Jonathan Franzen on his relationship with New York

He was young and impressionable. She was wicked and worldly. He fell in love with her. But that was then and this is now, things have changed. Does he still feel the same way? Will he even be able to get an audience with her? He is Jonathan Franzen. She is New York

New York State's Publicist I am so, so sorry! Everything is late this morning, our former president dropped in unexpectedly, and our dear little state can never seem to say no to Bill! But I promise you you'll get your full half-hour with her. You're lovely to be so patient with us.

Jonathan Franzen We said an hour, though.

New York State's Publicist Yes. Yes. And this is for a, uh, travel guide?

JF Anthology. The 50 states. Which I really don't think she wants to end up being the shortest chapter of.

New York State's Publicist Right, although, ha ha, she's also the busiest of the 50, so there may be a certain logic to keeping things brief. If what you're telling me now is that she's just going to be part of some 50-state cattle call... I didn't quite realise...

JF I'm pretty sure I said -

New York State's Publicist And it definitely has to be 50. There's no way it could be, like, five? A Top Five States Of The Union kind of thing? Or even a Top 10? I'm just thinking, you know, to clear out some of the small fry. Or maybe, if you absolutely have to have all 50, then maybe do it as an appendix? Like: here are the Top 10 Most Important States, and then here, at the back, in the appendix, are some other states that, you know, exist. Is that conceivably an option?

JF Sadly, no. But maybe we should reschedule for some other day. When she's not so busy.

New York State's Publicist Frankly, Jon, every day is like this. And since I am promising you your full half-hour with her today, I think you'd be well advised to take it. However, I do see your point about length - assuming you really are determined to include the small fry. And what I would therefore love to do is show you some amazing new pictures that she's been having taken of herself. Twenty of the world's top art photographers are creating some of the most intimate glimpses that anybody has ever had of an American state. Really different, really special. I don't want to tell you how to do your job. But if I were you? I'd be thinking about 24 pages of unique, world-class photography, followed by an intensely personal little interview in which our nation's greatest state reveals her greatest secret passion. Which is... the arts! I mean, that is New York State. Because, yes, obviously, she's beautiful, she's rich, she's powerful, she's glamorous, she knows everybody, she's had the most amazing life journey. But in her secret innermost soul? It's all about the arts.

JF Wow. Thank you. That would be - thank you! The only problem is, I'm not sure the format and the paper of this book are going to be right for photographs.

New York State's Publicist Jon, like I said, I'm not trying to tell you how to do your job. But unless you can think of a way to fit the proverbial 1,000 words on a single page, there's a lot to be said for pictures.

JF You're absolutely right. And I will check with Ecco Press and -

New York State's Publicist Who, what? Echo what?

JF Ecco Press. They're publishing the book?

New York State's Publicist Oh dear. Your book is being published by a small press?

JF No, no, they're an imprint of HarperCollins. Which is a big press.

New York State's Publicist Oh, so HarperCollins, then.

JF Yes. Big, big press.

New York State's Publicist Because, God, you had me worried for a minute.

JF No, no, huge press. One of the biggest in the world.

New York State's Publicist Then let me just go check and see how things are going. In fact, you might as well have your sit-down with Mr Van Gander now, if you want to follow me back this way. Just, yes, good, bring your bag. This way... Rick? Do you have a minute to talk to our, uh. Our "literary writer"?

New York State's Personal Attorney Sure! Super! Come in, come in, come in! Hello! Rick Van Gander! Hello! Great to meet you! Big fan of your work! How's life in Brooklyn treating you? You live out in Brooklyn, don't you?

JF No, Manhattan. I did live in Queens once, a long time ago.

New York State's Personal Attorney Huh! How about that? I thought all you literary types were out in Brooklyn these days. All the really hip ones at any rate. Are you trying to tell me you're not hip? Actually, now that you mention it, you don't look very hip. I beg your pardon! I read something in the Times about all the great writers living out in Brooklyn. I just naturally assumed...

JF It's a very beautiful old borough.

