04 October 2012

On bold, fresh starts

My paperback copy of Jonathan Franzen's debut novel THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY contains in the front matter one of my favorite absurd blurbs of all time. What's wrong with this picture?
"Franzen's tour de force (to call it a 'first novel' is to do it an injustice) is a sinister fun-house-mirror reflection of urban America in the 1980s... There's a lot of reality out there. THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY, in its larger-than-life way, is a brave and exhilarating attempt to master it." --Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
Still don't see it? Let me isolate it for you:
"To call it a 'first novel' is to do it an injustice." --Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
It is factually true that THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY was Franzen's first published novel (whether it was his first written, who even knows -- but probably not). There are pejorative things to be said about first novels that have traits we associate with them -- clumsiness in plotting, overly clever character names or traits, an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to detail. But a fact is neutral -- you can't call it unjust unless you are in a presidential debate.* Anyway, from what I can find Upchurch is still the critic at the Seattle Times lo these 24 years later, so maybe he can clarify that that's what he meant.

If that's indeed what he meant, then Upchurch is incorrect because Franzen's debut does bear some of these thumbprints of The Debut Novel as I have suggested. Packed with characters who get one scene in the spotlight and are barely mentioned again, inconsistent in timeline, it sprawls completely out of control and the ending doesn't do much to rein it in. But its biggest failure is also its biggest strength: The novel introduces a high concept and sticks to it even when introducing a thousand other things in the middle. It's a crazy concept, but it interested me enough to pull me through a crowd of largely unlikeable errors.

The conceit that Franzen is faithful to, to a fault, can be summed up like this: "What if the political conspiracy a bunch of cranky old white men think is happening in their city is real?" The city in question is St. Louis (the titular 27th city -- I assume that was its ranking in the 80s when this book was published, it's now something like 58th) and the triggering event is the appointment of a new police captain, S. Jammu, from India. Jammu's commitment to cleaning the city up is called into question by a number of successful businessmen who view her as an interloper (some of them with clear racist overtones) and who are skeptical of her popularity and determination; the book is largely told through the perspective of one of them, construction magnate Martin Probst, best known for owning the company that built the Arch. A few even posit that the coincidence of Jammu's arrival and the marriage of another of the city's leading lights to an Indian heiress is proof that there's a conspiracy to change St. Louis' direction. And guess what? There is! (I didn't spoiler-tag it because you find that out in the first 50 pages -- well ahead of poor Probst.)

This week I finally finished D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY, in which Franzen plays a minor role as DFW's friend who encouraged him to write more sincerely and less to cleverness. When they met Franzen was (I think) already 2 published books in to Wallace's 1, and appeared at least to Wallace to have more direction in his life; Max suggests that Wallace looked up to him more than he envied him, although there was probably some of both on both sides.

This charge to write moral, sincere fiction is a little funny but not outright contradictory when looking at THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY, because I did feel sympathetic toward Martin Probst -- to a point. Like Charlie Chaplin, he is caught up in this great mechanism of city politics that he doesn't understand, even though he believes he does. The soul of this book is still fairly cynical, though; having read Wallace's first novel THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM I felt more attuned to its central character Lenore's search for meaning and self-definition. (Then again, maybe I would have anyway given that Lenore's a 20something recent graduate and not a 50something captain of industry.) In any event, it seems that Franzen took his own advice.

*ZING! Guess what I spent too much time watching last night! 

No comments: