Ryan's Reviews > The Twenty-Seventh City

The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen
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Apr 15, 11

Read from April 05 to 14, 2011

I am a definite Franzen fan, I loved Freedom and thought the Corrections was a fascinating character study kind of book even if I thought Freedom did laps around it. But this is not in the same class as those two. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it, but at times it felt like a bit of a labor, and if it weren't for the trust Franzen has already built up with me from his past works, I'm not certain I would have seen it through to the end.

The plot is a sprawling conspiracy tale set in St. Louis where an Indian (as in, from India) police chief hatches a massive and often confusing plot to merge St. Louis city and county and grab up as much power and influence in the process as she can. Like Franzen's other novels, the point of view shifts around amongst the characters at breakneck speed and there is no clear protagonist/antagonist, as the shifting viewpoint is used to show the flaws and hidden plots of the many characters.

Her main opponent/target is Martin Probst, a construction guy who is an icon in St. Louis for having built the Arch. Probst's family and their many issues are a big part of the story, and as I could have predicted, I think this is where Franzen is at his best. Even 20+ years ago, he was nothing short of spectacular at writing about the family dynamic.

To me, this book felt just too massive (It was 517 pages with very small typeface) and too ambitious. Because of the amount of local governments and entities and power brokers that are naturally involved in the running of a city and county, he needed a lot characters. I didn't have trouble keeping them straight for the most part, like I saw others complaining about, but the web of the conspiracy is woven so intricately that at times it can be easy to get one plot mixed up with another.

And then I have a few random points I wanted to make
-Why in the hell was there a constant mention of people being sick, as in ill, in this book? I kept waiting for some kind of pay-off, but it never came. This isn't exactly Chekov's Gun theory, but there had to be at least ten different characters who complained about being sick with a nasty cold. Strange.

-In the beginning Franzen makes it clear that this book is a work of fiction and that any similarities between this and real life are not to be taken as any sort of commentary on the real St. Louis. So naturally the thing I am most intrigued by is the comparisons between this and real St. Louis. If anyone knows of any sort of article out there that stacks them up, please let me know.

-In the Corrections and Freedom I loved the way that Franzen played with different styles of writing. I found it refreshing, so I guess it makes sense that this skill was not developed overnight and he had to hone that craft with some less-than-successful attempts at unique styles. This is the place for some of those less-than-successful styles. My personal pet peeve was the device where he would write an entire sequence without identifying whose perspective it was being told from. By the end of the passage I was always able to figure it out, but then I would have to go back and re-read to get a better understanding. That felt like trickery to me and a style for the sake of style, not an actual effective writing tool.

All in all, I thought this book was interesting and I am glad I read it, but be warned going in that it is no picnic and certainly no Freedom.
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