Friday, September 10, 2010

Literary, Arch-Type

Yes, the title is a very bad pun. Sorry about that, it's the best I could come up with.

Jonathan Franzen is in the news right now for Freedom, his first novel in nine years; apparently President Obama is among its first readers.

As usual, I'm way behind the times. I'm reading Franzen's first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.

It's set in my adopted home area, the St. Louis metro, and although it was published 22 years ago it holds up very well in terms of evoking the locale. I recognize most of the places (and to the extent that some of them have changed I either remember or can believably mentally reconstruct their 1980s versions); some of the people, names changed to protect the guilty, are also familiar as individuals or types.

The antagonist, Jammu, lives either (I'm not really clear on it, and may have missed an outright statement on it) in the Chase Park Plaza hotel on Kingshighway or in a nearby apartment building. If the latter, it's almost certainly the building Tamara works in or one of the two others on the same block. The protagonist, Martin Probst, lives in Webster Groves, home of Webster University (where Tamara earned her degree). Franzen achieves verisimilitude (and not just in terms of physical description) with respect to both areas, as well as those around and in between the two.

This isn't intended as a review of the novel -- I'm taking my time with it and am nowhere near finished with my first full reading. One thing that strikes me pretty hard and that I'd like to share, though, is this description of what the antagonist is attempting to inflict on the protagonist (I'll leave the "why" of it out):

Fighting her enemies in Bombay and furthering the interests of her relatives, Jammu had developed the idea of a "State" in which a subject's everyday consciousness became severely limited. The mildest version of the State, the one most readily managed in Bombay, exploited income-tax anxiety. To the lives of dozens of citizens whose thinking she wished to alter, Jammu had the Bureau of Revenue bring horribly protracted tax audits. And when the subject had reached a state in which he lived and breathed and dreamed only taxes, she'd move in for the kill. She'd ask a favor the subject would ordinarily never dream of granting, force a blunder the subject six months earlier would not have committed, elicit an investment the subject should have had a hundred reasons not to make .... She'd taken liberals and made them guilt-stricken, taken bigots and turned them paranoid.

Not being a sophisticated literary analyst, I can't say for sure whether or not Franzen intends "the 'State'" as a metaphor for ... well, the state. It certainly works as that, though, and Franzen seems too smart to not have noticed what he's doing there.

Note: The cover image in the Amazon affiliate link thingum [which I've removed since I don't do business with Amazon any more -- TLK, 01/30/12] is from a 2001 reprint edition. I'm not absolutely sure on the perspective, but my guess would be that it's the Gateway Arch as seen either from the Metrolink rail bridge over the Mississippi, or from the building housing the Laclede's Landing Metrolink station on the Missouri side.

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