The year is 1984, and in the quiet center of a declining Midwestern city, the Indians start to appear. They loiter on skybridges over otherwise dead downtown streets. They pose for snapshots in front of the train station, gather in saris for picnics on the hill beneath the art museum. An Indian princess suddenly marries the heir to a local brewery. At the annual Veiled Prophet Ball, where the city’s elite honors one of its own, the Prophet’s throne stands empty. Most mysteriously of all, after the city’s longstanding police chief retires, he passes over local candidates to select an unknown woman from Bombay as his successor. “The city was appalled,” the novel begins, “but the woman — one S. Jammu — assumed the post before anyone could stop her.”
The Twenty-Seventh City was published twenty-five years ago this month by a young writer named Jonathan Franzen. The book’s cover reflected the soaring ambitions of its author, an antiquated skyline dominated by an outsized Gateway Arch and a female face staring out intesely from under her bindi, sometimes called a third eye. The city was St. Louis — once the fourth largest city in the U.S., it had dropped to twenty-seventh by 1988 — helpfully rendered on a map inside the front cover as if it were a fantasy novel, the Midwest as Middle Earth. And in some ways it was a fantasy, the dark twisted fantasy of a native son.
Wasting little time, S. Jammu begins reconfiguring the political landscape. Her immediate goal is to restore St. Louis to its former glory by reintegrating the city with the more affluent and powerful county, from which it split off in the late 19th century. To this end, she funnels millions of foreign dollars into real-estate speculation on the city’s north side. She quickly converts the mayor, gains traction with the black community, and co-opts prominent business and governmental leaders to her cause. Along with her accomplices, most notably a decadent radical named Singh, she enacts a subversive program inspired by Indira Gandhi’s martial-law-like crackdown, the Emergency. The homes of prominent St. Louisans are bugged. When coercion and bribery fail, the arrivistes are not afraid to resort to car bombs, roadblocks, and paramilitary strikes — what might be called limited acts of terror.
The only man that stands in Jammu’s way is Martin Probst, a contractor from Webster Groves, the inner-ring suburb where Franzen grew up. A contractor who worked on the iconic Arch, and the widely respected leader of the civic-improvement organization Municipal Growth, Probst is a noble capitalist Ayn Rand could almost love (he defeated the unions but probably treats his employees too well). Probst distrusts Jammu and leads the opposition to her takeover of the city. This drives Jammu and Singh to extraordinary measures: they will attempt to induce “the State” in Probst. The State is in a shattered, vulnerable condition “in which a subject’s consciousness became extremely limited.” Singh’s account of the operation is chilling:
As a citizen of the West, Probst was…sentimental. In order to induce the State in him, it might be necessary only to accelerate the process of bereavement, to compress into three or four months the losses of twenty years. The events would be unconnected accidents, a “fatal streak”…lasting only as long as it took Probst to endorse Jammu publicly and direct Municipal Growth to do likewise.
Probst’s “fatal streak” begins with the death of the family dog, and escalates to the choreographed estrangement of his teenage daughter, who moves into the apartment of a young photographer. When Probst refuses to bend, Singh kidnaps his wife, Barbara. From its premise the novel extracts a ruthless set of consequences, spelled out in technocratic and emotionless prose — a technique that very effectively creates sympathy for the Probst family and its embattled patriarch. Probst is a flawed but decent man, devoted to his family and his privacy: his most characteristic expression is an awkward “well!” Even as Probst’s family falls apart, the peripheral characters in his life close in, such as his old and pitiable high school friend Jack DuChamp, the excellently unhinged gardener Mohnwirbel, and the right-wing lunatic General Norris (in this book, Norris has it all right). These characters seem like the repressed specters haunting Probst’s orderly American mind. What is stripped away by the conspiracy against him, and by extension the novel itself, is his “wellness,” his comforts and psychic embankments. It is not until his memorably germ-infested visit to a shopping mall on Christmas Eve that he recognizes what has happened to him: “He was sick, and the city was sick on the inside too, choking on undigested motives, racked by lies”
It was a long, dense, problematic novel about a city not exactly at the center of the nation’s consciousness, then or now. Nevertheless, Franzen’s debut was widely reviewed and, for the most part, highly praised. Richard Eder’s rave in the Los Angeles Times was titled “America’s History May Not Be Written by Americans.” In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani was more ambivalent, noting that “the storyline about a charismatic, Marxist-indoctrinated woman’s attempt to seize control of an American city by using terrorist tactics…sounds like a red-baiting, paranoid nightmare come true.” Neither response fully captured the anger of the novel or the extent of Franzen’s imaginative allegiance with the outsiders.
