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 losers of a competition a wooden spoon, either feminine mystique or male egoism will receive the award at the end of Franzen’s book.
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. She does not know who her father is and her mother refuses to tell her.
A man, who looks like a Greek god, and has a satyr’s libido, develops a company with Mephistophelan 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” with a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There are many ewes in Franzen’s story.
Women are sheep to Wolf. His flock is full with a doting and selfish mother who has a penchant for promiscuity, many sixteen year olds seduced in Wolf’s early twenties, and a harem of beautiful twenty year olds 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 fall of the wall, 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 stepfather’s immoral and unconscionable way of continuing her sexual abuse. Wolf suggests murder of the stepfather as the only sure way of ending the agent’s vile misconduct. The agent 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 agent’s disappearance are buried in East Germany’s government archives. Wolf appears to have escaped prosecution for the 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 newswire 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 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 and now works for Wolf’s organization. The German girl is Purity’s age and is aware of Purity’s debt problem. She suggests Purity contact Wolf’s company about an internship that could make her debt payments, help her find who her father is, and give her a break from her deeply loving but smothering mother. Purity takes the internship. Wolf is surreptitiously behind the recruitment of Purity.
Another level of male and female relationship is opened. Wolf has an ulterior motive in hiring Purity. Many levels of conflict between feminine mystique and male egoism are exposed in Franzen’s story. Purity’s father is abandoned by Purity’s mother. Her name is Annabel. Annabel reminds one of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems, Annabel Lee. Purity’s mother’s and father’s relationship exposes another view of the feminine/masculine’ dynamic and its penchant for winners and losers.
The wooden spoon is awarded to the loser of a competition. Franzen infers there is an inherent competition between men and women and each sex among themselves. Every young person, every father, every mother, every adult will have an opinion about who should be awarded the wooden spoon after completing “Purity”.