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Eve Lucas: When Franzen meets Voltaire

Acclaimed American novelist Jonathan Franzen presents his new novel "Purity" Sat, Oct 11 at Akademie der Künste. Eve weighs in on the book itself before Franzen's sold-out reading.

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Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Presenting his new novel Purity here in Berlin on Saturday, October 11, should be a home game for Jonathan Franzen, the acclaimed successor to writers of the great American novel.

The author’s personal familiarity with Berlin as a genius loci has stood him good stead in one of the novel’s main preoccupations: how a person subjected to one form of initially well-intentioned totalitarianism (GDR/worker party rule ultimately leading to Stasi dystopias) will transmute those experiences into good and then again, into evil – in the form of an sur-Wikileaks type manipulation of the internet that goes not only wrong, but bad.

This is the trajectory followed by Andreas Wolf, whistle-blower par excellence, who grows up in a dysfunctional East Berlin family and plausibly frequents the sites we’re all familiar with, from the Müggelsee to Normannenstraße and post-unification Kurfürstendamm. Forced to take refuge in Bolivia, Wolf installs himself in a secluded Garden of Eden leaking center, where Franzen sets up a path crossing with the novel’s other principally American characters; sound-thinking, well-meaning, middle-aged journalist Tom and young ideally confused Pip. And – distantly reclusive – her corporately damaged mother Anabel.

With his penchant for Dickensian implausibility and reliance on well-planned happenstance, Franzen’s talents as a story-teller are well in evidence throughout. This is a ripping yarn. And as a comment on the internet as an age of instant communicative gratification at the expense of deeper and sustained engagement, Franzen’s characters develop both as victims and perpetrators of their times.

What is missing is the voice of reasoned commitment: whether it’s feminism, internet activism, environmentalism, a quasi occupational anti-corporate life-style or nuclear weapons, Franzen’s characters engage virulently and then withdraw to equally problematic but potentially more rewarding private spheres. His settings really are deliberate paradises in which apples (is it coincidence that three of his principal characters have two round-cheeked ‘a’s in their names?) bear the seeds of great good and great evil: recognized, appreciated and jettisoned – for a smaller plot of personal, compromised contentment.

What also comes a cropper – intentionally or not – is craftsmanship. Even accepting that Franzen has (also) adopted the fast-paced, content-driven style of the internet era in order to underscore its potential for rant-based superficiality, describing a central character in a central episode twice, in quick succession, as ‘out of his head’ is plain sloppy. Indirect speech notwithstanding, there’s a purity deficit here.

But craftsmanship often aims to make you sit back and just admire. And whatever its faults, Franzen’s novel will make you want to sit up and talk, endlessly (like his characters) not only about causes themselves – but also about how best to defend them, in the real world and in imagined ones.

Jonathan Franzen: Purity, Sat, Oct 11, 20:00 (in German) | Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg 10, Mitte, U-Bhf Hansaplatz