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Jonathan Franzen: The Twenty-Seventh City

St Louis used to be the fourth largest city of the United States but now, apparently, has slipped back to twenty-seventh. The novel starts with the appointment of S Jammu as police chief of St Louis. Jammu is a native of Bombay (Mumbai), where she was a successful police officer, a woman and only thirty-five. She is ambitious and organises a complex group of people who spy and threaten and cajole the St Louis bigwigs. On the other side, the bigwigs conspire for their part, primarily under the leadership of one, Martin Probst. The plot is also very complex, with all sorts of things going on – real estate booms, terrorist attacks, kidnapping, spying and conspiracies galore. Indeed, it is difficult to keep track of it all. And that is the problem as I found the whole thing to be messy with no cohesive centre. The book is funny and clearly sets out to address key issues of racism, politics, greed, what makes a community (and what makes a city) and what it is to be an American in the late twentieth century. But none of it really works. Perhaps Franzen was too focused on writing a mega-novel to write a novel.

Publishing history

First published 1988 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux