I’ve never been to St. Louis and have no intention of meeting anyone there. As a self-diagnosed agoraphobic, when I see touristy views of the St. Louis Arch I find them not only unattractive but downright perverse. “The Twenty-Seventh City,” Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel, is a paean of sorts to St. Louis- but a conflicted one, and one I don’t see the Tourism Board recommending.
In Franzen’s eyes, St. Louis slipped from its 1870s zenith as America’s 4th city, (and hey, there WAS that 1904 World’s Fair that Judy Garland was all crazy about) to its unofficial 1984 status as “America’s 27th City.” The political drama of St. Louis stems from the subtle takeover of the city by a female (Asian) Indian police chief named S. Jammu, and in particular her intricate attempts to destroy the Probst family: Martin, the architectural force behind the St. Louis Arch (we’re told); his wife Barbara, who ends up kidnapped in a bizarrely melodramatic detour; and Louisa, their eloping daughter.The characters are memorable and engaging, Franzen sustains his improbable fiction throughout, and believe it or not he even gives us a no-kidding shoot-out / car chase (it was the 80s, even literary fiction had that “Lethal Weapon” feel).
But I never quite got at his meaning: was he seriously suggesting that Indian interests were taking over his hometown’s integrity and fracturing the American dream? I’m not sure if Franzen was being xenophobic or simply suggesting the inevitability of a global future.In any case, the emergence of the Internet makes most of this novel’s paranoid points seem quaint in retrospect. Jonathan Franzen’s novels always feel like he’s alarmed about SOMETHING that’s sneaking up on him.The present.