Review: The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

I have to admit that The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel, was a book that I found difficult to get through. I picked it up the first time, read about a hundred and fifty pages, then put it down again. A year later, I picked it up again with greater determination, started over, and managed to finish it, in spurts, over the course of five months.

Perhaps that admission will not surprise those who have read my scathing review of his latest novel, Freedom, but the two works, in terms of both difficulty and reward for effort, constitute a night and day difference. Where Freedom is pointless, angry, and worst of all, self-pitying, The Twenty-Seventh City is a complex and insightful look at the state of modern politics.

What is it, then, about The Twenty-Seventh City that makes it such a tough read? For many readers, it will be the difficulty of the prose. Despite the fact that Franzen is supposedly stepping away from the postmodern games of someone like Thomas Pynchon (who is briefly, gratuitously, mentioned in passing in the novel) toward a greater sense of realism, the fact is that his debut novel reads in many ways, like a throwback to modernism – one could easily imagine, for instance, that Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913) was a model for this text.

I’d like to think, though, that I have enough literary muscle to handle difficult prose, so I don’t think that was the only culprit. No, the thing that made the novel such a hard read for me was the way that Franzen continues to introduce new characters, even up until the very last pages. The sheer amount of names becomes impossible to keep track of, and this problem is compounded by the fact that Franzen doesn’t provide enough signals from the outset as to which characters are important and which are not. Everyone is named and described in with seemingly equal importance, giving no indication about whether they will continue to be important to the plot or not.

In the end, there are two characters are elevated above the rest: Martin Probst, a local developer and community leader, and S. Jammu, an Indian woman who was unexpectedly hired as St Louis’s new police chief. Once the reader realizes that these are the two figures that stand above the cacophony created by such a dizzyingly large array of characters, the novel starts to click. I am sure that rereading the novel with that knowledge would be a different, more rewarding experience.

That’s not to say that other characters aren’t important, including: Barbara Prost, Martin’s wife, and their daughter Luisa; Luisa’s older boyfriend Duane Thompson, whose relationship with Luisa begins the process of fragmenting the Prost family; Rolf Ripley, who is obsessed with Barbara despite the fact that he is married to her sister, Audrey; Jack DuChamp, an old buddy of Martin’s who acts as a barometer of the “man in the street;” RC, a black cop who plays an important role in the novel’s denouement; General Norris, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who smells something fishy in Jammu’s dealings; Asha Hammaker, an Indian princess who marries one of St Louis’s richest men and conspires with Jammu; Shanti Jammu, the police chief’s controlling mother; and Jammu’s various goons and pawns, most notably the handsome and ruthless Balwan Singh and the drug-addicted Barbara Prost lookalike, Devi Madan. There are more characters, many more, illustrating just how difficult it can be to keep track of which character is which in the novel.

While the pitfalls of such an approach are obvious, this vast canvas on which Franzen lays out his story also has its strengths. His deep knowledge of St Louis and its culture comes from the fact that he grew up there, but the skill with which he portrays the city in all its complexity is quite extraordinary, with the diverse array of characters on display a reflection of the city’s multifaceted nature. In spite of its particular context, however, The Twenty-Seventh City has a much broader scope that transcends both its time and location. Franzen states early on that “all cities are ideas, ultimately” (p.24), and thus St Louis, itself defined by the symbol of the Arch and its connection to Manifest Destiny, is also transformed into an idea.

So it is that The Twenty-Seventh City unfolds as a political novel of ideas, a “textbook dialectic” that pits “absolute freedom” against “absolute terror, the French Revolution à la Hegel” (p.198). Probst and Jammu are the opposing terms in this dialectic, which contrasts his rigid sense of ethical “decency” with her utter ruthlessness. Probst and Jammu thus find themselves on opposite sides of the fence in the political fight to unite the city and county of St Louis, only to find in their opposition a hidden attraction that perversely brings them together.

It is when Franzen engages with these grand political ideas that The Twenty-Seventh City rises above its limitations and truly soars. Franzen does not allow himself to get carried away, in contrast to so many other American writers during the 1980s, with railing simplistically against the conservative Reagan years. There is no easy dichotomy between freedom and tyranny, for it is the sheer apathy of the St Louis public that saves the day. There is a beautiful but sad irony in the fact that this lack of interest in their own political future is what eventually saves them from the traps that Jammu lays.

The Twenty-Seventh City was published, coincidentally, in the same year as Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, and in many ways the appointment of Jammu in the novel addresses a parallel dilemma to what Spivak is describing. The faults that Franzen delineates in Jammu’s character, however, seem to me more incisive, more penetrating than Spivak’s analysis, suggesting as he does, through comparisons of Jammu’s character to Napoleon and Lenin, that the advent of revolutionary discourses of freedom is always endangered by the practical necessities of seizing power. Franzen’s key insight is that these apparently counter-revolutionary forces are not anomalies, but an integral part of the revolution itself, an inherent problem that easily inverts the original relationship between “theory and praxis” in such a way that “praxis dictate[s] that theory, in the short run, be its apologist” – that is, the ends come to justify the means in the most vulgarly Machiavellian sense (p.394). It’s a complex, clear-eyed view of politics that Franzen delivers in his debut novel that, sadly, he has been unable to sustain in his most recent work.

Rating: 4/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted March 15, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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