Having long been an admirer of Jonathan Franzen, I have finally found time to read his debut novel from 1988, The Twenty-Seventh City. I had a copy once, but it must have disappeared in a moving box somewhere, so I bought myself a worn, somewhat tiredlooking first edition hardback the other week.
That it’s a novel by Franzen there is no doubt. The prose, the short sentences, the handling of the sometimes brief encounters, quick jumps between the parallel lives of the different characters, explicit text. Everything is there already. A budding writer that would go further than anyone, apart from maybe Franzen himself, would expect.
The story is set in the authors home town of St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis was around the turn of the last century the fourth city in the United States, but by the early 1980s it had slowly but inevitably declined and crept further and further down the list. By now it is, you guessed it, the twenty-seventh city in the US. With no particular claime to fame, apart from maybe the Gateway Arch (the tallest man-made monument in the United States with its 192 meter), St. Louis has now out of nowhere elected a female Chief of Police, straight from the Bombay Police Force. She, S. Jammu, is just thirty-five years old but has already a fierce reputation from India for governing with a firm hand and a no-bollocks policy. Still, why she was elected is a mystery to most.
Martin Probst, a hugely successful contractor who among other things built The Gateway Arch (entirely fictional character, according to Franzen) and rose to fame in his late twenties because of this project, is now a tired fifty-something man having lost track in life. He is running an underground like business group, apart from his hugely successful contracting business, where the big shots in St. Louis meet. Called Municipal Growth, they work as a highly dubious “advisory board” to the county. They have dinner together and discuss the future of the city how they would want it, and then try making it happen. They are strongly opposed to a merger between the city and the county of St. Louis, while police chief Jammu is a supporter of this. The success of this merger is part of a grander scheme hatched by chief Jammu, her mother back in India and some other murky business associates on another continent.
To make this business scheme happen, chief Jammu has pulled out all stops imaginable by bringing with her, without the Americans knowing; bomb specialists, a cocaine addicted prostitute to seduce men from Municipal Growth and lure them away from their wives (works like a clock that one), specialists in planting surveilance devices in the most important mens homes, cars and offices, and numerous other strange existances. When they have done their job they’re put on a jetliner back to India where they disappear with their large sallary, no questions asked. Jammu and her mother, or rather a cover for them in the shape of an old man in a wheelchair who’s wheeled around town, has bought up enormous plots of land in St. Louis. This is the main part of their little scheme, buying land and property that will later be part of inner St. Louis when the merger has gone through.
Inevitably Martin Probst and chief Jammu gets involved in a destructive relationship based on sex and power, but not until Probst wife of more than twenty years have “left him” for a journalist/photographer from an interior design magazine. That she has actually been kidnapped is something Probst finds so utterly implausible that he just waves the thought away. After all, she calls him from New York. Which kidnapper would let their victim do that? The answer: someone on Jammu’s payroll. Probst’s involvment with Jammu makes him leave Municipal Growth and the Vote No movement he has started, and he joins the support of the merger between county and city, but in usuall Franzen style the vote is lost and there is to be no merger, all down to low turnout to the polling stations due to bad weather on election day.
Probst house is burnt down to the ground due to the cocaine addicted prostitute Devi who’s braken in to his house, forgotten a burning cigarette in the basement and fallen asleep on the second floor. Barbara Probst is let go by the kidnapper, Nissing. Jammu wanted her dead, but since Nissing has fallen in love with Mrs. Probst that is not happening. However, Barbara Probst is accidentally shot in the face by a police officer in a car shoot-out. Everything is slowly falling apart. Jammu’s scheme has not been exposed though there has been some serious attempts to do so. She still feels everything crumble and shake under her, and she shoots herself immediately before a press conference at the St. Louis precinct. Once again, or rather for the first time, has Franzen put a bullet in the American soul.
The Twenty-Seventh City is a first novel. For that it is a master piece. You immediately recognize Franzen’s voice, his very special way of telling a story. Not until you have finished the book do you fully realize how damning it is, how full of critisism toward our society. What Franzen of today is sometimes critisized for, is in this his first novel very fresh. Not until the later novels like The Corrections or Freedom, published just over eight months ago, can you see that there is a pattern which might be a bit tiresome. In The Twenty-Seventh City we already have the bird watcher theme; the man in his late forties or early fifties lost in his own life; the talented wife that should have made something of herself but decided to get married and have kids just after college and that was that. They are all there, and the critique of the American Dream, or the downside of the American Dream perhaps, is rubbed in our face like never before. What Franzen leaves up to the reader is how to deal with it. How to solve this perpetual dilemma. This novel does what all his later novels does too, it forces you to confront your own values and your own way of life. It might not be as subtle in its handling of the plot nor as skilled in its way of putting forward the society critique as Freedom, but The Twenty-Seventh City is a darn good read.
Just like expected.