Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Tag

Psychological Hunger   Leave a comment

One of the strange things about humanity, especially modern humanity, is that we deliberately, repeatedly choose to shape our lives, both individually and collectively, in ways that, in the big picture, make us unhappy. It’s one of those great paradoxes of the Enlightenment and its legacy – that people, presented with the tools to make their lives better, choose not to.

Is it just perversity? Do we do it for the same reason that we refuse to eat our vegetables, because achieving happiness is “boring” when it’s “good for you”? Certainly I think that’s one aspect of the problem, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

One of the things that I have wondered at during the last few years, as I have endured some very difficult life lessons of my own, is the bizarre extent to which this crucial element of success and happiness is left to a mixture of chance and imprecision. There are qualified experts to teach us all manner of technical things: how to be a mechanic, a software engineer, a yoga teacher. But there are no credible, established paths for how to lead a healthy and successful life.

Sure, there are gurus and leadership experts, preachers and life coaches, that all claim to provide us with guidance in our lives. But the field is so full of cranks and phonies that, were our technical fields to be run in such a way, we might regard our technology with a much more wary eye.

I learned a great deal from my professors, but there was one in particular who had an impact on me – not merely because she was a brilliant teacher and scholar, but because I could see in her a rare skill for living life, something that my parents were certainly not equipped to do. It was a skill I hungered to know more about, but could not ask her without seeming like a stalker. Every little insight she spoke about the life of the mind I have clung to, for they have proven to be precious pearls of wisdom over the years.

Emotional need is a taboo topic for a basic, paradoxical reason. We avoid people who are needy because it denotes insecurity. They are often passive-aggressive, unreliable, and demanding. Worse, giving such people attention often does not satisfy them, but leads instead to an black hole of endless emotional demand. This situation, however, is unfortunate, because it makes us withhold our attention from people who might be needy in a positive sense – that is, who may be hungry now, but wish to learn how to feed themselves.

The other reason emotional need is a problem is that, culturally, we have downgraded it as being merely a “luxury,” something that is secondary to the more pressing necessities of food and shelter. I think it’s fascinating, though, to consider a point raised by Erich Fromm near the beginning of The Fear of Freedom (1941), in which he asserts that humanity needs more than just the physical necessities in order to live. Fromm’s point is not that life is better with the emotional care of others, but rather that without it, human beings cannot survive. Even if we have all our physical necessities met, but have no sense of community whatsoever – if we are “morally alone,” as Fromm puts it – then we are driven to madness and suicide.

I’m teaching Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) in one of my classes this semester, and Fromm’s insight seems to me the key to unlocking this complex novel. The narrator’s physical hunger is transformed by Hamsun into a mirror of his psychological hunger, of society’s neglect of its spiritual and emotional side.

How bizarre that, in the twenty-first century, as the shadow of the obesity epidemic looms over us, that this metaphor has mutated once again. Now, gorging ourselves with cheap comfort food has become the new sign of our emotional starvation. We eat to fill a void in our lives that can never be filled. Obesity is a signifier, ironically, of our lack of contentment.

There is a scene in Hamsun’s Hunger in which the protagonist, out of a bizarre sense of pride and contrariness, refuses food, even though he is starving. We live in a society, in a similar way, that continues to denigrate the humanities as a luxury even as, emotionally, we are longing for just a moment of real, solid satisfaction.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted April 20, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Covers   Leave a comment

When I was about seventeen, I read The Children of Men (1992) by P.D. James – or at least, I think I did. I have almost no memory of the plot, apart from its central storyline about the spread of infertility in a futuristic, dystopian future. It’s not unusual. I regularly forget entire storylines and characters within a surprisingly short space of time, especially given my profession, although I rarely forget that I have actually read a particular book.

The strange thing is, though, that twenty years later I still recall quite vividly the cover of the book. There is a forest in the background, and the bottom right corner is torn away to reveal a limp, broken doll whose two, blue eyeballs have, rather unrealistically, fallen onto the pavement beside it. The other thing I remember is that it was a Faber and Faber publication, a brand that was, for me, quickly becoming an indicator of quality. That little ff sign introduced me to Andre Brink, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro, and numerous other outstanding contemporary writers during the 1990s.

