Purity

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Purity is probably the word of the day, or the summer, or the year. Panera promises us food that is clean and pure. (I keep picturing a raccoon at a stream washing its food.) I recently read Jonathan Franzen’s book Purity (you can see my review on Goodreads). Bernie Sanders is idolized for his political purity. Conservatives have been testing candidates for purity for ages. In fact Conservatives punish Republicans who don’t toe the Conservative line closely enough by putting up opponents against them in primaries and funding these bought candidates with millionaires’ money, thereby stripping the impure ones of power. It is sort of like being cashiered from the French Foreign Legion and having those buttons cut from your uniform with a sword. Eric Cantor knows all about this.

But Jonathan Franzen and I both have doubts about claims of purity by anyone, given our flawed natures. Our philosophical selves tell us that purity is something that is an ideal worth striving for as long as we realize that it is a goal that probably can only be attained in small matters for limited amounts of time. You may argue that Panera really is removing artificial (manmade) ingredients from its dishes. You may argue that they are trying to choose only the healthiest items from the most organic and natural sources for their offerings and I do not doubt that they giving diners some really trendy choices that attempt to taste good without resorting to the usual American options that are deep fried and generously salted or sugared. Does their ad make me want to eat at Panera? I’m sorry to say it does not but it may be motivating others. Cynically it may just be an advertising ploy to point out the recent difficulties that Chipotle has experienced and to try to tempt their customers to come eat at a place that has not had these kinds of problems.

I recall when my good friend had a young daughter that she wanted to protect from a germy world. We could never be sanitary enough to satisfy her in her campaign to rid her daughter’s world of all bacteria (except the ones in yogurt). We called her The Germinator. She grew up in a country family with 10 children. I’m sure that her family was just like my family with 8 children. My mom never knew that we made mud pies we actually tried to eat. We examined every bug we could find up close and personally. We played for hours on end in the sand pile which could well have been used as a toilet by any number of animals. We waded in ponds full of algae to catch tadpoles. Our exposure to germs actually may have made us healthier. It seems that purity is not always advantageous.

People learn to be compassionate and aware of the shortcomings and the needs of the other people around them by living lives that entail both good times and bad times, both easy times and hard times. Panera cannot protect us from all the impurities that might be in food in these times of corporate crops and too many people and food that travels from distant places and is grown in ways that cannot be completely controlled. Purity seems a bit too “precious” a thing to worry about; a thing that only a society that is a too affluent and too comfortable has time to think about. There are children who survive every day by picking through rubbish on dumps.

I am not saying that we should not applaud people who strive for purity, but I am saying we should be skeptical of people who claim to have captured that elusive thing called purity. I do not believe those Bernie Bros and millennials who worship the purity of Bernie Sanders. Bernie has too much compassion for the less fortunate to have lived a life without painful decisions and hard times. That he is basically a good guy, I believe. That he is pure, I do not. This is the kind of argument that makes Bernie’s followers sound like they are in danger of becoming a cult. Bernie cannot give us a “pure” America. If he did it would not be a society that lived and evolved. It would have to be static. I think I would be as adverse to a “clean and pure” America as I am to that ad that keeps saying how “clean and pure” the food is at Panera’s. Sorry Panera. Sorry Bernie Bros. My apologies millennials.

 

Purity by Jonathan Franzen – Book

Much has been said about purity in recent years. Food is one
area where claims to purity add retail value for those who feel that eating
healthy is actually now a cultural responsibility. Purity in relation to our energy
sources – that they need to be carbon neutral and simple mechanisms that tame
natural forces for our use (like heat from the sun and wind from earth’s air
currents) – is another way the idea of purity has become an obsession for
those who can choose. One test mentioned often in Republican circles is the
test to determine how closely Conservative politicians adhere to right wing
orthodoxy, or, in other words, a test of purity.
All these ideas of purity and more sit behind this story. And
lots of impurity sits behind this story also. Purity is the birth name of the
main character who leads us into the events Franzen creates for us. What some
may find difficult about this offering is the way Franzen jumps to seemingly
unrelated characters and then shows us the connection when he’s ready. However
it all comes together in the end and I am guessing that the story structure is
very deliberate.
Purity lives in a derelict house with Dreyfuss who is one loan modification away from losing his only possession. Three other people
share the space with Purity and Dreyfuss; Stephen, Marie and Ramon. Purity is a
telemarketer whose main goals in life are to get out from under her student
loans and to have a relationship with Stephen which she cannot have because he
is married to Marie. A strange German visitor, Annagret, offers Purity – known
as Pip right now – an internship with a group called The Sunlight Project,
which has far more humane goals than Pip’s current employer. The Sunlight
Project is headed by a man named Andreas Wolf who is considered a cult hero.
Annagret has Pip complete a weird interview and tells her she is qualified for
the internship.
We jump to the story of Andreas Wolf, the legendary project
leader of this WikiLeaks- style operation designed to expose world actors whose
motives are less than pure. Wolf grew up in East Berlin in the years before the
Berlin Wall came down. Does this tough beginning justify some of the traits we
find in Andreas Wolf? You must decide.
Pip (Purity) spends lots of time talking to her agoraphobic
mom, Anabel, who has every other possible phobia also, but who obviously loves
her daughter, although we wonder who takes care of whom in this relationship. Would Anabel
have had any kind of life if she did not have Pip? Purity has never been
allowed to know who her father is and in fact Anabel says he abused her and
that he is dangerous. Pip still wants to find her father. We eventually hear
about the romance between Pip’s mom and a man named Tom Aberant (emphasis on
the Ab), a relationship which was good for a while and then devolved into spite,
anger, and revenge.
There is also a connection between Tom Aberant and Andreas
Wolf which I will not explain because it is at the heart of this novel and
because it might spoil the book for you.
Franzen wants, perhaps, to prepare us for how very difficult
it is for flawed humans to attain anything approaching purity unless it is a
name you give your child – a name that she is not even allowed to use. It is a
pretty good microcosm of the way the developed world rolls in these early
decades of the 21st century. 
Jonathan Franzen is a great storyteller. He’s the kind of
writer with enough craft that we forget to even be bothered by the words on the
page because there are no flaws to distract us. The story is in the foreground,
the writing underlies it, but we don’t notice it. Character development is more
problematic in Purity because at times Franzen almost seems to be writing
separate short stories. We are yanked out of one set of characters and settings
into new characters and settings with little transition. But eventually Franzen
ties his new characters back to the old characters and voila, the plot thickens
and unfolds almost like a mystery story which we solve with the author’s help.
Another difficulty some may find with this story is that the
message does not seem unique or profound enough to justify the length and
complexity of the story or even to turn this into a truly great novel. On the
other hand, it is a good social commentary and it is more substantial than some of the popular novels that are its
contemporaries. Perhaps time will change my take on this. Some novels require a
lengthier digestive period than others. I still recommend Purity by Jonathan Franzen because, although not perfect in my
estimation, it is still a good read.
By Nancy Brisson