New York State's Personal Attorney Yes, and wonderful for the arts. My wife and I try to get out to the Brooklyn Academy of Music as often as we can. We saw a play performed entirely in Swedish there not long ago. Bit of a surprise for me, I admit, not being a Swedish speaker. But we enjoyed ourselves very much. But, now, tell me, what can I do for you today?

JF I don't actually know. I didn't realise I was going to talk to you. I thought I was supposed to have an interview with the State -

New York State's Personal Attorney That's it! There you go! That's why you're talking to me! What I can do for you today is vet your interview questions.

JF Vet them? Are you kidding?

New York State's Personal Attorney Do I look like I'm kidding?

JF No, it's just, I'm a little stunned. It used to be so easy to see her. And just, you know, hang out, and talk.

New York State's Personal Attorney Sure, I hear you. Everything used to be easy. Used to be easy to buy crack on the corner of 98th and Columbus, too! Used to be easy to pave the bottom of the Hudson river with PCBs and heavy metals. Rip the heart out of the Bronx and ram an expressway through there. Run sweatshops on lower Broadway with slave Asian labour. Get a rent-controlled apartment so cheap you didn't have to do anything all day except write abusive letters to your landlord. Everything used to be so easy! But eventually a state grows up, starts taking better care of herself, if you know what I mean. Which is what I am here to help her do.

JF I guess I don't see how having been open and available and exciting and romantic to a kid from the midwest is equivalent to having let the Hudson river be polluted.

New York State's Personal Attorney You're saying you fell in love with her.

JF Yes! And I had the feeling she loved me, too. Like she was waiting for people like me to come to her. Like she needed us.

New York State's Personal Attorney Hmm. When was this?

JF Late '70s, early '80s.

New York State's Personal Attorney Good Lord. Just as I feared. Those were some wild and crazy years, all right! She was not altogether of sound mind. And you would do her a great kindness - do yourself a big favour, too, incidentally - if you would avoid mentioning that entire period to her.

JF But those are precisely the years I wanted to talk to her about.

New York State's Personal Attorney And that is why I'm here to vet your questions! Believe me, you will not find her friendly on the subject. Even now, every once in a while, somebody gets it in his head to print some more pictures of her from those decades. What's unbelievable are the guys who honestly believe she looked better back then, because she was so easy. Think they're doing her some kind of favour by showing her dirty as hell, spilling out every which way, spaced out of her mind, mega hygiene issues, not a dime in her purse. Crime, garbage, crap architecture, shuttered mill towns, bankrupt railroads, Son of Sam, riots at Attica, hippies in a muddy farm field: I can't tell you how many deadbeats and failed artists walk in here all smitten and nostalgic and thinking they know the "real" New York State. And then complaining about how she's not the same any more. Which - damn right she's not! And a good thing it is! Just imagine, if you will, how mortified she feels about her behaviour in those unfortunate years, now she's got her life back together.

JF So, what, I guess this puts me in the company of the deadbeats and failed artists?

New York State's Personal Attorney Hey, you were young. Let's leave it at that. Tell me what else you got for questions. Did Janelle mention this great new photography project we've started up?

JF She did, yes.

New York State's Personal Attorney You'll want to leave plenty of time for that. And what else?

JF Well, honestly, I was hoping she and I could have a more personal conversation. Do some reminiscing. She's meant a lot to me over the years. Symbolised a lot. Catalysed a lot.

New York State's Personal Attorney Sure! Of course! For all of us! And "personal" is great - don't get me wrong about that. Up close and "personal" is great. She's not just about power and wealth, she's about home and family and romance, too. Definitely go there, with my blessing. Just be sure to avoid certain decades. Let's say roughly from '65 to '85. What sort of stuff do you have from before then?

JF From before then, hardly anything. A couple of charm-bracelet images, basically. You know - the big New Year's Eve ball at Times Square that came down on TV in the midwest, at 11 o'clock. And Niagara Falls, which I was surprised to learn was turned off every night for hydroelectric purposes. And the Statue of Liberty, which we were taught was made out of pennies donated by French school kids. And the Empire State Building. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal. That's about it.

New York State's Personal Attorney "About it"? "About it"? You've just named five top-notch, bona fide American mega-icons. Five of 'em! Not so shabby, I'd say! Is there another state that comes even close?

JF California?