It was with a sense of dismay, then, that I recently watched the adaptation of The Children of Men (2006), a film that garnered glowing reviews at the time of its release. The film is rather different from the book, but what struck my adult eyes was the clunky Christian symbolism that pervades the storyline. There is no question that Kee is meant to be a Madonna-figure, and she is protected, in turn, by Theo, his name transparently chosen because it means “God.”

As I meditated further on the film, though, something ironic struck me about all this Christian symbolism. It came from the realization that there is a parallel between my own faulty personal memory of reading The Children of Men and the selective cultural memory about Christianity on display in the film.

The scene that epitomizes this phenomenon occurs right before the film’s close, when Kee and Theo escape from a building that is under siege by government troops. Seeing the baby in Kee’s arms, the commanding officer orders the soldiers to cease fire so that she can escape to safety. Kee’s pathway through the lines of soldiers is clearly supposed to be loaded with quasi-religious significance, as soldiers visibly cross themselves when the miracle baby passes them by.

As soon as Kee and Theo have reached safety, however, the soldiers resume their attack on the building, mercilessly slaughtering the refugees inside. It was this obvious disjunction between their supposed reverence for life and their practical embrace of killing, a moral contradiction that the film did not even seem to register, that caught my attention. What had these soldiers gotten from their reading of the Bible? Had they remembered any of Christ’s teachings? Or had they, as I had with James’s own novel, only ever truly caught the surface of that book?

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted April 10, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Review: Edinburgh (2001) by Alexander Chee   Leave a comment

Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh deals with some difficult issues, as the book’s main character, Fee, struggles to deal first with the sexual abuse meted out by his choir master, Big Eric, and then, as he grows up, with his own identity as a homosexual man. Such problems, as one might imagine, run deep, and there is a repeated desire on Fee’s part to destroy himself, just as so many others in his life have done.

As I was reading Edinburgh, I wanted to be moved by these themes. After all, if these issues were being told to me directly, by a friend, then I would certainly be touched. But the more I read, the more I wondered: doesn’t this belong more properly in a memoir? That is to say, are these topics the proper domain of fiction?

There are some ways in which the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” The rise of so-called “dirty realism” in the 1980s – think Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver – is a clear influence on Chee’s style in this novel, which remains detached and economical, as if to counterbalance the melodrama of the story’s content. The subject matter also occupies the familiar territory of dirty realism: sex, drugs, perversion, all the emotional fabric of everyday life filtered through the lens of the novelist.

I share the view that no subject ought to be viewed as off-limits. But there is always a twin danger when treading along the borders of transgression. The first danger, which Chee successfully avoids for the most part, is becoming too emotional, either through hysteria or sentimentality. The second, however, he does not, and that is the feeling that the reader is being blackmailed into an attachment with the story at hand.

This feeling of emotional blackmail tells me that I ought to care about Fee because of his struggles simply because they are so weighty, that I somehow “owe” him something as a reader for this pain. But the truth is, I don’t. He’s a fictional character, and his difficulties are, in the end, made up. I would bestow my compassion on a real-life friend in Fee’s situation because their pain is real, stemming as it does from the weight of experience. In the case of a novel, however, the burden lies with the author to make me care by drawing me into the story. That requires a certain level of narrative skill and seduction that Chee, presuming on my pity, does not enact.

The reality is that, in fiction, the heaviest misery comes cheaply. Writers can destroy cities, unleash plagues, wipe out worlds in the blink of an eye, all with a few strokes of the pen. Suffering – that is, imaginary suffering – is cheap because, without the sparkle of narrative interest, any reader can see that it’s counterfeit, fake, made-up.

The fact is that Alexander Chee is merely another product of the great MFA sausage factory of empty fiction writing. Yes, I know he went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop – it may be a superior sausage factory, but it is a sausage factory nonetheless. The writing sparkles with meaningless, “poetic” phrases that sound pretty when you read them but reveal absolutely nothing. Take these sentences, for instance:

“Blue. Blue because it’s the color people turn in the dark. Because it’s the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never quite reaches. Because when you feel threatened by a demon you are supposed to imagine around you a circle of blue light. You do this because the demon cannot cross blue light.” (pp.191-2)

What on earth does that mean? Passages like these are fool’s gold: they promise some kind of profundity, but the more closely you examine them the more you realize that they are nothing but decorative nonsense.

