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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Illustration by Greg Ruth

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.

The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen

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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.

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