New York State's Personal Attorney Another state besides California?

JF But it was just kitsch. It didn't mean anything to me. For me, the real introduction to New York was Harriet The Spy... A kids' book. The first time I ever fell in love with a character in literature, it was a girl from Manhattan. And I didn't just love her - I wanted to be her. Trade in my whole pleasant suburban life and move to the Upper East Side and be Harriet M Welch, with her notebook and her flashlight and her hands-off parents. And then, even more intense, a couple of years later, her friend Beth Ellen in the sequel novel. Also from the Upper East Side. Rich, thin, blond. And so deliciously unhappy. I thought I could make Beth Ellen happy, if I could ever get out of St Louis.

New York State's Personal Attorney Hmm. This is all sounding a tiny bit, ah... aberrant. By which I mean the underage aspect. New York, of course, is very proud of her long tradition of diversity and tolerance - come to think of it, give me two seconds here, I've got an idea. (Dialling) Jeremy? Yeah, it's Rick. Listen, do you have a minute for a visitor? Yeah, it's our "literary writer", yeah, yeah, doing some kind of travel guide. We're trying to set him up with some angles, and - Oh. Oh, great, I didn't realise. Tolerance and diversity? Fantastic! I'll bring him right over. (Hanging up) The State historian's got some stuff for you. Made up a whole packet for you. Things have gotten so crazy, the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing.

JF That's very kind. But I'm not sure I need a packet.

New York State's Personal Attorney Trust me, you'll want this one. Jeremy, heh heh, gives excellent packet. And not to burst your bubble, but you might find it comes in handy when you go to write your book. Just in case the interview isn't everything you'd hoped for. Are we clear on the ground rules, by the way? Can you repeat them back to me?

JF Steer clear of interesting decades?

New York State's Personal Attorney Yes. Good. And also your thing for the little girlies.

JF But I was just a kid myself!

New York State's Personal Attorney I am simply warning you she's not going to be receptive to it. Your passion for her and her exciting new projects? Yes! Absolutely! Your passion for some fictional prepubescent Upper East Side chicklet in the brutish 1960s? Not so much. Please follow me back this way.

JF Do we have some sort of estimate of when I'm finally going to be able to see her?

New York State's Personal Attorney Jeremy? I'd like you to meet our "literary writer". A Manhattanite, interestingly.

The New York State Historian Tolerance... Diversity... And centrality. Are the three watchwords of New York State's pre-eminence.

New York State's Personal Attorney I'll leave the two of you to chat a bit.

The New York State Historian Tolerance... Diversity... Centrality.

JF Hi, nice to meet you.

The New York State Historian To the north: Puritan New England. To the south: the great chattel-slavery plantation colonies. In between: a splendid deepwater port and system of highly navigable interior waterways, endowed with a wealth of natural resources and settled by the mercantilist and famously tolerant Dutch. They were among the first nations to make explicit the connection between good business and personal freedom - between enrichment and enlightenment; and New Netherland was their brainchild. The Dutch West India Company expressly forbade religious persecution - a stricture against which the autocratic governor Peter Stuyvesant frequently chafed and inveighed. The first Jews reached New York in 1654, joining Quaker immigrants from England and Puritan renegades from Massachusetts. Stuyvesant was reprimanded by his company for harassing the Jews and Quakers. In his defence, he complained that New Netherland was, quote, "peopled by the scrapings of all sorts of nationalities". Fortunately for all of us, New Netherland's prodigious granddaughter, our dearest Empire State, remains so peopled to this very day. She is the gracious and only conceivable hostess of the United Nations, the ardent champion of equal rights for gays, lesbians and the transgendered, the ladle of the Melting Pot, the cradle of American feminism. Nearly 150 languages are spoken at home by the parents of students in a single school district in Elmhurst, Queens. And yet they all speak the same single universal language of -

JF Money?

The New York State Historian Of tolerance. But, yes, of money, too, of course. The two go hand in hand. New York's epic wealth is a testament to that proposition.

