Beginning: Was it like this before? A slow start, a growing realization that these characters are not trying to be likeable, only to be believable?

Jonathan Franzen Purity

Doubleday Canada, 2015

Pip (short for Purity) seems rather like a middle-aged woman in a young woman’s skin, so many worries and an overwhelming sense of disappointment.

She only has three friends left, and I’m not sure that I’d volunteer to be her fourth (but I do admire the effort she makes to bake the perfect cake).

Nor do I find that Andreas’s story is making me want to pick up the book in the evenings either.

But as Zoë Heller says: “In any event, sympathy, or likeability, is an overrated quality in fiction…. Since when did you start going to fiction to seek out people you like? If that’s what you’re looking for, go to a bloody cocktail party.”

Fitting. As so far, the only place that I find reading this enjoyable, is my local pub, with a beer in a frosted glass and companionable folks at the tables nearby (and, yes, it’s air-conditioned, and that absence of that luxury in my other reading sessions might be impacting my enjoyment of, well, everything).

Page 100: No, it wasn’t like this before, with The Corrections and Freedom.

Previously I have become quickly and dramatically immersed in his novels.

So I wonder if perhaps this isn’t a sign that Purity is a book “out of time” for me.

Should I set it aside, focus instead on my reread of Alias Grace?

[I think about this for a few days, but then decide that it’s now or never. There is a lot of talk about this novel right now, and if I wait, and stumble upon a spoiler, the decision will be made for me. I am still waiting to forget who the “suitable boy” is in Vikram Seth’s doorstopper of the same name.]

While deciding, I dipped into Jonathan Franzen’s collections of essays, looking for clues.

The first in Farther Away, is titled “Pain Won’t Kill You”, in which readers learn this: “To go through a life painlessly is not to have lived.”

Something tells me that the next hundred pages of Purity might be difficult too.

But despite the story’s painful elements, I recognize that Jonathan Franzen is well-read.

And I appreciate the sign-posts he offers along the way. Like when Andreas’s mother, Katya, says: “Enough with the Hamletizing.”

(And perhaps it was handy to have Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace at hand: “One father leads to another.”)

So I know to pay attention, watch for the spectre. “’What would you say,’ the ghost said, ‘if I told you I’m your father?'”

(You will have to read it – or some other reader’s thoughts on it – if you want to know the boy’s answer.)

But either way, what lies ahead will be disturbing, because “childhood was a sense-defying brainf*ck”.

It is hard to move ahead with a story, when the chances are that your narrator will be “still a wanting four-year-old, still betrayed by shit that had happened to [his/her] brain before [she/he] had a self that remembered”.

It is hard to have hope.

Jonathan Franzen Farther AwayPage 200: And, yet, there is something about the voice behind this story that keeps me turning the pages.

The prose is dense, and sometimes it feels like I am caught on a spread for a half hour. (Admittedly this might be because I have not wanted to read this book at home lately. Sometimes it ends up at the bottom of the stack, untouched, for a few days.)

But there is something about the quality of the detail, the observing eye, which intrigues me.

And this new character, Leila Helou, from the Denver Independent? I’m curious.

“With whiskey, the capillary bloom was more diffusely rosy than with gin and less purple than with wine. Every university dinner party was a study in blooms.”

But the overarching tone is exclusionary, even when an invitation is issued. “‘He tells me a lot, sister. I’m still first among nobodies. Don’t you be forgetting that.'”

Every gesture of conciliation feels hesitant, if not outright hostile.

Page 300: The broadening cast of character is softening the edges of this story, but it is still a disturbing read.

“Apparently pity and betrayal were related.” There are a lot of different names which all describe feelings-that-I-would-rather-not-be-having, when in the company of these characters.

Page 400: It’s true that life is filled with inherently contradictory truths. And that’s not Jonathan Franzen’s fault.

“Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married. Only love, only empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply that there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is her capacity to be hurt by you. The love persists and the hatred with it. Even hating your own heart is no relief. I don’t think I’d ever hated her more than I did for exposing herself to the shame of my refusing to speak in Leonard’s voice.”

He is a believable character; I believe that this is his true version of events.

That his marriage has become something hard and brutal.

“She moved on while I stayed stuck. I have to hand it to her: I feel checkmated.”

Page 500: But that doesn’t make this comfortable reading.

And even though I am reading the last half of this novel (from the point at which Leila’s character extends the canvas) more quickly than the first half, I will be relieved to finish this story.

(Because I must finish it, now: there are things that I want to know. Really.)

“The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously. Jason sighed and took her hand. She held it tightly. It had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn’t sure she would. Only when the skies opened again, the rain from the immense dark western ocean pounding on the car roof, the sound of love drowning out the other sound, did she believe that she might.”

Ending: If a character in this story can only believe in something “better” when there is a storm pounding all around here, something is really wrong.

But, then, the alternative?

It never raining hard enough to block out the ugliness?

That doesn’t warm the heart either.

What I’m left with, is a nagging and burning feeling that there is no resolution.

This, on its own, is a quality that I appreciate in fiction. As with Alice Munro’s stories, I like having more questions than answers when I have turned a book’s final page. But in the company of these characters, I feel even more alone.

This could be the intent. There is no doubt in my mind that Jonathan Franzen writes with intent. That he has inhabited these characters and spent time in their skins.

Purity does not feel shaped or crafted in the way that a tale like this might (with its complicated relationships nipping and darting in the dark, beyond a reader’s scope). In “On Autobiographical Fiction”, Franzen explains that a “writer has to begin somewhere, but where exactly he or she begins is almost random”.

This feels true. But some of the details in the chaos feel dazzlingly deliberate. (For instance, the dual use of ‘Purity’ in the story – one representing a person and the other a thing – and that’s character’s nickname ‘Pip’ with all the Great Expectations involved with that allusion.)

And here again is that contradictory swell. In the same essay Jonathan Franzen writes: “I will note in advance that much of the struggle consisted—as I think it always will for writers fully engaged with the problem of the novel—in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression.”

Which if one extrapolates to the present-day, presents readers with the ultimate contradiction: Purity filled with and motivated by shame and guilt and depression.

No wonder this is hard.

It is hard to have hope.