The Internet meant death: Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Fourth Estate, London (2015). Hardback, 563 pp.

Jonathan Franzen Purity cover Near the end of this novel one of the main characters, Pip:

…was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? ( p.539)

 [Her mentor and possible love interest Andreas is becoming increasing paranoid about his past’s secrets coming out, so takes to researching his own history online] He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self…Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable and readable way that data did…The Internet meant death

The aim of the Internet and its associated technologies was to “liberate” humanity from the tasks – making things, learning things, remembering things – that had previously given meaning to life and thus had constituted life. Now it seemed as if the only task that meant anything was search-engine optimization.

Dystopian novels have always tended to be more or less veiled critiques of the abuse of power by those in authority, and of the need to halt their dangerous manipulation of the people over whom they wielded that power, usually by controlling the way they thought about the society they lived in, using, among other methods, the media of mass communication.

Early in the 21C a new theme emerged in this type of fiction to reflect the rise of technology and the ever-increasingly intrusive role of the internet and social media. In 2013 Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, later made into a rather poor film, highlighted the corrosive effects on society of the ubiquity of self-presentation online, especially in social media, resulting in the end of ‘reality’, privacy and secrecy.

In popular culture the TV series by Charlie Brooker and others, ‘Black Mirror’, first screened on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011-14, then by Netflix 2016-19, worked on similar themes. Its title refers to the screens of high-tech devices like smartphones, and the storylines involved dystopian depictions of incursions by corporations and governments on data privacy, increasing surveillance, VR, and so on. These sinister developments for the purposes of corporations gaining greater power and profits resulted in the alienation of the mass users of the tech. The cynical use of people’s desire to use tech to achieve happier, more successful and fulfilling lives was a means of  furthering these organisations’ own nefarious schemes.

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity has a complicated plot based on the attempts of young American Purity Tyler, known as Pip, to find a niche in the world, pay off her student debt, and find the identity of her father, whom she never knew, and about whom her eccentric, tech-averse and antisocial mother – who dotes on her only child – refuses to divulge any information.

Pip’s quest, like her namesake’s in Great Expectations, leads her into making many poor judgements about people’s intentions and integrity. The plot takes us into the grubby, state-controlled world of East Berlin before and shortly after the fall of the Wall, as we follow the career of Andreas Wolf from anti-communist youth worker, with a taste for bedding the troubled young girls he’s supposed to be helping, to an internationally famous and charismatic online whistle-blower and exposer of secrets – a sort of Robin Hood version of Julian Assange.

Pip gets drawn into devious schemes to spy on people she becomes fond of, and whose existence she begins to realise have an important role in her own murky history. Her gradual uncovering of the complex web of secrets and lies that have obscured her origins make for an engrossing read.

On the other hand there’s a void at the heart of this novel. The targets of Franzen’s criticism, seen in those quotations from the novel at the top of this post, are just too cartoonishly portrayed. Yes, this is a wicked world, and we place far too much trust in those who control social media and the internet’s capabilities for not always humanitarian ends. But I’m not sure this critique, wrapped up in an unwieldy and over-long plot with a large cast of not always well differentiated or sympathetic characters, merits nearly 600 pages of prose.

Franzen writes well, and I don’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this novel. Its shifting viewpoints and long view of history and culture are handled skilfully, and there’s an assured poise in the use of language (despite a really dud musical metaphor about the ‘rock-and-roll’ effect of sunshine on a bay area fog).

Franzen is at his best when writing about families, their relationships and sex lives, and the intricate ways in which people attract, desire and repel each other. The dystopian IT chicanery seems comparatively contrived. There’s a good dog, but he doesn’t appear until near the end.





10 thoughts on “The Internet meant death: Jonathan Franzen, Purity

  1. Oh, Simon — what a trip down memory lane! Although I was a big fan at one point, I haven’t read Franzen for years. My views on his fiction run the gamut: I loved it (The Corrections, a true classic of the dysfunctional family); I tolerated it (Freedom, a bit of a slog; the Cerulean Warbler Trust pulled me through); I only liked bits of it and disliked the rest (Strong Motion, an early one); I liked it quite a lot (Purity).
    In all honesty I must admit that I don’t remember much otherwise about Purity except that it was very, very long. Because, as you point out, it was a good read, I didn’t mind the length. Besides, Franzen’s a bit of a “I’ve got my finger on the zeitgeist” kind of writer; his novels tend to include everything, which doesn’t make for brevity! He’s fluent in German and admires German literature; I wonder if in his fiction he’s not doing his own version of one of those sprawling, 19th century realistic novels? Although Franzen’s fiction is clearly a mixed bag for me, I have every intention of checking out his new novel (Crossroads, first volume in a trilogy, A Key to All Mythologies. Shades of Rev. Casaubon! How could I resist?) when it comes out this fall.
    Have you read any of Franzen’s essays? He’s really good in that format, which displays to the fullest his intellect, strong opinions and frequently irritating views (although he extolled Edith Wharton’s work, for example, I think he also commented on her “not pretty” physical appearance. You can imagine the reaction that elicited! And, of course, there’s that famous feud with Oprah, to mention only a couple of things). Despite mixed feelings on some of his views, I really honor Franzen for his environmental activism, although his views on the subject are really depressing (

    • My experience of JF was similar to yours – The Corrections still the best of those I’ve read. He does like to expand, doesn’t he? I think you’re right about this 19C tendency. I’d read about this new trilogy of his – sounds interesting, despite the Casaubon reference. No, I’ve not read his essays – you don’t paint a very inviting picture! Thanks for the link: I’ll take a look.

      • I hope I haven’t done poor JF a disservice, in his role as writer of essays. He’s really brilliant at it, although he is not a particularly cheerful guy, especially on the topic of climate change (since I happen to agree with him there, I give him a pass on this, at least). On the othere hand, he’s very witty, can be very funny and does write really, really well. As you’ve noted, JF has a lot to say, opinion-wise, which some might think makes the essay, rather than the novel, the perfect form for him as a writer.
        Thanks for the great review, BTW. It’s really brought JF to mind, so I’m going to rush right out and see if he’s done a more recent essay collection than “How To Be Alone,” the last collection I read in its entirety, which is sure to be a bit dated by now. The New Yorker pieces I most clearly remember are the one I linked to, as well as a piece about birds (JF is an avid bird-watcher and, I think, has been on the boards of some conservation organizations).

  2. I liked The Corrections, too, and couldn’t manage Freedom, though Mr Liz got through that one, mainly because of the warblers, too! But I’ve given up on him now, I think. (Franzen, not Mr Liz!).

  3. Interesting post, Simon. I confess I’ve never read Franzen and I don’t know if he would be my kind of author. I wonder if that hollowness you sense would bother me – and certainly if I decided to read him, I don’t think I would start with this one…

  4. Unlike others, I loved Freedom and couldn’t wait to read another Franzen so I excitedly bought a copy of The Corrections and actually just wanted to get it out of the house I hated it and the characters so much. It seems such a joyless world and this seems the same ?

    • Jane: ‘joyless’ is an apt word. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it expresses what caused my reservations about Purity. There’s a sort of ‘so what’ in my response. Yes, internet security and intrusiveness is a huge problem, but the characters seemed to have been manufactured as a vehicle for the critique. Young woman wants to find the identity of the father she never knew, hooks up with a cyber genius who searches out secrets online – bingo. Oh, and he has dodgy secrets, too.

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