With sincere, accessible prose, Jonathan Franzen’s writing can grip avid bookies and casual readers alike. His characters are never quite the highly predictable tropes of American fiction, and yet readers everywhere find themselves relating to the living plot points in Franzen’s novels. It is because they are the complex, vulnerable, defensive, lost people we encounter throughout our lives; and sometimes they are who we become. In his past fictional works, Freedom, The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, and Strong Mountain, Franzen tends to tackle the themes of sexual exploration, disillusionment of the American dream, the struggle to be a good person, and parental roles. Alongside personal dilemmas, he is never afraid to voice his opinions about current political issues, and his knowledge regarding these topics is delivered in an impressive, stern manner through internal narration and dialogue.
Franzen has also published a memoir, The Discomfort Zone, and two essay collections: How to Be Alone and Farther Away. Reading his writing is not for simple poolside pleasure; every sentence is crafted with the utmost consideration for the plot, context, characters, and what will drive the story forward without rushing. His diction is never lofty, and while he makes sure the reader comprehends the action, he masterfully hides symbols and ideas for the reader to discover. Spectacular dialogue is intermingled with beautiful lines such as ‘gray winter seemed to Walter the northern forest’s true native state. Summer merely an accident of grace that annually befell it.’ (Freedom 292) His novels are large, but not too dense; the reader is constantly entertained.
His most recent novel, Freedom (2010), is an especially poignant look at the cycles we can become prisoners of in our quest for liberation. While one character is trapped in a relationship he settled for in his early teens, another is trapped in the hay day of his rock and roll youth. The two protagonists, Walter and Patty, find themselves tossed about the currents of modern-day marriage from its bitter declines, ephemeral affairs, times apart, and beautiful moments of reconciliation. If there were one unifying theme in this book, it would be how everyone uses their free will. The highs last as long as the lows; the reader experiences the glee of every character’s youth and the literal cold kiss of death after Walter’s lover dies in a car crash, which Franzen describes in heart-wrenching detail. The structure itself immerses readers in this family’s story, as the body of the text is Patty’s memoir, and a narrator recounts the final third of the novel.
Now, two years in the making, Purity seems to be a slight departure from the realism that has pervaded Franzen’s work thus far, and may incorporate some fantastical elements into its already intricate narrative. Instead of focusing on one epoch in contemporary American society, this story will span multiple generations as Pip, the young protagonist, searches to find her true identity. Pip is completely lost in the world with no stable ties to friends or family, and so she travels to work in South America to escape her confusion and, hopefully, remedy it.
However, this novel promises to maintain Franzen’s classic cast of characters fraught with satirical contradictions and flaws, as well as several plotlines that eventually collide in one way or another. He has mentioned that the plot will be faster than its predecessors. Structurally, this novel will still be divided into multiple parts with several lengthy chapters. There is a heightened focus on youthful idealism in different scenarios. Yet the hunt this time is for the eponymous purity, which Pip and every other character she encounters is affected by. Look for Purity on the shelves from September 1 onwards, and be prepared for another outstanding read from Jonathan Franzen.
By Michaela Brady