By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Jonathan Franzen
Narration by: Jenna Lamia, Dylan Baker, Robert Petkoff
Jonathan Franzen’s new book, “Purity”, mixes feminine mystique and male egoism with a wooden spoon. Franzen interestingly uses the image of a wooden spoon stirring people’s minds and motives.
Like the 19th century custom of awarding a wooden spoon to losers of a competition, either feminine mystique or male egoism receives the award at the end of Franzen’s book. At times the competition seems like a race to the bottom.
Purity, Franzen’s main character, is a personification of the feminine mystique. She is in her early twenties, graduates from college with a $130,000 debt, and struggles to find a job that allows her to live a decent independent life. Purity loves her mother deeply but is smothered by her attention. Purity rents a room in a house with a struggling married couple, two tenants, and an adopted boy. Purity works for a telemarketing company for an unlivable wage. She struggles to make ends meet. She flirts with her employer who is married and uses her sexuality as a tool to get ahead; not to the point of infidelity, but near the edge. The size of debt compels Purity to ask her mother about her father for financial help. Purity does not know who her father is and her mother refuses to tell her.
A man, who looks like a Greek god and possesses a satyr’s libido, develops a company with Mephistophelean power. This man is a personification of male egoism. He rises to fame and fortune in East Germany, after the fall of the iron curtain. Franzen’s god is named Andreas Wolf. Franzen chooses a name that reminds one of “Little Red Riding Hood” as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Women are sheep to Andreas Wolf. His history with “sheep” is crowded with a doting and selfish mother who has a penchant for promiscuity, many sixteen year old girls seduced by Wolf in his early twenties, and a harem of beautiful twenty year old women when he is in his forties. Wolf owns and manages a cultish investigative service that exposes government and private industry corruption. He attracts one more lamb to his lair, a twenty-three year old female, a lost lamb, named “Purity”.
Wolf creates his business soon after the fall of the Berlin wall. However before the fall, Wolf murders an East German secret service agent. The agent is abusing his step daughter, a fifteen year old girl who becomes a future acolyte of Wolf’s company. This young girl tells Wolf of the immoral and unconscionable way the stepfather continues his sexual abuse. Wolf suggests murder of the stepfather is the only sure way of ending the stepfather’s vile misconduct. The stepfather is lured by the stepdaughter to a country house and bludgeoned to death by Wolf with a shovel. The body is buried at the summer home of Wolf’s parents. Wolf is quietly investigated by the secret service. Soon after the murder, the Berlin Wall falls and records of the investigation of the stepfather’s disappearance are buried in East Germany’s government archives. Wolf appears to have escaped prosecution for the secret agent’s mysterious disappearance.
Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wolf explains circumstances of the murder to a visiting American acquaintance. This acquaintance starts an American non-profit news wire service later in life. As Wolf’s organization grows and gains fame, the acquaintance implies a threat to Wolf’s company with revelations about the murder. Wolf has earned a reputation for good works with his cult-like investigative organization. He fears exposure of the murder.
Franzen’s story is tied together when one of the two tenants in the house that Purity lives in is the German girl who was abused by her stepfather. This German girl is now in her twenties and works for Wolf’s organization. The German girl befriends Purity and is aware of Purity’s debt problem and unsuccessful effort to find her father. She suggests Purity contact Wolf’s company about an internship to help make her debt payments, find out who her father is, and give her a break from her loving but smothering mother. Purity takes the internship. Later, Franzen reveals that Wolf is surreptitiously behind the recruitment of Purity and has a particular agenda for recruiting her.
Franzen explores another level of male and female relationship by revealing Purity’s mother’s and father’s history. Different levels of conflict and competition between the feminine mystique and male egoism are exposed in Franzen’s story. Purity’s father is abandoned by Purity’s mother. Her name is Annebel. Purity’s mother/father relationship exposes another view of the feminine/masculine’ dynamic and its penchant for zero/sum competition.
Franzen infers there is an inherent competition between men and women; within and without the sexes. After listening to “Purity”, every young person, every father, every mother, every adult will have an opinion about who should be awarded the wooden spoon. The wooden spoon is presumably awarded the loser of the competition. “Purity” is a nice piece of writing; excellently narrated, but it infers a race to the bottom in human relationships.