State by State: New York

Thinking about regional literature the other day, I turned once more to State by State, “featuring original writing on all fifty states” and edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. I don’t know how I managed to not read the entry on New York before—a state I know well, and by Jonathan Franzen, whom I like—but I have now, and I was surprised at how much I liked it. (You know how you never like things you actually know about. Plus, Franzen is totally from St. Louis.) So, a post in honor of the fact I’m headed there tonight.

At first I thought the conceit of the entry was a bit much: Franzen pretends he’s gone for an interview of the State, and gets bounced around by her publicist, who gets worried that he’s working for a small press; her personal attorney, who warns him not to mention the late seventies or early eighties; and a historian, who gives him a lot of interesting info but gets kind of…wrapped up in it. It’s when he’s rescued by a geologist that things get good. He’s interested enough for Franzen to confide in about his first New York experiences, notably a day spent in the City with his older cousin, and the drive back to Westport, CT late at night.

JF: And over the Whitestone Bridge we went. And that’s when I had the clinching vision. That’s when I fell irretrievably for New York: when I saw Co-Op City late at night.

The New York State Geologist: Get outta here.

JF: Seriously. I’d already spent the day in Manhattan. I’d already seen the biggest and most city-like city in the world. And now we’d been driving away from it for fifteen or twenty minutes, which in St. Louis would have been enough to get you out into pitch-dark river-bottom cornfields, and suddenly, as far as I could see, there were these huge towers of habitation, and every single one of them was as tall as the tallest building in St. Louis, and there were more of them than I could count. The most distant ones were over by the water and otherworldly in the haze. Tens of thousands of city lives all stacked and packed against each other. The sheer number of apartments that you could see out here in the southeast Bronx: it all seemed unknowably and excitingly vast, the way my own future seemed to me at that moment, with Martha sitting next to me doing seventy.

Shit, Jonathan Franzen, you so get it. He’s killing me:

There’s a particular connection between the Midwest and New York. …New York’s like the beady eye of yang at the center of the Midwest’s unentitled, self-effacing plains of yin. And the Midwest is like the dewy, romantic, hopeful eye of yin at the center of New York’s brutal, grasping yang. A certain kind of Midwesterner comes east to be completed. Just as a certain kind of New York native goes to the Midwest to be renewed.

The interview format turns out to be perfect. Franzen can use the state geologist as his confessor, and get these people to tell him a bunch of facts, and get some of them to oppose him, to show the bits of New York he doesn’t really like. Including the State herself, who thinks Donald Trump is cute, and wisely tells Franzen, “It was always about money. You were just too young to notice.”

4 comments to State by State: New York

  • I’ve never read Franzen before, as I’ve been a bit suspicious of his hipness. Today however I read him on Alice Munro’s Runaway (which I just finished reading) and had that shit he gets it reaction. After your thoughts on his NY piece, I can see I will have to try The Corrections after all.

  • You know I love me some Franzen – even when he’s talking about something completely divorced from me – say, birdwatching, I still find myself saying, goddamn it Franzen you get it everytime! I’ve really got to check this anthology out.

  • Been a while, but I read the 27th City back when it came out and a while before Franzen became popular. I have family connections to St. Louis (the city in that book) and was intrigued by that and loved his writing. This post reminds me to get around to his new work, which I am going to guess is better. His observational skill and insight were keen in that book and many passages were really good, but if I recall the overall arc of the story lacked a little, maybe in plausibility.

  • nicole

    Sarah—yeah, it always seems like he’s going to be too hip, but not quite. One of the funny bits in this piece is that his interlocutor assumes he lives in Brooklyn, as that’s where all the hip young writers live, and he’s like nope, Manhattan…sorry….

    Al—yeah, who ever thought I would be so interested in birdwatching? Every so often I still think about that chapter and wonder if maybe I should take it up.

    Nate—I agree completely about The 27th City. I read it after reading The Corrections and thought it wasn’t quite up to par, and plausibility was definitely a factor. But it was still quite good. And I do think his newer work is better. Honestly sometimes I think I liked his memoir best of all, though no, that’s not really true, The Corrections was pretty great.