on June 4, 2001
This was one of those books that kept me up at night. The story was very involving and Franzen's technique of alternating narrative perspectives among a large cast drew me on. I would look at the first line of the next chapter or sub-asterisk and feel compelled to find out what was going on with that character.
I live in a city that is smaller than St. Louis, but the social stratication, economic segregation, and political altercations were all quite familiar. I was not particularly surprised to read the disbelieving reaction of a reviewer from St. Louis ("this is not my town!"). Franzen pre-zinged her by building up to an election that no one apparently cared about. You spend first 7/8 of the book being led to believe that the whole city is in an uproar about the "reign" of S. Jammu, only to have the election show that the county/city consolidation issue was only of interest to the players and to the media who were hyping it. No one else was paying any attention.
This is a wickedly funny book, both in the way it deploys broad comic themes like the one above and also in little zingers aimed at various social groups. Franzen aims most of his barbs at what is presumably his own social milieu: the white suburban uppermiddle to upper class. But he has some left over for the black middle class and Indian socialists.
As has been stated by other reviewers, Franzen is primarily a story teller and secondarily a stylist. There are, however, similarities between this book and D.F. Wallace's Infinite Jest. One obvious similarity is the epic scope. Another is the multi-personal narrative. The scathingly critical and borderline cynical perspective on politics. The recurrent dwelling upon the details of substance abuse (although Wallace is much more obsessive). The selection of an unlikely ethnic group as the source of an anti-American conspiracy. The occasional passages of pure hallucinogenic description.
That Franzen wrote this book in the 80s is impressive. He saw a lot of stuff coming and yet a lot of the details of the book are charmingly dated (e.g., Probst's delight in the novelty of using a phone in a car). I found myself wondering what the (surviving) characters were up to today. I visited St. Louis in 1990 and found the downtown to be a sad and lifeless place (including the Disneyfication of Laclede's Landing). I hope the 90s were good to it.
on August 25, 2000
I must say that I am very surprised by the several lackluster reviews this book received here, which is why I am anxious to add my own glowing endorsement. THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY is one of the most incisive and visionary novels about the strata of American society published in the past 15 years. It brings to life the economic, political, racial, and personal forces behind urban reform more vividly, and humorously, than any other contemporary fiction of which I know. Its investigations of gentrification in St. Louis, and of the incessant struggles and backstabbing between the city's power elite, seem to become more timely and topical with each passing day, at least if the present courses of so many American cities (including my own) are any indication. The fact that Franzen wrote the book in the Eighties, and that he centers its events on a wicked satire of nearly implausible foreign conspiracy and much-too-real American paranoia, only add to my admiration of it.
As for Franzen's writing, I want to say that I don't think his style is any less 'brilliant' than that of his contemporaries; he just isn't compelled to suspend the novel's progress and tap us on the shoulder every time he is about to perform a stylistic trick. That is not to say that the tricks aren't still there. So much the better for the astute reader anyway, because here you will find consistently strong, funny, and surprising writing that advances the book's story and characters throughout. It's a read that amazingly satisfies our desires for entertainment and intellectual stimulation simultaneously.
on July 9, 2004
I was interested in this book because of the uncommon setting of St. Louis--a city I love, but one that is definitely falling apart. That decay is beautifully described by Franzen. There's no doubt that the prose in 'The Twenty-Seventh City' nearly always sparkles and only occasionally falls flat, usually when he gets too caught up in his philosophical meanderings inside the head of Martin Probst (who is quietly and slowly lovable). There are so many artful descriptions and astute retellings of every-day occurrences to propel readers. Unfortunately, the interesting premise never expands much beyond its setup in the first 50 pages. S. Jammu and her comrades are interesting, but haughty, and their reasons for taking on their twisted plot are never clarified beyond vague sketches of their activist and corrupted pasts. EVERYone in high society, apparently, enters into either physical or intellectual affairs, which often defy their characterisations, and there are so many characters that are highlighted in their dull everyday routines just to service their importance in the book's ending that it drags down the beginning in middle. And when the climax of a 500-page novel hinges on the outcome of a referendum vote... well, I think that's all that needs to be said about that.
Still, Franzen's observations on our every day lives and interactions are shocking in their familiarity, and he undeniably has a good grip on many facets of how our society and culture functions. Twenty years after the fact his comments are still relevant. 'The Twenty-Seventh City' is worth reading, but only if read quickly; labouring over it and its blunted intricacies is not worth the time.
on October 1, 2004
I've really enjoyed the other things that I've read by Franzen (The Corrections; How to Be Alone, a book of essays), but I found "The Twenty Seventh City" to be nearly unreadable. The only reason that I persevered to the end was that I was stuck on a 6-hour cross-country flight with nothing else to read. As it was, I wound up skimming the last 100 pages.
Two of the biggest problems with this book are an overabundance of minor characters and a very choppy narrative, in which the average scence is about 1 to 2 pages. It's just jump after jump after jump for 500 pages, with no sustained development of anything. I also found the basic premise (a police colonel and cousin of Indira Ghandi from India comes to the US to take over the police force of St. Louis, where she uses a band of Indian terrorists to manipulate the city's business and political elite and control the real estate market) so implausible that it was just a constant stumbling block all though the book. None of the characters struck me as remotely believable or interesting. I suppose it was intended as some sort of farce, but I don't think I encountered a single thing that I thought was humorous. Then there is the dialect... rather than developing distinctive characters, the author writes in truly awful dialect (eg, a character who says things like "Habout time" or "Hanyway"; and of course, a police officer with a lisp).
Altogether, this may be most excruciating piece of fiction writing I've read in the last 5 years.
on January 31, 2013
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. What is it 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.
Franzen's key insight is that 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.