For an author who writes a lot about psychological baggage, Jonathan Franzen's books certainly come with some. As the details trickled out earlier this year about his newest, Purity, so too did the mutterings. Would he ever again write anything as good as The Corrections? Could he shake off the sporadic accusations of misogyny? Would his anointment, by Time magazine in 2010, as a "great American novelist" be cemented or subverted? So, it's hard to sit down with Purity with a critical eye that possesses anything close to the quality of the book's title. But let's start with the facts.
Purity is the name of one of four characters around whose close third-person accounts (with one foray into the first person) the novel is structured. Known as Pip, she is a pretty, magnetic, angry young woman from Oakland, struggling to find her role in the world and furious with her flaky, fragile mother for not telling her who her father is. A chance encounter pulls her into the orbit of Andreas Wolf, a creepy Julian Assange-esque German superstar, who finds Pip's disinterest refreshing and sexy. The other sections are led by a middle-aged investigative reporter and his girlfriend, who champions Pip as a protégée and whose own relationship with her is more complex than any of them thinks.
Franzen centred his best-selling books, The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010), on the epic unravelling of dysfunctional families. In Purity he goes further, presenting drifting fragments of families and a pattern of stand-in mother and father figures with shades of the Oedipal and the Electral. (Perhaps Franzen felt it thematically necessary, or wanted to set himself a particularly difficult descriptive challenge, but there's a lot of sex in Purity.)
The inspiration, or perhaps leitmotif, is Great Expectations, and there are spiritual orphans, ill-gotten fortunes, decaying old ladies and even an encounter with a mysterious convict. More importantly, it embraces a Dickensian sense of plot intrigue and pace, with more twists and revelations than his previous works. He also makes a stab at creating, in Pip, a female character who is attractive and damaged, yes, but also empathetic and engaging – though it helps that she's juxtaposed with the chilly Andreas.
Franzen is celebrated, and sometimes sneered at, for his ability to combine highfalutin ideas with engaging, accessible storytelling, and with the plotiness of Purity it seems he's focusing on the latter. But he is still bold enough to compare the cleansing idealism of the internet age to the totalitarian activities of the Stasi; and he can write a description like this one of Pip's mother's hands: "It was as if the bones and veins were working their way to the surface; as if the skin were water receding to expose shapes at the bottom of a harbour."
Is it as good as The Corrections? Probably not, though it depends how much you like a storyline reveal over a lengthy discussion of middle-class ennui. Will some reviewers hate it, and still see his female characterisations as an outrage? You can bet his bottom dollar. But it'll still be more smart, challenging and ambitious than anything else on the stand at WH Smith. As far as Franzen's sizeable, dedicated and deserved readership goes, we see no shadow of a parting.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen is out on 1 September