The publisher hears the substantial thud from the ante-room and sighs contentedly. The latest from Mr Franzen has arrived and it hits the desk at the normal fighting weight of 2lbs and a muscled 500-plus pages.

Franzen writes big books. This has given him the nod of approval from Oprah’s book club, from Time magazine who printed his photograph with the accompanying description of Great American Novelist, and has made him popular with readers and admired by critics. This is his fifth novel, with the previous two (Freedom and The Corrections) being praised highly and bought heavily. Franzen is that beast so loved of the publisher: the literary novelist who can move books as smoothly and quickly as if they had been stored on banana skins.

He has earned his reputation. Franzen is both earnest about his craft and aware of his reach. He fell out briefly with Ms Winfrey because he felt her approval may have stopped male readers buying his books. Franzen has a grasp of both the artistic and the commercial. That rift has been healed and Franzen now seeks to add to the reputational lustre.

It is ever so slightly sly, then, to say that there are great expectations for Purity. There is mischief in that sentence because the heroine, Purity, is nicknamed Pip and there is much of Great Expectations in Purity in terms of plot and in Franzen’s substantial gifts in creating characters, pushing a narrative relentlessly forward and having moments of genuine humour. Unfortunately, he shares a Dickensian falling for improbable plot twists. However, this defect is minor, even forgiveable, as Franzen stretches for something eternal, something profoundly significant in a modern novel.

The story is told in turn from the viewpoint of Pip, Andreas Wolf, a German exile who runs a whistleblowing website, Tom Aberrant, a dedicated journalist, and Anabel, a refugee from life. It ranges over half a century and takes in Germany, South America and the US. There are various stands, including a characteristic Franzen jab at the internet and a beautifully rendered vignette on the workings of Washington politics.

It is typically Franzen jaunty. He can be self-deprecatory, creating a literary professor with what seems like the sole purpose of railing at authors called Jonathan who write 600-page novels that are heavily praised. He references Great Expectations by name and by themes. This is a story of love and rejection, of poverty and unexpected benefactors, and of good and evil. There is much, too, of Miss Havisham in Anabel, the abandoned artist, but there is more to Purity, the novel, and Pip, the character, than a clever recreation of Dickens.

The publishers’ blurb suggests strongly that this is a novel about power. There is plenty of the struggle for power and the danger that it brings in the novel but it strikes this observer more strongly as a story about morality and the ambiguity that elusive quality can produce. There is betrayal, murder, suicide, hate and dysfunction at the heart of the novel. There is a theme of missing fathers and, frankly, unstable mothers. There is predatory sex, amusing sex and weird sex. There is also love. For all the knowing nods to Dickens, it is Goethe and Faust that Franzen references with “what evil forever wants and what good forever does’’ which is stated in German at the start of the novel.

This is a daunting theme for the most assured of authors. It is beyond the parameters of Freedom or The Corrections, both fine and intelligent novels. Franzen has previously, of course, dealt with good and evil. What novel does not? But his new work is on a different scale in terms of purpose. It is striking that with Purity, Franzen is determined to punch with the big boys and girls. Purity is therefore his most ambitious novel in terms of theme and purpose. It carries the regular characteristics of a Franzen. The characters are well drawn, the dialogue is convincing, the sudden shifts of viewpoint and narration make a big novel easy to digest. He can weave in genuinely comedic scenes amid desperately dark moments. He is, though, sometimes compromised by his very gifts. There is a sunniness, a bounce to Franzen that cannot be darkened or softened easily. Franzen is very good but can he create the very evil?

Andreas Wolf, the son of East German political aristocracy, has to carry much of the burden of darkness. He is a sexual predator, a killer, a refugee from a dysfunctional family and political system. He becomes a truth teller, an internet hero who exposes the powerful. Here in physical form is the moral ambiguity, but how does Franzen handle such a major subject?

The verdict must be that Purity is not fully convincing. Franzen’s references to Augie March serve as a reminder that he is not at the level of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike or Marilynne Robinson. He may be a Great American Novelist but he is punching at a lower weight that any of the above. His prodigious gift as a storyteller means little when evil has to be conjured up in words. Franzen is capable of much, he is adept at the telling observation. “Self-destructive behaviour is a form of self-importance,” he notes at one point and this is just one of the truths that pepper the work. But, crucially, a novel of much quality teeters and stumbles when confronting its most telling test, that of describing and exposing evil.

Franzen is clever and assured at creating scenes of moral ambiguity. Is murder always wrong? Is the killing at the heart of the book an atrocious act or one that can be forgiven because of the relief, even the good that it may bequeath other lives? Can one take tainted money and make it pure? Are all secrets wrong, all condemned rightly to be revealed? Are there betrayals that must be made for the greater good? These are fascinating questions that Franzen wraps up in settings that are convincing with the Berlin scenes made particularly authentic by his time there as a Fulbright scholar.

But a nerve-chilling, heart-stopping depiction of evil deserts him and Purity. An ill-doer’s demise is melodramatic, in the style of the death of Little Nell, rather than profoundly affecting in paying out the wages of sin. This is ultimately damaging, if not fatal to Purity, the book rather than the character. Franzen fans will exult in the fluid prose, the distinctive characters and the background noise to the modern US, and the references to the Attivan and Ambien that help dull it. There is also a Dickensian cast of memorable minor characters, most notably a schizophrenic housemate of the redoubtable Pip. There are voices in the book that speak an undeniable truth in a deceptively light fashion. There is also the brave ambiguity of the ending. These are all strong indications of Franzen’s prowess and his undoubted ability to impress critics and seduce readers.

However, it is not quite enough. Franzen has written big novel, wide in geographical scope and multi-faceted in character. But it lacks genuine depth. It takes on the heavyweight subject of evil and falls just short. Even at 563 pages.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen is published by Fourth Estate, £20