Picks and Pans Review: The Twenty-Seventh City

updated 10/17/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Jonathan Franzen

How refreshing it is to see a little cynicism these days. In The Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen, 29, has written a startling, scathing first novel about American ambition, power, politics, money, corruption and apathy "in a year somewhat like 1984," according to the foreword, "and in a place very much like St. Louis." A woman police chief from India named S. Jammu comes to town and reduces common crime to provide a respectable cover for an evil conspiracy to buy the souls of prominent citizens. But the soul of one man, Martin Probst, is not so easy to acquire. He built the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and he himself is a symbol of all that's upstanding in America. So this becomes the story of Jammu's elaborate, sick schemes to ruin Probst's life by stealing his wife, his child, his business, his dignity and even his dog. The plot is every bit as imaginative and captivating as it is weird. But this is not experimental fiction. Franzen's voice and his ear for speech are solid. He is a master at capturing the essence of things American: the suburban dinner party, the mall, the Laundromat, the high school. In his impressive American zoo, Franzen has a cage for politicians: "American mayors fell into two distinct physical classes: sprawling endomorphs with loud personalities who could roll right over any opposition, and bland men or women with small, narrow builds well adapted to wriggling out of difficulties." And he has a whole nest of cages for media beasts—reporters, TV personalities and talk radio hosts: " 'Doctor,' Jack Strom was saying, 'in your latest book you describe what you call the Seven Stages of Cynicism ... which I believe you once called the Challenge of the Eighties.' 'Jack,' McFarland rasped, 'I'm glad you asked me that.' Always, always, they were glad Jack had asked." Whatever those seven stages are, you live through them in Franzen's city, in this new world made "for people who could despise it and succeed in it anyway.... for people who didn't care enough to have fights." Franzen draws a sad picture of a decaying America, but he does it with such talent and honesty that reading his book becomes at least as exciting as it is depressing. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $19.95)

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