A new Jonathan Franzen novel arrives only every five or 10 years, and when it does it feels like a banquet. His books are almost always centered on familial entanglements and identity, but they’re never just that: There are brilliant stand-alone chapters to devour, detours to savor, bitter little scraps to nibble and spit out. His latest is no exception: The title nominally belongs to Purity “Pip” Tyler, a 23-year-old adrift in postcollege malaise, shacked up in an anarchist squat in Oakland and bringing home a paycheck that can’t begin to chip away at her student loans. But when a beautiful German woman—one of many freelance radicals drawn into the squat’s mutinous orbit—recruits her to intern for a Julian Assange-like figure named Andreas Wolf in Bolivia, Pip sees an opportunity to escape her grim finances and neurotically needy mother. And Franzen has his springboard to widen the story’s scope, tracing Andreas from his wayward youth in Stasi-era Berlin through his rise as the cult-hero head of the Sunlight Project (“It’s about honesty, truth, transparency, freedom”) and unraveling the parallel mystery of Pip’s parentage.
As the narrative weaves across six decades and three continents, some threads inevitably become more compelling than others. The book is at its heady best when it takes on two of Franzen’s favorite subjects: the strange compromises of modern life and the more timeless mysteries of human behavior. But it can be exhausting, too, in part because—not to beat a dead literary mare—of his often shockingly ugly take on women. To be fair, his so-called Female Problem may be more a function of general misanthropy than misogyny; each unhappy novelist is unhappy in their own way, and Purity’s male characters hardly come out unscathed. Still, he seems to see shrews and toxic vixens everywhere, and the book’s comparatively gentle treatment of Pip begins to feel less like kindness than mere disinterest in her inner world.
Maybe Franzen did grow tired of his creation; the book ends suddenly, somewhere between a bang and a whimper. It’s as if after more than 560 enraging, engaging pages he’s pushed his chair away from the table, finally full—whether or not his reader feels the same. B
THE OPENING LINES “ ‘Oh pussycat, I’m so glad to hear your voice,’ the girl’s mother said on the phone. ‘My body is betraying me again.’ ”