Grasping Ferguson Through Franzen: St. Louis and Its 'Tragic Glory'

People visit the makeshift memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 23, 2014. Joshua Lott/Reuters

It's all there, in Jonathan Franzen's first novel: racial unease, suburban malaise, a St. Louis hopeful and weary, where a funk band performs a song called "Gentrifyin' Blues," where a woman who is Indian has been chosen to run the police force, where terrorists who are (maybe) American Indians detonate a bomb during an NFL game and where, near the novel's conclusion, national media outlets descend like a plague of logorrheic locusts, greedy for stories of a metropolis about to rise from the postwar, postindustrial ashes and become the "first truly modern city in the Midwest."

A neat little numerical progression: The Twenty-Seventh City was published 26 years ago and was written when Franzen was 25, "a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel," as he much later told The Paris Review. That kid came Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb about a 30-minute drive south of Ferguson, that site of so much recent American infamy and confusion and shame.

You already knew this had something to do with Ferguson, didn't you?

But Webster Groves is much further from Ferguson than the distance of 15 miles suggests. Ferguson is black, abandoned by whites in the 1970s. Webster Groves is white and always has been, a redoubt of familiar middle-class comforts. So emblematic is the town of a certain mid-century mindset that in 1966, when Franzen was seven, CBS News ran a documentary called 16 in Webster Groves, about the stultifying conformity of the place, where the pot smoke and protest songs were not yet in the air. "I'm perfectly happy the way I am," one square teen declares without a trace of self-awareness. Franzen echoes that sentiment in T27C, when his omniscient narrator intones, "Born lucky, residents guess. This is a home that feels like home." A home for Darren Wilson, not Michael Brown.

"I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class," Franzen wrote many years hence in The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. He estimates that middle-class blacks comprised about seven percent of the town. "I was cocooned in cocoons that were themselves cocooned," he declares, with obvious embarrassment, a little later.

This is the Webster Groves of T27C, which is set in "in a year somewhat like 1984," an anno ominosus forever to be endowed with Orwellian significance. I picked up the book after returning from Ferguson; I kept reading long after the morbid curiosity diminished. That alone would not have been enough to sustain my interest; nor will it be enough to sustain yours. In which regard we are #blessed. The novel is insane and insanely ambitious, sometimes crude and sometimes prophetic, restless, intemperate and often very funny. Have I missed an adjective? Have I told you that I enjoyed T27C more than Franzen's recent works?

First, the premise: St. Louis has appointed, as its new police chief, a woman from Bombay named S. Jammu, who back in India won fame for Project Poori, a delectable marriage of public safety and fried pastry. But in St. Louis, her aims are more nefarious: the accrual of real estate and political clout through extralegal means that include seduction of public officials and the staging of terrorist attacks ascribed to militant American Indians called the "Osage Warriors."

Jammu's main adversary on the political front is Martin Probst, "the busiest contractor in St. Louis," whose firm built the famed Gateway Arch that stands guard over the swollen Mississippi River. Probst lives in Webster Groves and is working on a development in West County, the posh exurbia safely removed from the city's grimy confines. The tension between Jammu and Probst is the ancient tension between town and country, between Hamilton and Jefferson, between the white suburbs and the black ghettoes. Those are much the same tensions that, somewhat reconfigured, have been playing out on West Florissant Avenue, near where Brown was shot to death.

The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praised the novel but concluded that the "reader finishes The Twenty-Seventh City feeling both impressed and disturbed," her apparent discomfort having to do with the characters' xenophobia. Kakutani nevertheless praised Franzen's portrayal of St. Louis, which she described as "a mythical place, a supercharged symbol of all-American dreams, values and problems." In 1992, Newsweek compared Franzen's second novel, Strong Motion, unfavorably to T27C, which the reviewer deemed a "huge and masterly drama of St. Louis under siege, gripping and surreal and overwhelmingly convincing." More recently, on the re-publication of T27C on its 25th anniversary, the editor and critic Parul Sehgal called the novel "ghastly" in a Slate review, finding herself disgusted by the characters and unable to engage with the topic of municipal intrigue. Fair enough.

But the real question is why you, today, should read T27C. You, with your Twitter feed full of Ferguson outrage and your Facebook feed full of ice-water altruism. You with your brunch dates and weekend plans, your Donna Tartt to read and Masters of Sex to watch and Nicki Minaj and/or Taylor Swift video to be outraged by. Let's put the matter very plainly: why should you give a shit about a book that was published, like, almost 30 years ago and, what's more, has been surpassed in both critical adulation and popular readership by subsequent works by the very same author?


