Eighteen years after its hardcover publication date, and the year that it arrived on my doorstep from the Book of the Month Club (probably the last thing that I ever bought from them), and fiteen years after a false start, I have finished reading my copy of The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel. I. Have. Finished. The Twenty-Seventh City. I feel that more of a burden has been lifted from me than when I finished In Search of Lost Time.
I never meant for it to go this long. In 1991, I read about fifty pages of this political thriller/social satire set in St. Louis in the middle of the Reagan-Thatcher years. And I was interested, but I put the book aside for some reason. And one month became two and became twelve, and then it was a case of starting over because I’d forgotten who S. Jammu and Martin Probst were. And if you’re starting over, then there are so many other enticements on the “read me” shelf, fresher choices. I let Franzen’s second novel go by, and then I read and enjoyed his third, The Corrections, five years ago. And still the bridesmaid, The Twenty-Seventh City remained on the shelf.
Then, finally, I dug back into it the day before Thanksgiving. It was worth the wait. I think it’s a stronger book than the other, certainly more ambitious, with themes of gentrification and coming of age and cultural assimilation, and what it means to have built something without designing it (Probst is the fictional general contractor who has built the Gateway Arch). And Probst’s antagonists are among the most chillingly manipulative that I’ve met in print. There are good lyrical passages, a little history of urban planning and development, and compelling plot. Oh! and a map!
I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. The next most-senior book on the shelf is Angela Carter’s final novel, Wise Children, which went with me on vacation to the Outer Banks in the early 1990s and was never finished.