JF Right. And this is even somewhat interesting to me, but unfortunately also totally beyond the scope of -

The New York State Historian The Revolutionary war: one long slog of attrition and attenuation. Slippery General Washington forever dodging definitive engagement. In the course of this lengthy never-quite-war, this awkward game of hide-and-seek, two battles in particular stand out as crucial turning points. Both of them early in the war. Both of them relatively minor in terms of casualties. And both of them fought where?

JF This is, wow, this is really -

The New York State Historian Why, in New York, naturally. In centrally located New York. Our first battle of interest: Harlem Heights. Situation dire. Washington and his shaky amateur army perilously bottled up in Manhattan. General William Howe newly arrived in New York harbour with a veritable armada - upwards of 30,000 fresh, well-trained troops, including the storied Hessians. Our Continental army demoralised by heavy losses and available for easy crushing. Critical engagement: Harlem Heights, near present-day Columbia University. Washington's troops fight the British to a draw, allowing the general to escape to New Jersey with his army more or less intact. Terrible lost opportunity for the British, tremendous morale-boosting break for Washington, who lives to fight - or avoid fighting! - another day.

JF Excuse me -

The New York State Historian Second battle: Bemis Heights, Saratoga. The year: 1777. The British plan for winning the war: simple. Unite Howe's overwhelming southern expeditionary force with 8,000 British troops from Canada, under the leadership of General John Burgoyne - the so-called "Gentleman Johnny". Establish supply lines, control the Hudson and Lake Champlain, sever New England from the southern colonies. Divide and conquer. But it's the boggy northland, the buggy morass. American troops, many of them part-time, dig into Bemis Heights at Saratoga, where they launch a series of crippling assaults on Gentleman Johnny, who within a week surrenders his entire army. A stirring victory with enormous strategic implications! News of it encourages France to side decisively with the Americans and declare war on England, and through the next six years of war the finest army on the planet proves ever more tentative and ineffectual against the Americans.

JF Help?

The New York State Geologist Jeremy?

The New York State Historian The lesson? Control New York, control the country. New York is the linchpin. The red-hot centre. The crux, if you will.

The New York State Geologist Jeremy, excuse me, I'm just going to take our guest down the hall here for a minute. He's looking a little shell-shocked.

The New York State Historian First capital of the newly formed United States of America, as stipulated by its splendid new Constitution? Site of George Washington's inauguration as our republic's first President? Did someone say... New York City?

JF Hey, thank you!

The New York State Geologist Who the heck sent you in to Jeremy?

JF It was Mr Van Gander.

The New York State Geologist Quite the practical joker, Rick Van Gander. I'm Hal, by the way, I'm the geologist. We can breathe a little better out here. You want a doughnut?

JF Thanks, I'm fine. I just want to do my interview.

The New York State Geologist Sure thing. (Dialling) Janelle? The writer? He's asking about his interview?... OK, will do. (Hanging up) She's going to come and get you. Is there something I can help you with in the meantime?

JF Thanks. I'm feeling somewhat bludgeoned. I had this idea that I could just sit down with New York in a cafe and tell her how much I've always loved her. Just casually, the two of us. And then I would describe her beauty.

The New York State Geologist Ha, that's not the way it works any more.

JF The first time I saw her, I was blown away by how green and lush everything was. It was like a fairytale, with these beautiful old bridges and mile after mile of forest and parkland on either side. It was so utterly different from the flat asphalt and cornfields out where I came from. The scale of it, the age of it.

The New York State Geologist Sure.

JF My mom's little sister lived for a long time in Schenectady with my two girl cousins and her husband, who worked for GE. When I was in high school, they moved him away from manufacturing in Schenectady to their corporate headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.

The New York State Geologist Schenectady ain't doing so well any more. None of those old manufacturing towns is.

