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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Twenty-Seventh City

Jonathan Franzen

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To purchase The Twenty-Seventh City

Title: The Twenty-Seventh City
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988
Length: 517 pages
Availability: The Twenty-Seventh City - US
The Twenty-Seventh City - UK
The Twenty-Seventh City - Canada
The Twenty-Seventh City - India
La vingt-septième ville - Deutschland
Die 27ste Stadt - Deutschland
La ventisettesima città - Italia
Ciudad veintisiete - España

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Our Assessment:

B : bustling, crowded novel, with too much unsaid and unexplained

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FASz . 7/9/2003 Tobias Rüther
The LA Times A+ 4/9/1988 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/10/1988 Peter Andrews
San Francisco Chronicle . 25/9/1988 Wendy Edelstein
TLS . 6/6/2003 Stephen Burn
The Village Voice . 13/9/1988 Carol Anshaw
The Washington Post A 4/9/1988 Michele Slung
Die Welt . 13/9/2003 Wieland Freund
Die Zeit . 13/11/2003 Thomas E. Schmidt

  Review Consensus:

  An impressive debut

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gemessen an den Korrekturen ist der Roman aber weniger luftig und vor allem nicht so lustig. Das Buch ist Ehedrama, Thriller und Schlüsselroman in einem" - Tobias Rüther, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Jonathan Franzen has written a novel of our times; so imaginatively and expansively of our times, that it seems ahead of them. (...) A sprawl of talents; sometimes, a tangle of them. City is a book of far-fetched conspiracy and comic outlandishness that manages, like the least adjustment of a faceted glass, to refract a distorted image into a startlingly exact one." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Twenty-Seventh City is a remarkably accomplished first novel whose labyrinthine plot anatomizes an imagined St Louis." - Stephen Burn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "As one plunges into this unsettling and visionary first novel, it's hard not to be infected by the author's own confidence. For much of the book, one simply forgets that Jonathan Franzen is a very young man, that this is a beginner's effort, and that the lifelike setting is, in fact, an alternate reality. (...) Most definitely, The Twenty-Seventh City is not a novel that can be quickly dismissed or easily forgotten: it has elements of both "Great" and "American"." - Michele Slung, The Washington Post

  • "Er holt aus zu nicht weniger als dem Roman eines Gemeinwesens, das er nach den Gesetzen der Chaostheorie zum Einsturz bringen will. Satz eins ist bloß der Schmetterling, der mit den Flügeln schlägt und so einen Sturm provoziert. Der Leser staunt, stolpert -- und stürzt dann in den Roman." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

  • "Die 27ste Stadt ist ein Stück politischer Science-Fiction mit vielen Elementen eines Thrillers. Es ist ebenso ein Familienroman mit gesellschaftskritischen Ansprüchen. Vielleicht liegt es nicht nur an seinen Verworrenheiten und Pedanterien, sondern auch an der Rückkehr der Mythologie von Gut und Böse in die Wirklichkeit, dass man der künstlich leeren Dramatik von Franzens Roman nur mühsam folgt." - Thomas E. Schmidt, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Twenty-Seventh City is a novel about author Jonathan Franzen's hometown, St. Louis. Once the fourth city of the United States (albeit way back in 1870), full of promise, St.Louis couldn't maintain its position. A crime-ridden municipality, with the majority of its population black and poor, the city is surrounded by but separate from the wealthier county around it. The plot of the novel revolves around efforts to join county and city together, building up to a referendum to decide the issue.
       The novel begins with the appointment of one S.Jammu as Chief of Police. The unlikely candidate -- previously of the Bombay police department, and only 35 -- gets installed before anyone can do much about it. She is an American citizen, but she rose through the law-enforcement ranks in India (with some spectacular success).
       Jammu has grand plans, expecting to become the "Madam of the Mound City" very quickly. She has a group of trusty (and not so trusty) cohorts -- notably Singh -- who spy on the movers and shakers in the town, and prod them to do Jammu's bidding. There is real estate speculation on a grand scale, and politics too. Jammu is after power, though what she wants it for isn't completely clear. The means seem to interest her more than the ends.
       Jammu is a significant figure in the novel, but not really central. Indeed, no character seems central in Franzen's centrifuge of a novel: there are literally dozens splattered across the pages -- all almost always on the edges.
       Martin Probst, who emerges as Jammu's most difficult opponent, is the closest to a central figure. He is an important business leader, and stands in the way of Jammu's plans. And while others are easily swayed, Probst stands fairly firm. Eventually, Jammu uses (or tries to use) first his daughter Luisa and then his wife Barbara against him -- with only modest success.
       Odd things begin to happen in St.Louis. Crime falls (pushed to neighboring areas), but there are suddenly stray terrorist attacks -- in which surprisingly few people are injured. There is an odd real estate boom in an unlikely area (carefully and very effectively orchestrated by Jammu). The old guard of business and civic leaders finds itself less unified and less powerful. There is clearly some sort of conspiracy in the air, but no one seems quite sure what the goals of the conspirators are.
       Franzen does incident quite well: there are amusing and exciting events throughout the novel. Spying, kidnapping, all sorts of obsessives obsessively going about their business, terrorist attacks, and political gamesmanship. He also has a rich cast of characters -- an enormous one. There is a great deal of dialogue, much of it revealing (though Franzen tends to try to get too clever with his many voices), and Franzen offers a huge number of permutations of people meeting and interacting.
       Unfortunately, the novel doesn't come together nicely as a whole. Not a one of the characters seems fully developed: they are ciphers, or pictures, with Franzen unable to get much beyond the snapshot view. They seem to have no background and no past, and even when Franzen provides a few memories for them, or scenes from their pasts, it doesn't add anything: the characters still seem terribly flat. Their actions and their words are often clever, but they are rarely revealing.
       There are also just so many characters, and Franzen heaps attention on them for a while, only to then largely ignore them. Probst daughter Luisa, for example, fades unsatisfactorily in and out of view a number of times. Few of the characters are memorable, and many seem completely pointless. There are some that are interesting, or verge on the interesting -- Probst, Jammu, and Singh, especially -- but even them Franzen can't make either fully convincing or engaging.
       The book spins apart: it is a scattershot effort with some fine pieces, but it barely holds together as a whole. There are strong sections, good dialogue, poignant moments -- and the conspiracy hangs mysteriously and darkly over the goings-on -- but at over five-hundred pages it is a long haul. A tighter focus (and better character development -- and fewer characters) would have done wonders for the book.
       Franzen writes quite well (with the dialogue considerably better than the descriptions here), but too much is also over-written -- here, too, less would have been more. There are far too many sentences only a creative writing teacher could love:

(...) he was all carnivore, his eyes lidded, his skin saurianly faceted.
       The Twenty-Seventh City has its moments -- but it doesn't make enough of them. It is an attic of a book: cluttered, badly illuminated, with small piles suggesting some order, but the grand design hard to grasp. Many of the pieces are evocative and artful -- but that doesn't make a novel. Franzen also has an ambitious plot, but he isn't willing to stake his novel on that either.

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The Twenty-Seventh City: Reviews: Jonathan Franzen: Other books by Jonathan Franzen under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American author Jonathan Franzen was born in 1959.

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