The greatest weakness in the novel, though, is the flatness of its narrative voice. There is nothing but surface in Edinburgh, no playful sense that our first-person narrator may be lying or mistaken (he is too transparent, too insipid for that), no desire to explore alternative viewpoints or other voices. There was a moment – the advent, in the middle of the book, of another narrator – when I thought we were going to see inside the mind of Fee’s abuser, but instead it turns out to the Warden, the abuser’s son, who, in keeping with the novel’s Narcissus references, is as dully monological in his admiration of Fee as the rest of the narrative. Chee mentions Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the “chronotope” at one point, but he seems to have overlooked Bakhtin’s key idea that “polyphony” – “many voices” – is what makes a novel interesting.

So let’s just say that Chee’s attempt at blackmail didn’t work on me. It’s not that I’m heartless – but in the realm of fiction, where pain comes cheaply, you have to demonstrate some narrative skill to make me care.

Rating: 2/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted April 5, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Love on Earth   Leave a comment

The historical persecution of the Jews delineated in Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio (2002), from forced conversions through to the Holocaust, is depressingly familiar to most readers. While doing research on this novel, however, I came to realize the importance of another, almost forgotten period of religious persecution that took place in the region of southern France where Pears’s novel is set: the Albigensian Crusade, in which the Catholic Church ruthlessly exterminated the “heresy” known as Catharism.

While this period has become, in recent years, a popular setting for historical fiction, it seems to me that the fundamental challenge that the Cathar belief system presented to the Church has often been poorly understood. Ruthless and bloody inquisitions, after all, can be gruesomely entertaining without readers of historical fiction having to understand the deeper nuances of the victims.

I was struck by just how subversive the Cathars were, however, during a recent rereading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ (1888). In that book, Nietzsche examines what he calls the “type of the redeemer,” a mindset he attributes to Christ and which, he argues, was subsequently distorted and twisted by St Paul (p.167). Christ’s message, says Nietzsche, has thus been profoundly misunderstood. The core of this message was that God has already forgiven humanity for its waywardness, and as such the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, at hand – not, as Christianity would later understand it, as a posthumous reward for faithfulness. Nietzsche writes:

“The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is a condition of the heart – not something that comes ‘upon the earth’ or ‘after death’. The entire concept of natural death is lacking in the Gospel: death is not a bridge, not a transition, it is lacking because it belongs to quite another world, a merely apparent world useful only for the purpose of symbolism. The ‘hour of death’ is not a Christian concept – the ‘hour’, time, physical life and its crises, simply do not exist for the teacher of the ‘glad tidings’.… The ‘kingdom of God’ is not something one waits for; it has no yesterday or tomorrow, it does not come ‘in a thousand years’ – it is an experience within a heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere…” (p.159)

Christ posed an obvious threat to the Jewish religious establishment with this message, for its implication was that the priests, together with their Mosaic system of atonement through sacrifice, had fulfilled their purpose and were now obsolete. The Kingdom of Heaven is not to be found in external rituals, but in one’s heart, with life becoming an expression of this divine goodness in a way that abolished the infrastructure of symbolic atonement.

While Catharism borrowed liberally from other strands of religious and philosophical ideas – gnosticism, for instance, as well as the neo-Platonist thread that Pears identifies in The Dream of Scipio – what is particularly noticeable about its debt to this “type of the redeemer” is its joyful announcement that divine mediation is no longer necessary. The Cathars therefore also did away with the role of the priest, believing that its adherents could be “Good Christians” whose lives reflected the goodness and mercy of God. For the Cathars, this aspiration was not tainted and limited by the “fallen” nature of humanity. Forgiveness had been granted here on earth, and as such it was their duty to become a “parfait” (“perfect being”) who practices the divine principles here on earth, not after the purification of death.

The response of the Catholic Church to the rise of Catharism reads like a blueprint for the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Like the Pharisees, like the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s story, the Church rightly saw Catharism as a threat to its own political power. In the name of Christianity, therefore, they mercilessly hunted down and exterminated a movement that came closest to replicating the original teachings of Christ.

