've been liberated from the constraints our elders lived by, Franzen likes to remind us, we're prey to a whole new class of suffering -- the suffering we bring on ourselves. We're whipsawed by the demented tag team of love and boredom, and left to the mercy of our appetites. Even moderation is a pitfall. One character calls it "just another thing to feel insecure about," adding that "the interesting people are always immoderate."
By now any new Franzen book arrives buoyed -- or perhaps freighted -- by great expectations. Maybe that's why he imbued "Purity" with "Great Expectations." As in the novel by Dickens, the new Franzen has orphans, a big inheritance and of course a protagonist named Pip (her real name is Purity, a moniker she loathes).
Franzen also no doubt remembers that there's a Pip in "Moby Dick," who, like Purity, finds himself at sea before becoming close to the charismatic leader of a quixotic enterprise. "Hamlet," quoted frequently, is the book's other lodestar; Pip's dad is a sort of ghost for most of the book, and Andreas' even appears as such. There's also a lot of Gertrude and Ophelia in the women. Freud himself would have a hard time sorting out the various ways parenthood and sexuality intersect in this book.
Franzen confidently drags us around the world and across the decades as well as deep into the human heart, leavening murder and betrayal with a kind of loving sarcasm. Of Penelope as a young woman, her former husband says, "she had as much body fat as a Shaker chair." Franzen also conjures a has-been novelist, anesthetized by drink. Asked by his frustrated wife if he's ever left a thought unspoken, he answers: "I'm a writer, baby. Voicing thought is what I'm poorly paid and uncharitably reviewed for."
Franzen, of course, has no such troubles, at least for now. "Purity," by offering such unadulterated pleasure, is unlikely to bring them on.