When Jonathan Franzen’s first novel The Twenty-Seventh City had its 25th anniversary re-issue back in September of 2013, it was almost as ignored as much as it was when it was first published in 1988. While Eric Lundgren in The Millions wrote a poignant and nostalic reflection on the novel and its relationship to the city of St. Louis and Nina Martyris contributed an excellent piece on the novel’s complex portrayal of the Indian-American experience in the LARB, Paurl Segal wrote in Slate of its many failings. And that, at least as far as I could tell, was pretty much that.
The book is definitely not without its faults, but it does a lot of things very well indeed, and if you are a fan of Don Delillo or Thomas Pynchon you will recognize their influence on the book, which attempts to ‘unveil’ certain previously hidden or unacknowledged economic and sociological aspects of our lives to us. And though critics such as James Wood would decry any such attempts to go beyond the ‘proper’ scope of the novel (i.e., the investigation of the ‘soul’ of the isolated individual) as what Wood called ‘hysterical realism’, Franzen’s novel largely succeeds in its aim to get us to confront how our individuality is predicated and threatened by vectors of power and history. Lev Grossman, writing in Time Magazine, captures the ambitions of books like this superbly:
What I see now when I look at books like White Teeth and Infinite Jest and Underworld is—among many other things—an attempt to gesture at the infinite, overabundant, overwhelming complexity of reality, and the increasing force with which that complexity is borne in upon us by means electronic and otherwise (i.e. by the overabundance of blogs like this one). Those books rarely end without a suggestion that they could have gone on and on indefinitely, because the world’s narrative resources are just that inexhaustible. You rarely meet a character, even a minor one, without getting the impression that the camera could wander off with them, instead of with whoever the hero of the moment is, and the result would be as rich and interesting a novel as the one the author actually wrote. You can imagine those books as endlessly ramifying trees of story, their branches dividing and dividing until the reader gets the point, which is that they could branch and divide forever and still not capture the full complexity of the world around them.
If you don’t like these kinds of novels, don’t read them. But if you do, this one will open you up to considering, among other things, the role that capitalism plays in your life while you aren’t watching! Very few novels have attempted such a feat, and in this twenty-nine year old’s first novel, we see many of the above characteristics deployed with the maturity of a much older writer.
Franzen’s latest book, Purity won’t attempt any such feats: he’s long since changed his mind about the kinds of things that fiction ought to be doing. Oh, I’ll read it, and probably enjoy it well enough, but it probably won’t remain bubbling away in my veins long afterward the way The Twenty-Seventh City did –and does, to this day.
One final note, the following is quite a bit more academic-oriented than most of what appears on this blog (hysterical realism almost begs to be scrutinised in such a manner, though). The essay is quite long, but I’ve laboured to keep it readable as best I can!