That ideal of a loving community has not been lost – think, for example, of the Abbey of Thélème that appears in Rabelais – but its conception has evolved in crucial ways since the time of Christ. While love is important, it cannot be the sole foundation for a community. “Love,” writes Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ, “is the state in which man sees things most of all as they are not. The illusion-creating force is there at its height, likewise the sweetening and transforming force. One endures more when in love than one otherwise would, one tolerates everything” (p.145). Christ failed because his conception of love, in its refusal to draw boundaries, made him both inherently weak and unwilling to acknowledge the harsh political realities around him.

The contrasting idea of a strong love, one that understands politics and protects itself from its pitfalls, is what drives Pears’s investigations in The Dream of Scipio. Manlius fails because he is too hard, displaying political strength and acumen, but sacrificing his friends and family in the process, while Julien’s fault, by contrast, lies in his recurrent willingness to compromise and negotiate at those moments when he ought to be drawing a line in the sand. Only Olivier understands that love must be forceful and effective, pragmatically cognizant of the political realities that impact on it, without ever losing the ability to be tender.

The source of humanity’s communal misery and inability to love thus arises from a double failure. The primary fault, as the story of the Grand Inquisitor illustrates, lies in our weakness, in our refusal to take responsibility for our own lives and freedom. This failing is then compounded by the way we rationalize our weakness. Our beliefs are built as a complicated excuse for why we cannot take action. This is precisely the deflective function of religious institutions: no institution has done more to put off the realization of Christ’s vision of love on earth than the church.

While I don’t subscribe to the creation of any kind of religious community, I do think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from these earlier examples about the difficulties of putting into practice what we believe. The prevailing philosophies of our time actively discourage the cultivation of a personality that radiates power, and yet this strength is the basis on which true love is constructed. Any other kind, as the example of Christ demonstrates, is weak and ineffective, passively allowing itself to be tortured and even killed. True love must face up to the unjust realities of political power with intelligence and clarity, not moral illusions. There are a thousand excuses for not loving, for not putting into practice the principles that are closest to our hearts, but they inevitably begin from a place of weakness.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Review: Transmission (2004) by Hari Kunzru   Leave a comment

Having now read both The Impressionist (2002) and Transmission (2004), Hari Kunzru’s first two novels, I have to admit that I am torn between mixed emotions. You see, I really like these works – a lot – and yet, at the same time, I get the feeling that Kunzru is an author who has not quite fulfilled his talent to its greatest extent. So while Transmission is very good, especially for a second novel by a young writer, I get the feeling that Kunzru may yet go on to bigger and better things.

Transmission is the story of the havoc wreaked on society by a computer virus named Leela, named after a fictional Bollywood star named Leela Zahir. At its center is a young Indian computer programmer, Arjun Mehta, who releases the virus when his tenuous, exploitative job with a Silicon Valley antivirus company comes under threat.

Kunzru interweaves this main story with several other threads: the rise and fall of Guy Swift, a British new-money entrepreneur who runs a company called Tomorrow*, which seems to specialize in marketing empty rhetoric to various multinational businesses; the career of Gabriella Caro, Guy’s girlfriend, who works as a public relations manager and suffers from her family’s old money; and briefly, Leela Zahir herself, who has been thrust into the world of show-business by her pushy mother.

Kunzru has a brilliant eye for satire. Guy Swift’s proposal, for instance, that Europe be rebranded as a sort of “VIP zone” for elites in the same way that certain nightclubs market themselves toward the rich and the famous is comedy gold, especially given what happens to him later in the novel. The only problem, in my opinion, is that most readers are a little too used to having their hands held: that is, they often want authors to reveal the satirical facade, just for a moment, to drop a wink after delivering a piece of searing irony so as to say “hey, it’s just satire, I’m only kidding.” What I admire about Kunzru is that he doesn’t do this, and so those who don’t get joke, well, they miss out. It’s a daring strategy, one that, as a quick perusal of the academic criticism about Kunzru’s novels suggests, leads to some overly literal interpretations of his work.

The main shortcoming I found in Transmission was that Kunzru struggled to find a consistent range for his considerable comedic talents. A deliberately flat character like Guy Swift, for example, seems better designed for a much broader kind of comedy than was on offer. Mostly, I think this problem had to do with how Kunzru deals with social class, since the grand conceits of those in charge generally make them a perfect target for the kind of humorous poetic justice which is conferred on characters like Swift or Darryl Gant, Arjun’s passive-aggressive boss at Virugenix. The strategy works less well when it comes to the more difficult aspects of society, for disillusionment, poverty, and exploitation are much harder to laugh at from the bottom up.

