Jonathan Franzen is the rare writer who consistently asks a lot of the reader. He expects a reader to not only keep pace with his novels, which are grand in scale in their prose and action, often spanning many different characters, subjects, and moral questions. Not surprisingly, Franzen is also a writer that people often love or love to hate. His most recent novel, the widely acclaimed and read The Corrections, focused on the trials and tribulations of a modern-day family. His debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, while not as widely read and not as well written, is every bit as grand in scale as The Corrections and perhaps more pertinent to the present urban American landscape.
The Twenty-Seventh City’s title refers to its setting, the city of St. Louis, and its stature as the twenty-seventh largest city in the America. At heart, the novel is a study of the interplay between the city of St. Louis and the outlying county. In reality, the two were separated earlier in the twentieth century, and Franzen bases the novel in the hypothetical rejoining of the two. This is put in play when Jammu, a mysterious police chief from India, is hired as the chief of police in St. Louis. Jammu then begins a power play with the power brokers in the city-most notably Martin Probst, the contractor who built the Gateway Arch. What ensues is a hybrid thriller of a book involving cultural warfare, terrorism, and political corruption.
The stage is set for a rich stew of possibilities. Franzen manages to touch on many themes that most novelists are either too timid or plain unable to touch. Jammu enlists more and more of the city’s elite in her scheme to rejoin the city and county, using blackmail and shadowy terrorism, all the while cracking down on crimes she has invented. As this is going on, the mayor and others begin speculating on real estate and plotting “urban renewal” in an effort to make more money. It’s a mirror of reality, as many cities and counties are in fact separate, thus keeping minorities contained in urban settings, unable to tap the richer, white county’s resources.
Franzen succeeds in getting at the problematic aspects of the modern-day city, but if all this sounds like a lot for a novel to tackle, it is. Instead of focusing solely on Jammu and Probst (who’s a sort of well-to-do anti-hero, both naive and ambitious) Franzen rotates the point of view between more than ten different characters. The characters are all richly textured and well drawn, but the rotating points of view make it nearly impossible to invest much in any one character. The narrative often breaks down in confusion, and the reader is left wandering around in too many interesting characters. We’re often craving more from each one but not getting enough from anyone.
This is the greatest weakness to the novel, and it ultimately prevents The Twenty-Seventh City from being the taut, tight tour de force that The Corrections is. To be fair, however, it also is representative of Franzen’s greatest strength-his fearless ambition. Franzen seems to bust at the seams with things to say, and he almost always says them well enough for one to believe that he knows a lot about any subject. He tackles everything from city hall corruption in Jammu’s backroom dealings with city developers eager to make a buck to white flight from a black majority in the city. If the novel gets a little too far-fetched at times with its windy plot, it is certainly always readable and a bona fide page-turner.
That being said, there are many things about The Twenty-Seventh City that make it seem as if it were written in 2004 rather than 1988. The merger of city and county is shot down at the end of the novel because of voter apathy due to relentless campaigning by the city’s elite on both sides of the issue. Jammu and a secret society engineer fake terror attacks to keep the public afraid enough to believe she’s their savior, which is eerily reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s constant hyping of vague terror threats. And in an intensely funny joke that Franzen maintains, a minor character named General Norris crusades against what he perceives as a Communist threat.
For all of its twists, turns and confusion, readers should note that Franzen wrote this novel in his late twenties. Part tawdry thriller, part elevated dialogue on city politics, and part melodramatic musing on a marriage crumbling, the novel is full of the frazzled ends that The Corrections lacked due to its spit-shine polish. The book brings about a full-range of emotions, and residents of cities like San Francisco would do well to pick it up. After eight years of the Willie Brown machine, the Fajitagate scandal, and the isolation of the black community in Bayview, there are more than a few parallels to make us feel a sense of deja vu.