The local media saw it differently. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a defensive article about Franzen entitled “Don’t Judge by Cover: Author Likes His Hometown.” Referring to the first edition’s cover art, but implicitly to the novel itself, the Post asked: “Why so much distortion? Why would a son of St. Louis be so hard on his hometown?”
Franzen’s deeply ambivalent portrait of the city provokes these questions, and also exposes the bind of the first-time Midwestern novelist: even while the speculative plot unleashes chaos on St. Louis, the city itself is rendered with a wealth of local detail which I imagine will be exhausting to many coastal readers. Franzen builds up and dismantles the city at once, using a sinuous omniscient voice that glides between the locals and the plotting Indians (Jammu and Singh evoke the city’s imperial past when they attribute their terrorist acts to a front group called the Osage Warriors). It’s interesting to learn that the character Jammu was imported from a play Franzen wrote at Webster Groves High School. Behind the Pynchonesque conspiracy, there is an adolescent revenge fantasy at the novel’s heart, which produces some of its most inspired scenes: a suburban family taking cover as their windows shatter with gunfire, an explosion in a TV station parking lot, mass panic at a pro football game. Franzen reimagines the Midwest as an oddly theatrical war zone where terror is a fact of life. But the novel also makes us feel the loss of the Probsts’ rich, cluttered domestic life in Webster Groves, a history that readers must infer almost archeologically from its ruins. If it was possible to write a book of violent nostalgia, Franzen had succeeded.
My wife and I were surprised to find how much we liked St. Louis, after we moved here in the fall of 2004. We knew very little beyond the ominous reports that had filtered through the national media. “All cities are ideas,” Franzen writes. “They create themselves, and the rest of the world apprehends them or ignores them as it chooses.” By the time we arrived, the twenty-seventh city had fallen to the fifty-second (it is now the fifty-eighth). What we encountered was a vexed landscape, a crumbling but also rebuilding city which welcomed us into its project of rehabilitation. I read Franzen’s novel as a primer, a narrative of tragic decline, from the eclipse of St. Louis by Chicago in the 1870 census and the city’s shining moment at the 1904 World’s Fair, to de-industrialization, white flight, the demolition of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in the 1970s. Still, we’d never seen structures of such peculiar spectral beauty as the looming red-brick buildings that seemed to line every St. Louis street. While the city’s inequalities could be disorienting, a single wrong turn taking you from stable neighborhoods to areas of surreal devastation, it was also a fascinating place. We felt like we were living someplace where we could matter. After graduating with her master’s degree in urban planning, my wife found work managing data and making maps for a nonprofit that revitalized low-income neighborhoods. Despite the city’s rumored insularity, we grew connected and invested here, and within a few years we bought a house, adopting the city and its problems as our own.
In March 2008, on her way home from work, my wife was attacked on a quiet street just blocks from our house. What began as a mugging devolved into sexual assault. (She later brilliantly documented how the attack altered her mental map of the city on her blog.) A few days later, the police caught up to the perpetrator and arrested him in the bird sanctuary of a nearby park. He pled guilty to all charges, sparing my wife from testifying at his trial, so in this limited, legal sense, everything was resolved. Yet at the same time, over the months and years to follow, she was haunted by the experience in State-like ways. And while her experience remained fundamentally unimaginable to me, no matter how many times I replayed her description in my head, my confusion and anger became its own kind of State, so that I would join her there. It was impossible not to think of her as I reread the passages about Barbara Probst’s captivity in a desolate East St. Louis warehouse. To maintain the charade that Barbara has left Probst for him, Singh dictates her weekly phone calls to her husband, and as artificial as they are, these scenes do actually capture the distortion, the brittleness that can enter a relationship after a trauma. It never felt like we were alone in those days, as if our conversations were being filtered through an interpreter. We could feel, with Probst, that “the whole city [was] a thing of foreignness and menace.” We turned off the news: every report of violence — and these were violent post-recession years in St. Louis — resounded with suddenly personal import. My wife carried a timetable of civil twilight so that we would never be caught outside after dark; in the dark we stayed home and watched TV, something safely fictional. Guilt filtered into our daily lives, leading us to question our most basic acts, until we felt culpable in our mere presence. We wondered if our earlier enthusiasm for St. Louis wasn’t naive. At one point, Franzen writes of Barbara Prost: “This was the worst pain of all, that the world seethed with motives she could never grasp.” While we eventually emerged, and saw the attacker as an individual rather than a malign force, his crime something that could have occurred anywhere, the city never looked exactly the same.
