Lit Seen: Jonathan Franzen Charts the Decline and Fall of New York


“I am so, so sorry!” bursts out Parker Posey, talking fast, a slight bitchy hitch in her voice. “Everything is late this morning!”

As it happens, it’s Friday evening: We’re at the New School on December 12, and Posey is onstage, playing the part of “New York State’s Publicist” in a one-off play drawn from Jonathan Franzen’s chapter in the scrum of state pride and regional self-loathing that is Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey’s new anthology, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America.

Franzen—no famous indie actor he—is somehow holding his own, with the exception of the laughter he can’t quite suppress as Posey’s imposing publicist browbeats the timid, shocked “literary writer” he’s supposed to be playing. Franzen’s essay takes the form of a dialogue between a writer and various factotums—New York State’s Historian, her Geologist, her Personal Attorney, and so on—as he tries, despite the obstacles, to garner access to New York itself, cast as the woman he once loved. Finally, he is granted his five minutes. This New York, when we finally encounter her, is a grimly familiar one: lawyered-up, publicist hovering nearby, inaccessible, aloof, hiding her sordid past. “The cheap dates I tend to forget,” she tells him. “Would this have been a cheap date?”

“You tend to be moved to write about things just as they’re ending,” says Franzen, staring off over my shoulder in an empty New School classroom an hour or so before he’s scheduled to stage the piece—alongside Posey, screenwriter Peter Hirsch, the actress Maria Tucci, and State by State contributors Ellery Washington and Sarah Vowell—in front of a sold-out crowd in an auditorium downstairs. “And there’s lots of that going around, because we live in such modern and fast-changing times. So things are ending every five minutes. It’s a great time to be a writer.”

There is, in State by State, an all-around prelapsarian tone: pre-Obama and pre-financial collapse. On the book’s pages, a particular vintage of embattled optimism still prevails. It’s a kind of tight-lipped fatalism that leads Benjamin Kunkel, say, to write an essay hailing the romantic individualism of his home state, Colorado, only to end up writing about the paradox of romantic individualism. “You can’t have a population of many millions pursing a lifestyle devoted to seclusion, mobility, and the picturesque without undermining those same things,” writes Kunkel, sounding perhaps the signal State by State theme: Everywhere is still somewhat distinct, but maybe not for much longer. Prosperity and abundance are the American signature, except right now . . . maybe not.

So Franzen and I post up in a classroom and engage in that most prelapsarian sport: Speculating about the fall. “The cord has snapped, but the elevator hasn’t hit the ground yet,” says Franzen, as we talk about the absence of visible crack sales on the street down below, or any other satisfying sign of urban disintegration. New York “will attract the talents and the assholes as long as it is number one. And long live New York City and its primacy.”

And yet New York, too, isn’t what it once was. Franzen’s piece ends, more or less, in Orange County, the author in the car, searching for the hillside on which he got married. “The best I could do was narrow it to two hillsides,” he writes, a bit desperately. “The same thing was happening on both of them. Building-size pieces of earth-moving equipment were scraping it all bare.” The New York City of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s hailed elsewhere in Franzen’s essay—zone of that gritty, “distinctive flavor that you taste in the early DeLillo novels,” says Franzen, when I ask him about it—is gone as well.

Downstairs, this sadness will get played for laughs. But upstairs, Franzen is a bit more sober. “The erosion of difference worldwide,” Franzen tells me, “is a subject of horror to fiction writers—belletrists, in general—because it means less voltage, less interesting detail, less mystery. Less regionalism, less distinctly defined manners, less interesting language: All of that feels like a disaster to the writer.”

As it happens, State by State was patterned after the WPA American Guide series of the Federal Writers’ Project, itself a 1930s response to a different kind of disaster: the Great Depression. Writers—Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, and many others—were paid to create state guides, collecting bizarre regional details and descriptions of the land in service of the creation of what John Steinbeck called “the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together.”

The employment angle, I venture, seems particularly relevant at the moment. “I really like Sean [Wilsey]’s idea of paying writers not to write,” says Franzen, referencing his editor’s adamant plea on WNYC earlier that day for a highly conditional, Agricultural Adjustment Administration–inspired, belletrist-targeted bailout. “I can think of a few that I’d like to pay not to write.”

State by State did in fact put a lot of writers to work in 2008—if not to the $27 million tune of the Federal Writers’ Project. “That’s right, we were forking it out to needy writers!” says Weiland when we talk, over the phone, a few days later. “I don’t think anyone could’ve made a living off what they got paid for contributing their piece to State by State, but if it paid for some good drinkin’, then at least we feel like we’ve done our part.”

I ask Weiland if—beyond the necessity of keeping America’s writers drunk—he took the Depression analogy to heart at all. “The original WPA Guides were produced in the very depths of the Depression,” he says. “And in one way, they looked back to a smaller, more traditional America. But at the same time, they very much looked forward to an America that was vibrant and vital and dynamic and active once again.” Weiland had similar ambitions for State by State: The WPA Guides affirmed America’s basic “charms and pleasures, and I hope that’s the same thing we’ve done, on a smaller level.”

As for tonight at the New School, we’ll take what charms and pleasures we can get. “Thank you all for coming out. . . .We priced the evening back when John McCain was declaring the fundamentals of our economy sound,” announces Franzen, kicking off the night downstairs. “If we had to do it again tonight, we’d probably ask $6.50 at the door.”

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