Episode 1: The Twenty-Seventh City

Published in 1988 and set in his native St. Louis, Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, is a promising, ambitious mess. A Pynchonian conspiracy (with a dash of DeLillo and Gaddis here and there), the novel features a convoluted conspiracy in which an Indira Ghandi-like figure and a gang of Indian immigrants attempts to quietly seize power via a campaign of torture, terrorism, and seduction. Their primary target is Martin Probst, a conservative family man. But this is not like Franzen’s later novels: the family life is tertiary to the main action, which mostly involves lengthy conversations about municipal politics.

In this episode, Erin, Alex, and Eric discuss what works (and mostly what doesn’t) about The Twenty-Seventh City, the book’s cringey racial and sexual politics, and whether or not its central plot is something out of Tucker Carlson’s fevered imagination.

About Mr. Difficult

How did Jonathan Franzen become America’s most divisive novelist? Is he even good? And what’s the deal with his relationship with birds, anyway? Mr. Difficult is a podcast devoted to exploring these and many other questions related to this great American novelist. (Or is it the great American novelist?) Join co-hosts Erin Somers and Alex Shephard and producer Eric Jett as they discuss each of Franzen’s six novels, as well as his nonfiction.