Purity

Franzen took a long time and a lot of pages to get through only a few topics. A lot of this book, I found, boring and unnecessary. But, to his credit, he pulled things together in the last 150 pages, and made the pay off worth it.

Franzen had to plot heavily to keep the book moving, which was the right move, because his talents lie in his writing. However, the plot could scarcely hide the fact that his lack of talent as a social critic or social theorist comes across throughout this book. Throughout the different plot vehicles - yuppie and counter culture in San Francisco, a bungled nuclear bomb theft, a secret internet-enabled society run out of Bolivia, a newspaper exposing state and non-state secrets in Denver - Franzen tries to explore ideas around purity, secret, family, modern communication, modern sexual relations, but no major thesis can be found. Ultimately, there’s too much of Franzen in this book for it to be a smart political, feminist or social critique. The issues he’s chosen to talk about, especially in a modern context which he has chosen willfully to live outside of, are not discussed convincingly precisely because he knows little about them. I get it, he finds the internet distracting and unfriendly to deep exploration so he abstains from it. If that’s the case, then he shouldn’t pick it up as a topic of exploration. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say “I don’t like the internet and won’t have anything to do with it,” and also wax poetic about its effects on society when you know so little.

All that being said, there was one aspect of the main topic - purity - I found interesting. The idea of moral absolutism. Extremism is very much part of our modern world, but we only really see it discussed in the context of religion and that too largely non-Western religions. But Franzen explored purity or the extreme seeking of moral high ground in family, with secrets, with asymmetric information, with nations and in friendships. These explorations were fraught with rich ideas and worthy of both the author’s writing talent and the reader’s intrigue.