JF My aunt and uncle escaped to arty Westport. The summer I turned 17, my parents and I drove out to see them there. The first thing that happened was I conceived a huge crush on my cousin Martha. She was 18 and tall and funny and vivacious and had poor eyesight, and I could actually talk to her halfway comfortably, because we were cousins. And somehow it got arranged - somehow my parents signed off on it - that Martha and I would drive into Manhattan and spend a day there by ourselves. It was August 1976. Hot, smelly, polleny, thundery, weedy. Martha was working as the babysitter and driver for three Westport girls whose father had gone to South America for two months with his wife and his mistress. The girls were 16, 14 and 11, all of them incredibly tiny and obsessed with body weight. The middle one played the flute and was precocious and constantly bugging Martha to take her to high school parties where she could meet some older boys. The vehicle Martha chauffeured them in was an enormous black Town Car. By August, she'd already smashed one Town Car and had had to call her employer's office to arrange for another. We sailed down the Merritt Parkway in the left lane at high speed, with all the windows open and furnace-hot air blowing through and the three princesses splayed out across the back seat - the older two of them cute enough and close enough to me in age that I could barely say a word to them. Not that they showed the slightest interest in me anyway. We landed on the Upper East Side, by the art museum, where the girls' grandmother had an apartment. The most impressive thing to me was that the middle girl had come to the city for the day without any shoes. I remember her walking up the hot Fifth Avenue sidewalk barefoot, in her sleeveless top and tiny shorts and carrying her flute. I'd never seen entitlement like this, never even imagined it. It was simultaneously beyond my ken and totally intoxicating. My parents were ur-midwestern and went through life apologising and feeling the opposite of entitled. You know, and the hazy blue-grey sky with big white clouds drifting over Central Park. And the buildings of stone and the doormen, and Fifth Avenue like a solid column of yellow cabs receding uptown into this bromine-brown pall of smog. The vast urbanity of it all. And to be there with Martha, my exciting New York cousin, and to spend an afternoon wandering the streets with her, and then have dinner like two adults, and go to a free concert in the Park: the self I felt myself to be that day was a self I recognised only because I'd longed for it for so long. I met, in myself, on my first day in New York City, the person I wanted to become. We picked up the girls from their grandmother's around 11 and went to get the Town Car out of the art museum garage, and that was when we discovered that the rear right tyre was flat. A puddle of black rubber. So Martha and I worked shoulder to shoulder, sweating, like a couple, and got the car jacked up and the tyre changed while the middle girl sat cross-legged on the trunk of somebody else's car, the soles of her feet all black with the city, and played the flute. And then, after midnight, we drove out of there. The girls asleep in back, like they were the kids I'd had with Martha, and the windows down and the air still sultry but cooler now and smelling of the Sound, and the roads potholed and empty, and the streetlights a mysterious sodium orange, unlike the bluish mercury-vapour lights that were still the standard in St Louis. 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 15 or 10 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. 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 south-east 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 70.

The New York State Geologist Huh. And did anything ever come of that? You and her?

JF I crashed for a night on her sofa four years later. Again the Upper East Side. In some anonymous Co-Op City-like tower. Martha had just finished college at Cornell. She was sharing a two-bedroom with two other girls. I was in the city with my brother Tom. Tom went to stay with one of his art-school girlfriends and I went uptown to Martha's. I remember in the morning, the first thing she did was put Robert Palmer's Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley on the living-room stereo and crank up the volume. We took an unbelievably crowded 6 train down to SoHo, where she had a job selling ad space for the SoHo News. And I thought: Boy, this is the life!

The New York State Geologist Again without irony, presumably.

JF Totally without irony.

The New York State Geologist "New York is where I'd rather stay!/ I get allergic smelling hay!"

JF What can I tell you? There's a particular connection between the midwest and New York. Not just that New York created the market for the goods that made the midwest what it is. And not just that the midwest, in supplying those goods, made New York what it is. New York's like the beady eye of yang at the centre of the midwest's unentitled, self-effacing plains of yin. And the midwest is like the dewy, romantic, hopeful eye of yin at the centre 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 New York State Geologist Huh. Pretty deep stuff there. And, you know, what's genuinely interesting, though, is that there's a connection at the level of geology as well. I mean, think about it: New York is the only state on the east coast that is also a Great Lakes state. You think it's any accident that the Erie Canal got dug where it did? You ever driven the Thruway west along the Mohawk? Way, way off in the distance on the southern side, miles and miles away, you can see these enormous, sharp river bluffs. Well, you know what? Those bluffs used to be the edge of the river. Back when it was a miles-wide cataclysmic flood of glacial meltwater bursting out of mid-continent and draining down toward the ocean. That's what created your easy route to the midwest: the last Ice Age.