It was another St. Louisan, T.S. Eliot, who wisely said that humankind cannot bear very much reality. I certainly can’t. Books serve me both as a way to confront and avoid real difficulty, and my wrenching ambivalence about The Twenty-Seventh City probably results from the ways it hits too close to home and doesn’t allow me to escape. There is something unsettling about the novel’s tentacular hold on my own experience in the city it depicts. Books can become essential to us in strange and invasive ways, almost against our will.
Franzen continues to have a remarkable ability, both as a writer and a persona, to touch nerves, and his divisiveness is surely a sign of his strength. While I’ve enjoyed all of Franzen’s subsequent work and recognize the technical gains he has made as a storyteller, nothing has moved me personally like his first novel. “I was trying to write an uncanny book,” Franzen told The Paris Review. “A book about making strange a familiar place…that was the feeling I was after…what kind of weird, surreal world have I fallen into here, in the most boring of Midwestern cities?” Well, I disagree about the boring part, and I think The Twenty-Seventh City succeeds, insofar as it does, not only by making St. Louis strange but by drawing out the latent strangeness in the city’s history. The audacity of Franzen’s project still resonates in the city today — a local developer’s north-side regeneration project bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Jammu’s land grab — and its visionary streak stands as something of an unfulfilled promise in his later work. It will be reissued in November as the first Picador Modern Classic.
“Only St. Louis knew,” Franzen writes. “Its fate was sealed within it, its special tragedy nowhere else.” The narrative of tragic decline is seductive in its own way, partly because it relieves the mourner from the responsibility of forming new conspiracies to make the city better. All cities are ideas, and St. Louis’s struggle, as in other Midwestern cities, is partly the mental one of convincing itself that it is not specially doomed. Looking closely, there are definite signs of progress: new residents downtown, an undersung art scene, community development on the north side, consolidation of chambers of commerce and law-enforcement functions. There is even some renewed talk of a Great Reconciliation between the city and the county. The Twenty-Seventh City itself ends darkly in a series of ironic anticlimaxes, reflecting the growing cynicism of the young man from Webster Groves. After almost a decade here, I understand how this city could have driven Franzen nuts and broken his heart. It’s hard to say how long we’ll stay in St. Louis, but despite all its obvious issues, despite everything, we’ll always be rooting for this town. It’s harder to say what I think of The Twenty-Seventh City. Reading it again, I experience its pervasive uncanniness, the sense of being somewhere close to home, but not quite. It also makes me a bit sad, almost as if I’m reading a posthumous work. That St. Louis kid is long gone.
Jonathan Franzen seems to have always known what kind of writer he wanted to be when he grew up. His underrated first book, The Twenty-Seventh City, published before he was thirty, managed to synthesize the warring impulses of postwar fiction – toward black comedy and intimate lyricism, toward domestic realism and busy narrative, toward the personal and the political – in a language of aphoristic wit, journalistic specificity, and lapidary precision. The Twenty-Seventh City was a little bit of everything, without seeming like the average of anything.
Notwithstanding his subsequent (and public) hemming and hawing about the social vs. the domestic, the difficult vs. the hospitable, art vs. entertainment, Franzen’s ambitions have proven remarkably stable since then. Every seven or eight years, he brings out another dense and dazzling slab of pages – another panorama of American life viewed through the prism of the individual conscience. With 2001’s The Corrections, he would seem to have perfected his method. It won the National Book Award, pissed off Oprah, and sold a million billion copies. Our recent poll of authors and editors singled it out as the best novel of the last decade.
What could it possibly mean, then, to say that Freedom, his long-awaited follow-up, finds Franzen maturing? Surely not that he is more confident at 50 than at 40. (It’s hard to think of a novel more confident than The Corrections.) Nor that Freedom is more or less expansive, or that it represents, in the canned phraseology of newspaper reviews, any kind of “stunning departure” in substance or in sensibility. Rather, the novelty of this novel – the richest reward it offers us for our patience – is the deepening of the author’s moral imagination. One thinks of flavors ripening over a slow boil, of instruments changing as they age. To put it another way, in Freedom, Franzen’s blues are bluer. The ironies are stronger, the pain more mysterious, and the characters more given to change.
