Review 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".
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
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.