By Parul Sehgal, The Slate Book Review, Nov. 8, 2013
Some books ought to be allowed to molder in peace. Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, is a paranoid conspiracy novel, the kind of thing that doesn’t age well—and hasn’t. It has earned some rest. But it’s been trotted out for its 25th anniversary, and to make matters worse, saddled with a new introduction, a moist and ghastly piece of writing by an academic named Philip Weinstein. “Most readers know about Jonathan Franzen by now,” Weinstein writes. “One of our darling novelists, an earnest bad boy.” He tells us everything about the book—its excellent reception, its ambition and prescience—everything except how roundly Franzen has denounced it.
“The Twenty-Seventh City is one big mask,” Franzen told the Paris Review in 2010. “I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely middle-aged writer. To write about what was really going on in me with respect to my parents, with respect to my wife, with respect to my sense of self, with respect to my masculinity—there was just no way I could bring that to the surface.”
What Franzen was capable of bringing to the surface is a hectic homage to Pynchon and DeLillo that springs from an appealing, slightly porn-y premise. The year is “somewhat like 1984,” and three Indian women—a chief of police, a princess, and a junkie—orchestrate a real estate scam in St. Louis with the help of its most prominent citizens, who they sexually manipulate into submission. The police chief (and mastermind) S. Jammu meets her foil in virtuous Martin Probst, who is almost “Christ-like in his incorruptibility.” To win him over, she tries to induce in him something she calls “the State,” a confused compliance that takes over once an individual has been stripped of everything he values. Jammu arranges for Probst’s teenage daughter to run away from home and has an operative seduce and kidnap his wife. Then she goes to work on Probst with her own subtler weapons.
I confess I’m making the book sound more entertaining than it is. Rarely has a novel about municipal politics so evoked the feeling of municipal politics: the tedium, the needless busywork. On every page Franzen heaves around evidence of his research on everything from St. Louis tax laws to Indira Gandhi’s suppression of civil liberties. On every page is the palpable anxiety—anxiety that feels specifically male—to prove that writing is labor. Franzen’s own parents “actively discouraged” his work, he has said: “They considered art of all kinds, including creative writing, frivolous.” Hence this book, perhaps, its suspicion of beauty and pleasure that seems like an ethical stance. The son of a civil engineer is proving to his father that he could build a city (and destroy it).
“I see a 25-year-old with a very compromised sense of masculinity,” Franzen says in that Paris Review interview. “There was a direct transfer of libido to the brain—this was my way of leaving the penis out of the equation and going with what I knew I had, which was that I was smarter than most people.”
The trouble with this interpretation (aside from its striking smugness) is that the book doesn’t suffer from its cleverness. An excess of cleverness does not produce writing like this: “Steam insinuated itself through the floorboards. Slowly it oozed open Norris’s towel and granted a view of the boneless wealth, pink and furry, between his legs. His private parts. He’d been born with them.” The book suffers from its callowness, a callowness that is moral, aesthetic—and technical, too. Franzen makes elementary errors.
For most of the book, Franzen flails at the controls. Exposition abounds, events that should be summarized drag out in tiresome scenes, what should be insinuated is instead cudgeled home. To leave no doubt in our minds that the Indian cabal has thoroughly penetrated St. Louis’s power structure, Franzen has the princess fly a small plane through the St. Louis Arch, which obligingly “spread its legs” for her. His idea of significant detail feels decidedly off; it is crucial, apparently, that a character is eating two yellow M&Ms or a large even number of Fig Newtons, that a cigarette pack is caramel-colored. But he leaves his characters as thin and broadly drawn as playing cards. In one instance, a lisp passes as characterization.
And it’s curious that the depictions of foreigners are quite so crude, given that the book, at least intermittently, criticizes xenophobia. Franzen’s Indians quote the Kama Sutra while making love (I assure you we do no such thing) and speak in spiritual mumbo jumbo. (“He is haveing no sins but morality. He will die: every man is moral. This is the key,” one writes. The spelling error is in the original.) His Englishman is forced to reassert his Englishness in every sentence, a “blast,” “dash it all,” or “old chap” tumbling out of his mouth every time he opens it.
These clumsy characterizations aren’t just consigned to dialogue. Even when writing from the point of view of nonwhite characters, Franzen cannot shake the white writer’s fixation with describing gradations of brownness and blackness. Indian Jammu has “bluish lips,” African-American Clarence has “skin the color of pecan shells,” and Singh’s “light skin had received additional sunniness from some Middle Eastern ancestor.” (Of the varieties of white complexions, nary a report.)
More problematic are the internal contradictions and lapses in logic. Franzen garlands his city and story in soot, smog, intrigue, and endlessly ramifying plot lines. He loses his way, and accordingly, his critique misses its mark. He unwittingly seems to affirm a fear of foreigners: The immigrants turn out to be terrorists, and the closest thing to a hero in the book is a raving, racist old codger who sniffs out the conspiracy. It’s surely not what Franzen intended—one hopes, at least—especially given that this book was published while anti-Indian sentiments were high in America; just a year before, a hate group calling themselves the Dotbusters (after the bindi Hindu women wear) terrorized Indians in New Jersey, vandalizing their homes and killing one man. Michiko Kakutani raised this question in her New York Times review, asking, “Is he—inadvertently, perhaps—feeding this country’s worst suspicions about foreigners and populist politics?”
It’s an odd exercise to pan a book that’s 25 years old, scarcely read, and whose author hasn’t just forsaken it but raided it for its best bits. Much of The Twenty-Seventh City was repurposed for Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom. Strip away the politics, and they share the same structure: A Midwestern family is shaken when a teenaged child leaves home to live with a disreputable lover. The clever, mildly depressed wife has an affair with an “exotic” foreigner (or just someone who looks like one; in Freedom, Patty Berglund sleeps with a man who resembles Muammar Qaddafi). The husband finds comfort with an “exotic” foreigner himself, a sexually insatiable Indian woman who (improbably) falls in love with him. Here, Franzen gets to work out some fantasies in very soppy prose—and kill off the young woman once she’s served her purpose.
But to return to The Twenty-Seventh City is to be reminded that great art rarely emerges from great ideas or ambitions. Great art seems to be born from what is narrow, obsessional, and repetitive in us. In this novel, Franzen first glimpses his plot, that small fertile plot that will sustain three more books: the psychosexual dramas of the nuclear family; his horror of Midwestern complacency, hectoring mothers, militantly joyless fathers. We see, too, the missteps that will continue to dog him, especially the satirist’s blind spot for his own fallibilities, for his own Midwestern complacency, his propensity for hectoring and militant joylessness. For how completely he is a Jonathan Franzen character.