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.