Like its predecessors, Freedom can be read as a species of family novel. Unlike them, it is, at heart, a love story…though Franzen cannily muddles the terms of the genre. The lovers in question are Patty and Walter Berglund, parents of two and members in good standing of the urban gentry of St. Paul, Minnesota. But it is not at all clear initially that Patty loves Walter – or, at any rate, how Patty loves Walter, or how well Walter knows Patty. It is, moreover, not at all clear that we should care. A bravura overture, “Good Neighbors,” introduces us to the Berglunds through the eyes of their fellow gentrifiers, offering a mordant catalogue of the foibles of “the Whole Foods generation.” The satire is delicious, but also offputting. We come to agree with community sentiment, expressed in the free indirect third-person Franzen favors: “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.”
Immediately afterward, however, Freedom takes a sharp turn: it plunges us into Patty’s point-of-view. Seeing through her eyes Walter – and their son, Joey, and Walter’s best friend, the charismatic rock musician Richard Katz – we are shaken from our comfortable judgments. And then, in long, subsequent sections that follow, we move into Richard’s head, and Walter’s, and Joey’s, and back to Patty’s, each time having to adjust our understanding of this core quartet, the married couple and the manchildren who come between them. Franzen has played this inside-outside game before; The Corrections shuffled us serially among the Lamberts. Here, though, the sharper disjunctions between the various perspectives make the stereoscopic effect at once deeper and more unsettling. Between the outward and inward lives of these characters is a chasm we begin to wonder if we will ever bridge. Which is, of course, exactly the chasm Walter and Patty will have to bridge.
First, though, we hopscotch through time. We explore the Berglunds’ formative years (their meeting at college, Patty’s rape, Walter’s alcoholic father); the flickering, destabilizing presence of Richard in their lives; their move to post-September 11 Washington, D.C.; Joey’s and Walter’s entanglements with the conservative powers of that city; and the slow dissolution of the Berglund marriage under the familiar Franzen formula of depression, anger, and explosive sex.
If this sounds heavy, it should be pointed out that Franzen is one of our funniest writers. His sense of humor, too, constitutes an inside-outside game. When Patty, years later, “envies and pities the younger Patty standing there in the Fen City Co-op and innocently believing that she’d reached the bottom,” we are both the wiser, older self (how bad can things really be, in the Fen City Co-Op?) and the “innocent” younger one. Franzen has a wonderful way of boiling down this kind of perspectival comedy even further, into a little bouillon cube of diction: “Joey was staggered by the quantity of hardcover books and by the obviously top quality of the multicultural swag that Jonathan’s father had collected during distinguished foreign residencies.” “Multicultural swag” is funny – we catch the superficiality of Joey’s hosts, and a flicker of glib self-awareness in Joey. A lesser novelist might have stopped there. But the agrammatical “obviously top quality,” tucked away nearby, is funnier. For all his efforts at savoir-faire, Joey is also ingenuous, in ways he can’t quite see.
For Franzen, as for the Buddhists, understanding, whatever pieties it may traduce, is the supreme act of compassion. And to understand people in all of their contradictions is, perforce, to be ironic. To speak of the “likeability” of Freedom’s characters is thus to miss the moral project completely. Joey is a product of his generation; as another character observes, there is “something Reaganite” about him. But because the novel cares enough about him to inhabit his consciousness fully, we care about him, too. We are laughing at once with him and at him. And with and at ourselves.
Such anthropological laughter is a constant in Freedom. The novel picks up and probes everything it comes into contact with, managing in the process to take apart a goodly portion of what currently constitutes American life. It’s not that Franzen “knows a thousand different things,” as James Wood has suggested the contemporary American novelist seeks to – he’s no Tom Wolfe, thank heavens. But he is curious about everything: Volvo maintenance, phone sex, alt-country, iPods, college life, Leo Strauss, NCAA women’s basketball…
Franzen’s curiosity – his wish to welcome the world into his book – at times becomes overly antic, in a way that sits less easily against Freedom’s midlife sobriety than it did in The Corrections’ atmosphere of oxygenated adolescence. Joey’s excursion in South America as a would-be war profiteer is like a less compelling version of Chip Lambert’s sojourn in Estonia. And the coal-company conspiracy that envelops environmentally-minded Walter in the middle of the book is far less effective, as political commentary, than the tensions within Walter’s own family. One thing Franzen does not seem to know particularly well is Washington, D.C., and there is an opacity to Walter here that we don’t feel with Walter elsewhere, or with Joey, Richard, or Patty. (It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James.) But Franzen has the wisdom not to strand Walter inside the Beltway.