Let's posit, first of all, that one of the purposes of fiction is to reveal truths that are impossible to reveal in other ways, truths wrapped in lies, but truths all the same. I submit that T27C has much to say about the "insular and constricted" city of St. Louis, not to mention the nearly 100 separate municipalities, fractured by fault lines of race and class, that bloom to the west of the city. It is a book of Midwestern verities. So it seems, at least, to an Eastern reader.

The best and worst thing about T27C is that it is a first novel. Keep that in mind as you read, but don't dwell on it, for every writer who wrote a second novel had to write a first one. The plot is restless, the irony sometimes a little thick ("Three hours later the girls tired of television…"), the satire sometimes too thick, too. Yet the novel has heart, more heart that Freedom and The Corrections, more heart than maybe anything else that Franzen has ever written. Like many first novels, it announces its literary debts, namely to Pynchon and DeLillo. Like few first novels, it then manages to transcend them, to become its own self. Never again would Franzen be so incautious, frenetically curious and thematically adventurous, so willing to make his native St. Louis (St. Jude in The Corrections, as if the true name had suddenly somehow become frightening) the nexus of so many ideas about the very nature of the urban American project. "The new generation had renounced the world in return for simplicity and self-sufficiency," he writes in both diagnosis and condemnation of the Eighties yuppies who had allowed cities like St. Louis to deteriorate. To write a thing like that, so dire and prophetic, you have to be either 25 or 75. God bless youth.

An introduction to the new edition of T27C by a professor of English at Swarthmore (Franzen's alma mater) deems the novel "an intricately poisonous love letter to his native St. Louis." I, for one, see more evidence of poison than of love. Franzen (who, with grace, declined to be interviewed for this piece) had left St. Louis a decade before, and the novel is filled with a dismay that sometimes lapses into poetic pity: "Compared with St. Louis, even Detroit looked like a teeming metropolis, even Cleveland like a safe place to raise a family." Jammu's plans to raze a black North Side neighborhood and hand it over to developers ("a real estate panic in the ghetto") are wild and wildly corrupt but also an oddly understandable desire to wrest the moribund city into modernity. "Buildings sit well here," one character says. "Almost too well, if you know what I mean."

An obvious comparison is to Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, which had been published the previous year. Wolfe is a better journalist, but that works against Wolfe the novelist. New York, for Wolfe, is little more than bountiful source material. But for Franzen, St. Louis is home, allowing the novel an occasional tone of credible elegy:

Oh, St. Louis. Did you ever really believe that Memphis had no history? That citizens of Omaha considered themselves unexceptional? Were you ever really so vain that you hoped New York might one day concede that, for all its splendor, it could never match your tragic glory? How could you have thought the world might care what became of you?"

While Franzen's portrayal of the calculating Jammu may not pass muster today — this is Sehgal's most credible complaint in the aforementioned Slate review — she serves as a necessary foil to the white characters, who are even more deplorable than she. If anything, realism renders them more worthy of our scorn, while Jammu never seeks to be anything more than a comic villainess. The whites who back her "urban renewal" plan have been morally compromised by her operatives and/or stand to gain from the project. Others, happy in the suburbs, want nothing to do with the city, want not to assume the spiritual and moral debt of St. Louis, "fear reinforced by racism," as Franzen brands it. Though he does not write about the inner-ring North County suburbs that are today black and full of discontent, over Michael Brown and so much else, he accurately describes the barely-submerged racial tension that hangs like noxious smog in the air over St. Louis.

Ferguson, that weeping St. Louis stepchild, surprised me. I had expected, foolishly, more poverty and less complexity. The people there do not read the ten thousand blogs that are our lifeblood in the media-centric havens of the coasts — and bless them for it. And yet they understand, with all the necessary nuance, the malicious brew of forces that left Michael Brown bleeding out in the middle of Canfield Drive a few minutes after noon on August 9.

Franzen, that macho man of letters, surprised me, too. I have disliked much of what he has written in the last decade, finding some of his recent work smug and almost purposefully hostile. T27C is neither, a book that truly deserves the otherwise overused (and misused) adjective "generous."

I may as well spoil the book for you. Jammu's plan fails, and St. Louis does not achieve the hoped-for resurrection. Near the end of the novel, a woman who has done nothing wrong is killed by the cops. She is white, a pawn in an intrigue and, well, not an actual person whose life was taken via errant state-sanctioned violence. But still.

Near the end of the novel, a city-employed public relations hack urges the just-arrived reporters to discover "what a marvelously vital and multifaceted place St. Louis had become." It hasn't, of course. Its halting progress is only the result of Jammu's ruthlessness, itself buttressed by the myopic avarice that is so endemic to the way America runs its cities. In The Twenty-Seventh City, the tragedy of St. Louis is at least make-believe. In Ferguson, that same tragedy is real.