Jonathan Franzen’s The Twenty-Seventh City has long been unjustly ignored, by scholars and general readers alike. Though The Corrections has garnered far more critical and media attention, Franzen’s debut effort is much more ambitious and far wider in scope, as it attempts to recuperate the aims of the great social novels of the nineteenth century, those so-called ‘Condition of England’ novels (of Dickens, Gaskell, Disraeli and others) which tried to comprehend the changes that the industrial revolution was making to the heretofore (allegedly) unified culture of the nation.
The Twenty-Seventh City dares to dream that the novel can still attempt to make such comprehension possible. Published in 1988 at the end of neo-liberalism’s first brush with success, it manages to retain a remarkable sense of contemporaneity while it addresses itself to those perennial economic and social issues that life under capitalism has always raised: that is, while Franzen pays close attention to how shifts in late capitalism have induced changes in the social and subjective lives of his characters, he also takes pains to address how these changes emerge from the unchanging essence of capitalism’s logic. This unchanging aspect of life under capitalism is to be found in what Marx calls the “fetishism of commodities”, a process by which commodities gain a quasi-human agency while human beings experience ‘reification’, (become thing-like):
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing. Simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour: it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour . . . therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things(Marx 1995 ) . (Marx 1995, 43-44, my italics)
Under capitalism, Marx tells us, people and things exchange places in a fundamental way, with grave consequences for social, family and individual life, and this is something that Franzen’s novel pays exceedingly close attention to: although the characters in The Twenty-Seventh City seem to operate according to the principle that guided the making of the television series Seinfeld (‘no learning, no hugging’ (Epperson 167)), they are nonetheless complexly rendered, even if they do tend to take a back seat to the city itself. For St. Louis, much like Coketown in Dickens’s Hard Times, is the real main character of this novel, and the task that Franzen has set himself is much the same as for Dickens: to make the hidden logic, the concealed social relations that make this city tick, baldly visible.
When we first meet St Louis it is a city of and for the un-dead, of things in a state of ‘unnatural’ animation’, a zombie-like state of being that the commodity form takes on under capitalism. For capital is, as Marx reminds us, very much un-dead, or ‘dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’(Marx 1995, 149):