Jonathan Franzen’s First Novel Was Terrible

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 8 2013 8:08 AM

Jonathan Franzen’s First Novel Was Terrible

But it’s being reissued anyway.

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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.

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen

Photo by Kathy Chetkovtich

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.)

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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.

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The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. Picador.

Parul Sehgal is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.

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