da bookReview of The Twenty-Seventh City, by Jonathan Franzen

The year is 1984, a young Indian woman has been appointed chief of police in

the city of St Louis, Missouri, and she appears to be working miracles with

the local crime figures. But, as this is a political thriller, all is not what

it seems. Suddenly, Indians start appearing all over the mid-western city, and

nobody seems to mind.

According to the blurb, this novel "shows us an ordinary metropolis turned

inside out, and the American Dream unravelling into terror and dark comedy".

OK.

Much is made of the St Louis inferiority complex – it is presented as something

of a third-rate American city (the title refers to its ranking in a league table

of US cities) with an ambitious ruling class. Most of the action takes place

in the homes, offices, workplaces, hotels and ranches owned and frequented by

the affluent white ruling class of St Louis. The appointment of S. Jammu, a

policewoman from Bombay before it became Mumbai, is something of a publicity

coup; a first for St Louis, and is heralded as a new dawn for the city.

But, we learn that Jammu’s appointment is in fact part of a dastardly plan

by a group of radical Indian Marxist terrorists (no really, work with me here).

The principle aim of the plan is vague, but it appears to be a combination of

socio-political experiment and attempt to undermine the fabric of US politics.

To what end, I’m not sure. I think we’re supposed to think: "oooh Marxists…Russia..

1984…Reagan era…Evil Empire", but I’m not sure. The first strike is

when a local brewing magnate marries a fabulously wealthy Indian princess called

Asha. The second is when Asha Hammaker’s close friend, Jammu, is appointed chief

of police. The third is when large chunks of the city’s derelict North Side

is purchased by the brewing magnate and his cronies, possibly under Asha’s influence.

Asha and Jammu begin charming the St Louis elite, while also ensuring Jammu’s

reputation as an effective leader with a few well-timed, bloodthirsty and utterly

pointless strikes from a mystery environmental terrorist group called the Osage

Warriors. The name Osage, incidentally, refers to the native American tribe

that lived on the land now occupied by St Louis, and it’s probably the last

time you’ll hear about native Americans in this book. Because this book isn’t

concerned with America, it’s concerned with America’s fear of what lies outside

America.

Jammu and her Bakuninesque adviser/fixer, Balwan Singh, target Martin Probst,

an upright, sober, honest and rather dull man who appears to embody Mid-West

America. He’s successful, he’s ambitious – he built the St Louis Arch, a big

metal landmark that stands by the river Missisippi – he has a beautiful, neglected

wife, a beautiful, neglected daughter, and a beautiful-but-unostentatious home

in a wealthy suburb. Probst is seen as a lynch-pin – the man that everybody

trusts, and the man that everybody wants on his side.

Note, I use "his" advisedly. Apart from Jammu and Asha Hammaker,

most of the political decision makers are men.

Jammu and Singh exploit Probst’s emotional isolation and make it complete.

His daughter runs away to her boyfriend’s house, and his wife has an affair

with one of Singh’s alter egos (he’s a bisexual master of disguise as well as

being an surveillance expert using technology about ten years in advance of

anything in 1984 America, just in case you were wondering). Singh’s alter ego

kidnaps her, and holds her captive in one of the more interesting sub-plots.

As Probst’s emotional world collapses, his moral and political universe is endangered.

He campaigns publicly against Jammu’s attempts to widen her power base, but

ends up more powerful than ever, thanks to Jammu’s machinations.

Back to what I said about America’s fear of what lies outside. The author carefully

avoids taking any stance other than amused, semi-detached irony. This is the

voice of an educated, confident, liberal American, who has taken a scalpel to

teh social and political tapestry of the United States in the 1980s. It’s a

Dynasty world, with big players and beautiful, ruthless women aplenty. Franzen

makes no apology for that, and positively revels in a world that most literary

authors leave to the writers of bonkbuster airport novels. Maybe the parody

is where it falls short. Apart from a few lovely lingusitic flourishes and the

eloquently phrased message in the closing chapters, I found myself carping at

the book’s literary shortcomings and quite honestly couldn’t see why so many

people made a fuss of such a mediocre stylist.

My reaction to the book was one of frustration. The Indian background was sketched

in.Of course, Jammu has to be related to Indira Ghandi – and carry her hallmarks

of ruthlessness and corruption. There is the odd reference to the "Emergency"

and the conflict between Hindus and Sikhs. Interestingly though, there are few

(maybe none) references to Partition, or to the ongoing conflict between Hindus

and Muslims. In fact, I don’t think there were any Muslims in this book, nor

any reference to Muslims – apart, perhaps, from Singh’s alter-ego, a psychotic,

seductive "Iranian" called John Nissing.

There were too many shortcuts; too many pat explanations (Jammu can run for

political office because her father was an American journalist…yeah? and a

Brahmin too?) too many questions starting with: "What the fu***". A deeply conservative city choosing a young Indian woman to head up its police force in the oh-so-enlightened 1980s is just one of them.

I wondered why Franzen chose Indians as the threat to the very fabric of society

– but most of all, I was left bemused as to why on earth a group of fabulously

wealthy foreign leftists would waste millions of rupees and dozens of lives

on laying political and economic siege to a minor American city, and then pack

up and leave just as suddenly as they arrived.

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