Against the urban densities where the Berglunds have chosen to make their lives, Freedom keeps returning to a family cabin in the Minnesota woods where they seek respite. And it is a mark of Franzen’s growth as a novelist that he keeps letting them find it – letting them breathe. Here, for example, is Walter, late in the novel, but early in his life:
Seventeen years in cramped quarters with his family had given him a thirst for solitude whose unquenchability he was discovering only now. To hear nothing but wind, birdsong, insects, fish jumping, branches squeaking, birch leaves scraping as they tumbled against each other: he kept stopping to savor this unsilent silence as he scraped paint from the house’s outer walls.
And here is Patty, twenty years later and 300 pages earlier, just before her life falls apart in earnest:
She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over. A melodious bird that Walter had despaired of teaching her the proper name of, a veery or a vireo, grew accustomed to her presence and began to sing in a tree directly above her. Its song was like an idee fixe that it couldn’t get out of its little head.
In the delicate mirroring of these passages, Franzen insists on nothing. Instead, he lets meaning, the elusive thing, emerge through momentum, like widening circles from a pond-tossed rock. The songbird’s repetition echoes Patty’s, and its idee fixe is really hers: the “vague ancient” impulse to sleep with Richard. Moreover, the grassy openness of the place Patty calls “Nameless Lake” speaks of a freedom neither Patty nor Walter can find in the “cramped” confines of the nuclear family, or of the society of which it is a microcosm. Freedom, in its intertwining personal and political aspects, is Freedom’s explicit concern. It should be noted, though, that the bird the novel keeps coming back to (and that graces its cover), is a blue one, allied not so much with freedom as with happiness. Franzen’s real quarry here is the vexed relationship between the two. In the space of the Minnesota woods, the Berglunds are – like Richard on the road or Joey off at college – free, but alone.
Ultimately, in these and other moments that call to each other across time and across the space of the novel, Franzen also allows the patient reader to see what Walter and Patty cannot: that they are made for each other. I cede the floor to James Baldwin:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
It is the surprising grace – in every sense – with which Franzen evokes Patty and Walter’s love that marks Freedom as the work of a master. Readers looking for the pleasures of The Corrections will find all of them here, in force. But they are also likely to come away from this novel moved in harder-to-fathom ways – and grateful for it. Which is to express the hope that, amid the general childishness of the cultural scene he skewers so lovingly, Jonathan Franzen and his audience may be growing up together.
Let’s say you’re slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let’s say you’re also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you’ll live to the fine old age of 90. Let’s furthermore presuppose that you’re one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you’ve already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder… because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I’d never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes – the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer – is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She’s single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story… and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’ve already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I’ll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s overlooked first novel, The Cottagers – a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I’ve been trying to bone up on the classics. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it’s about the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever encountered, and I’m a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a great book for when you’ve got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow’s Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can’t say the same thing about Kafka’s The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery – a rip-roaring read that’s written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it’s sort of a ridiculous story, but it’s hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you’re having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras… sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up… Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can’t get away from: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow’s astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass’ A Temple of Text and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self. Wood’s essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”… which is, I guess, why I’ll keep reading in 2007.
Time to have some fun with Google. Using the wildcard “*” character I searched Google to see how different famous writers are characterized on random Web pages. I entered searches like “Jonathan Franzen is * writer” to see what would come up for the “*” and pulled the adjectives all into one sentence for each writer. The links go to the sites where the adjectives came from. Arbitrary, but oddly poetic:Jonathan Franzen is… an accomplished, incredibly gifted, curmudgeonly Luddite, talented, serious, rare, amazing, better, American writer.Zadie Smith is… a talented, talented, talented, terribly talented, young, Dickensian, gifted, terrible, very good writer.Jonathan Safran Foer is… a great great, young, great, prehensile, no ordinary, Generation X, very talented, definitely a wunderkind, very talented, uniquely gifted and imaginative writer.Ok, that was fun. How about these guys:James Frey is… an amazing, great, Bestselling, hardly the first, still a great, only, wonderful writer.J.T. Leroy is… a critically acclaimed, fabulous, Incredible, active, the best, truly amazing, fantastic, fiction writer.