Jonathan Franzen Essay - Critical Essays


Jonathan Franzen is one of the best-known proponents of maximalism, also referred to as recherché postmodernism. He writes in a style in which lush, almost overblown prose is combined with a backdrop of realistic, almost journalistic narrative.

The Twenty-seventh City

Set in St. Louis in 1984, The Twenty-seventh City, Franzen’s first novel, is essentially a political thriller dealing with several major issues of the 1980’s, including urban crime and decay, the flight of residents to the suburbs, fears of communist terrorists, and increasing foreign investment in American companies and ownership of American real estate. Franzen describes the effects of these concerns in a city that in one hundred years has declined from the fourth largest city in the United States to the twenty-seventh. Because of this dramatic decline, local business leaders are looking for a way to revitalize the city, opening the doors to ambitious politicians and setting up themselves—and the city—as easy prey.

Within a few months, St. Louis sees an influx of immigrants from India, several of whom have ties to a terrorist cell of communist youth. First, one of the city’s wealthiest citizens marries Princess Asha (from Bombay, now Mumbai), who in turn uses her resulting wealth and power to assist her longtime friend S. Jammu in her plot to control the city. After a short but successful career as a police district administrator in Bombay, Jammu has been appointed chief of the St. Louis Police Department. With advice and money from her mother (who is known in Bombay as the laughing jackal of real estate), Jammu begins to build her power base, using a combination of wiretapping, bribery, extortion, intimidation, and even murder. Her goal is to become as important in the United States as her mother’s kinswoman Indira Gandhi is in India. Thus, the drive for power is a major theme in this novel.

Ambition is another dominant theme in The Twenty-seventh City. Using information derived from wiretaps in their homes, Jammu quickly enlists most of St. Louis’s influential men in her scheme to gain power by consolidating the financially struggling city and the more affluent suburbs. They quickly realize that her ambitions extend beyond St. Louis; because her father was American and she was born in Los Angeles, Jammu is actually eligible to run for the U.S. presidency.

Most opponents of Jammu’s plans are ordinary citizens who have become suspicious of the changes they have seen in property ownership, but she is not concerned about them because she knows they have no real power. She believes her only important obstacle is Martin Probst, the contractor who built the Gateway Arch and the most influential man in St. Louis. Considering Probst incorruptible by ordinary means, Jammu sets out to destroy his family, cripple him psychologically, and then seduce him sexually. Thus, the novel is a battle between probity and ambition for power, with the outcome in doubt until the final chapter.

Strong Motion

Franzen’s second novel takes its title from a seismologist’s term for the shaking ground along a fault line near the epicenter of an earthquake. In Strong Motion, earthquakes near Boston reveal not only weaknesses along a long-ignored fault line but also the destructive effects of individual and corporate selfishness, irresponsibility, and greed. Franzen focuses on parallels between the disruptions within a family and seismic activity in the Boston area. Just as the unintended effect of Sweeting-Aldren company’s illegal, deep-well disposal of toxic waste has been to upset the balance along a local fault line, the self-absorption, indifference, and greed of the Holland family have caused pain to the immediate family and, in a ripple effect, indirectly damaged the lives of their friends and associates.

Alienation is an obvious theme of this novel. The characters are isolated and self-absorbed. Louis Holland feels somewhat superior to his family because he has consciously rejected what he considers their materialism and indifference, but he treats his girlfriend Renee Seitchek with similar indifference. Renee has likewise refused to conform to her mother’s image of the ideal young woman, but she insists on the superiority of her ideas and her projects, ridiculing her coworkers and their projects. Thus, both she and Louis are more or less alienated from family, coworkers, temporary roommates, and even each other. Because they are outsiders, with few personal or professional ties, they cannot successfully pursue investigation of Sweeting-Aldren’s deep drilling and corporate irresponsibility until they are forced to rely on the family and coworkers they have scorned.

Eventually, the two learn to respect the ethical values of people they have considered corrupted insiders. For instance, when Louis’ sister, Eileen, and her fiancé, Peter Stoorhuys, understand the destruction caused by Peter’s father and the other company executives, they strongly repudiate this illegal...

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