If you need any further evidence that Time’s winged chariot is hurrying near, consider this: Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, “The Twenty-Seventh City,” is 25 years old.
His outlandish story about St. Louis — then America’s 27th-largest city — is about a charismatic Indian woman who takes over the police department in 1984. The book launched one of the most renowned writing careers of the late 20th century.
And now that hard-to-believe silver anniversary has spurred Picador to reissue “The Twenty-Seventh City” as the first volume of a new series called “Modern Classics.”
For Picador publisher Stephen Morrison, this is chance to reinvigorate the imprint’s backlist. He plans to start modestly and reissue about three titles a year.
“We’ll go season by season as we all look through the backlist and see what feels like it’s time for rediscovery,” he tells me from his office in New York. “If there’s an important anniversary or somebody we feel has been overlooked or has been off the radar, maybe that will be a reason to put them into Picador Modern Classic.”
This new line is informed by Morrison’s experience at Penguin, which has effectively leveraged its deep library for many years.
“When I got here and got to know the backlist at Picador,” he says, “I saw it was quite impressive, too. So if books could benefit from a fresh eye, why not have some fun with it?”
Morrison asked his creative director, Henry Sene Yee, “to do whatever he wanted” with the new series. “Each Picador modern classic will be interpreted by whichever artist Henry comes up with.”
The new edition of “The Twenty-Seventh City,” which will be released in November, features a futuristic cover design by Marc Yankus. (This new paperback will be listed for $17, just below the original $19.95 price of the 1988 hardback — another sign of the changing times.)
Philip Weinstein, an English professor of English at Swarthmore College, will provide an introduction for “The Twenty-Seventh City,” but the format of future volumes is still in flux.
“I’m on the fence about the introductions,” Morrison says. “Some will have them, some won’t. We found a very good academic who knows a lot about Franzen. But the next one — in May — will be Colum McCann’s ‘Dancer.’ I’m not sure if it’ll have an introduction or not.”
Twenty-five years ago, we ran our review of Franzen’s debut novel on the cover of Book World. (In the accompanying photo, the novelist looks just old enough to drive.) Calling it “unsettling and visionary,” Michele Slung wrote, “The Twenty-Seventh City is not a novel that can be quickly dismissed or easily forgotten.” She was right on both counts. Like other reviewers, she alluded to Franzen’s Pynchoneque style, and noted prophetically, “It’s hard not to be infected by the author’s own confidence.”
Meanwhile, St. Louis — my hometown — is now the 58th city.
UPDATE: Just noticed that Franzen has a piece in the Sept. issue of Harper’s magazine. It’s taken from a forthcoming collection of Karl Kraus essays that Franzen translated from the German and annotated.