Kunzru usually manages to address such issues without seeming preachy, but it does make it seem as though the novel proceeds at two different speeds that don’t quite gel with each other. Thus, there is the touching story of Arjun, who seems like a kind of holy fool, on the one hand, on whom is conferred a mixture of innocent sincerity and frustrated pathos, and on the other hand, the broad satire of the delusional Guy Swift, who could easily have wandered out of the pages of a Martin Amis story. The result is an entertaining but uneven novel, one in which the various threads are tied together competently but a little too glibly for my taste.

Rating: 4/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted March 26, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Outside the Institution   Leave a comment

When was the last time you read a piece of literary analysis published in an academic journal and felt moved and inspired by what it had to say? My guess is that, if you engage in this torturous exercise, probably not very often.

Most papers are written and published, primarily, out of obligation. Academics have to show the universities that employ them that they are active in their fields, and universities, in turn, are ranked according to the productivity of their faculty. Since the squeeze for academic positions has become tighter and tighter, the situation has become increasingly worse.

How perverse it is that we allow the humanities to proceed in this manner. In the sciences, one must follow the scientific method or else the work undertaken would be declared invalid. In the humanities, by contrast, people are encouraged to write in an inhuman way. Academics in the humanities seem to lack the courage of their convictions – this idea is interesting, they say, but usually neither we nor they truly believe it.

Perhaps the most honest and perceptive assessment of this scholarly problem appears in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“For this is the truth: I have left the house of scholars and slammed the door behind me. Too long did my soul sit hungry at their table; I have not been schooled, as they have, to crack knowledge as one cracks nuts. […] If one takes hold of them, they involuntarily raise a dust like sacks of flour; but who could guess that their dust derived from corn and from the golden joy of summer fields?” (p.147)

Nietzsche wrote those words in 1883, before the academic field of English literature had even been founded, but the prevailing attitude toward intellectual activity is remarkably similar. The joy of learning is reduced to a mechanical exercise, a matter of pedantic precision, automatic rather than dynamic.

It’s easy to be negative. Anyone who has worked in academia knows that it can be a demeaning path, even when you are part of the lucky minority who manages to find full-time employment. It’s a structural problem in which people are intimidated into a particular way of thinking. If they don’t follow the rules in graduate school, chances are they won’t finish their degree. If they don’t write in the accepted style of their field, chances are they won’t be published. If they don’t meet the research quotas of the university, they won’t get rehired or tenured. And so on. It’s an endless cycle of intimidation that ends up creating a culture whereby most academics lose any of the radical visions or creativity they might once have possessed. They become, as we say of prisoners, institutionalized.

There will always be a minority of academics – including, I hope, myself – for whom no amount of institutional pressure will change our approach to the humanities. Yes, the university will continue to require us to publish, but we write and teach and read, at base, for the love of it.

But it’s not enough. Society needs the humanities because they are the foundation of its emotional maturity, but the contemporary trend is to restrict such benefits to the elite classes. The emphasis on technical and vocational skills is the increasing curricular emphasis at your average low to middle ranking university at the expense of a liberal education, but the humanities will never disappear, for instance, from the Ivy League.

There is a surprising number of people outside that privileged elite, however, who are open to the idea that literature and the humanities have something to offer them. It is for that reason that humanities needs to consolidate its future by establishing roots outside the institutional tentacles of the academy.

Over the last few years, I have seen this approach work, for instance, with the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. The MSCP was founded in 2005 by a group of thinkers – some of them my good friends – as a way of promoting a neglected area of study about which they are passionate. While they rely on the local university for certain practical support for some things, the MSCP is able to run courses and seminars entirely on its own terms, without interference from the institution. Hopefully this autonomy is allowed to last.

The great challenge, as always, is economic. To work outside the institution inevitably means little or no remuneration. It also carries with it the possible future challenge of becoming institutionalized oneself, and thus closing down the openness that formerly drove the mission. But this step, I believe, is a necessary one for the future of the humanities. We must take the future into our own hands.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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.

Posted March 15, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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