“They had the beauty of the second glance, the beauty that only revealed itself with intimacy. All Pip had ever heard a brown towhee say was Teek! … It couldn’t have been simpler, and yet it seemed to express not only everything that a towhee would ever need to say but everything that really needed to be said by anyone. Teek!” (Purity by Jonathan Franzen)
The litmus test of true literature is not liking the characters. It’s almost a prerequisite. Of literature, you’re bound to hear someone in your circle of friends or acquaintances proclaim ‘I couldn’t finish it, I didn’t like a single character’. Neither will you, but you’ll know that this is what makes a book interesting – characters described fully, contradictorily, with all of their flaws exposed to your reading eye. You may have many feelings towards complicated people such as this, but simply to ‘like’ them is out of the question.
Franzen doesn’t write character-driven literature – he just writes characters. All that he details – appearances, settings, back stories – only appears because a character thinks or speaks it. Not for a moment does he step out of his characters’ heads in order to explain or excuse; he uses their thinking as the raw data that eventually builds an un-interpreted story. While this book may lack the warmth, the relatability, of his earlier works, you still read it for the same reason you read any Franzen: to learn what it’s like to be in someone else’s head for a moment.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Incidental Learning: East Germany, Stazi, Film art,
Further Reading: This book made me think of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. If Franzen has tendency to focus microscopically on his characters, Ferrante leans towards summarizing thoughts and feelings without concreteness. The two may balance each other out.