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The Americans are coming: Hanya Yanagihara and Jonathan Franzen (Yanayihara ©Jenny Westerhoff; Franzen ©Daniel Sillaman)

It’s a debate that’s been going on for a long time. Callimachus, the ultra-urbane librarian and poet of the third century BC, put it like this: “Big book, big evil.”

Here’s Jonathan Franzen, from his new novel Purity: “When Charles’s several honeymoons had ended, he settled down to write the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon. Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.”

Bearing in mind the mocking tone that engulfs Charles and his endeavours, you’d think Franzen would have wanted to avoid the jeopardy of portliness. But no, Franzen wants to both tease thickness and luxuriate in it.

As a writer I’d like to put the blame on the editor, but at some point the writer has to carry the can. It is the writer’s job to edit the world, not to let the whole world in. Nevertheless, hidden away in the 563 pages of Purity is probably Franzen’s best novel.

There are some very powerful and entertaining sections — Franzen, who has translated from the German, does a great East Germany, before and after the fall of the Wall. There’s a genius routine involving a wandering thermonuclear device. Shrewd and astute observations about human nature and contemporary mores in America abound. Franzen is a master of dialogue, but perhaps because of that, doesn’t know when to stop. You get clump after clump of three or four pages of conversation. Franzen is obviously very intelligent so I was perplexed as to why he insisted on these steppes of bavardage and other page-clogging digressions.

The main character of Purity is Andreas Wolf, a German Julian Assange-like leaker, bullshitter and shagger, who himself, ironically, has a very dark secret. The other protagonists nearly all have dark secrets too and they are linked together in a way that, if you start to think about it carefully, is so coincidental as to be not very convincing. Is Franzen trying to conceal the haphazard plumbing with several layers of plaster?

Franzen does score points for being up-to-date. The internet, texting, face-recognition software, hacking galore, it’s all there. But for all the death, despair and high-tech mischief in the novel, we get good-old Dickens-like twists of paternity and an almost Jane Austen ending. It’s a pity Franzen didn’t go for a simpler, more streamlined option because much of the book is brilliant, but it’s easy to lose sight of that.

I remember a couple of years ago when Ion Trewin announced that the Man Booker would be thrown open to the Americans, he claimed that among the wide consultation, there had been writers who had approved. I remember thinking, you’re joking. I can’t think of one British novelist who would consider this a good idea (well, maybe one, there’s always one). My guess is that the raising of the portcullis was just weak-kneed panic on the part of the Booker at the advent of the Folio Prize with its transatlantic hordes.

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