JF Which I understand was pretty recent, geologically speaking.

The New York State Geologist Yesterday afternoon, geologically speaking. New York City's cosmopolitanism runs pretty deep, too. We've been entertaining foreign visitors for better than half a billion years. Most notably the continent of Africa, which came over about 300 million years ago, crashed into America, stuck around long enough to build the Alleghenies, and then headed back east. If you look at a geological map of New York, it looks a lot like a state map of ethnicity. The bedrock geology upstate is fairly white-bread uniform - big deposits of limestone from the time when New York was a shallow subtropical sea. But when you get down toward the lower Hudson and the Manhattan spur, the rock becomes incredibly heterogenous and folded and fragmented. You've got remnants of every kind of crap that's come crashing into the continent tectonically, plus other crap from various magmatic upwellings due to rifting, plus further crap that got pushed down by the glaciers. Downstate looks like a melting pot that needs a good stir.

JF What's funny, listening to you, is how much less ancient this all seems than my own early 20s. Three hundred million years is nothing compared with how long it's been since I was a senior in college. And even college seems relatively recent compared with the years right after. The years when I was married. If you want to talk about a tortured, deep geology.

The New York State Geologist I don't suppose you married your vivacious cousin?

JF No, no, no. But definitely a New York girl. Just like I'd always dreamed of. Her people on her dad's side had been living in Orange County since the 1600s. And her mom's name was Harriet. And she had two very petite younger sisters who were a whole lot like the girls in the back seat of Martha's Town Car. And she was deliciously unhappy.

The New York State Geologist Unhappy was never my idea of delicious.

JF Well, for some reason, it was mine. Three hundred million years ago. The first thing we did when we got out of school was sublet an apartment on West 110th Street. By the end of that summer, I was so in love with the city, it was almost an afterthought to propose that she and I get married. Which we did, a year later, on a hillside up in Orange County, near the terminus of the Palisades Parkway. Late in the day, we drove off in our Chevy Nova and crossed the Hudson on the Bear Mountain Bridge, heading back toward Boston. I told the toll-taker that we'd just got married, and he waved us on through. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that we were happy then and happy for the next five years, happy being in Boston, happy visiting New York, happy longing for it from a distance. It was only when we decided to actually live here that our troubles started.

New York State's Publicist (Distantly) Hal? Hello? Hal?

The New York State Geologist Oops - Excuse me. Janelle! Wrong way! Over here! Janelle!

New York State's Publicist Oh, this is terrible, terrible! Jon, she's been ready for you for five minutes already, and here I'm wandering around and around and around in this warren. I know I promised you a half-hour, but I'm afraid you may to have to content yourself with 15 minutes. And I'm sorry, but, hiding back here with Hal, you do bear a certain amount of responsibility yourself. Honestly, Hal, you need to install escape-path lighting or something.

The New York State Geologist I feel lucky to be funded at all.

JF It's been nice talking to you.

New York State's Publicist Let's go, let's go. Run with me! I should have sprinkled some breadcrumbs behind me... A person could lie down and die here, and the world might never know it... She hates to be kept waiting even five seconds! And you know who she'll blame, don't you?

JF Me?

New York State's Publicist No! Me! Me! Oh, here we are, here we are, we're coming coming coming coming, here, just go on in, she's waiting for you - go on - and don't forget to ask about the pictures -

JF Hello!

New York State Hello. Come in.

JF I'm really sorry I kept you waiting.

New York State I'm sorry, too. It cuts into our already very limited time together.

JF I've been here since 8.30 this morning, and then, in the last half-hour-

New York State Mm.

JF Anyway, it's great to see you. You look terrific. Very, ah,


New York State Thank you.

JF It's been so long since we were alone, I don't know where to begin.

New York State We were alone once?

JF You don't remember?

New York State Maybe. Maybe you can remind me. Or not. Some men are more memorable than others. The cheap dates I tend to forget. Would this have been a cheap date?

JF They were nice dates.

New York State Oh! "Dates" plural. More than one.

JF I mean, I know I'm not Mort Zuckerman, or Mike Bloomberg, or Donald Trump -

New York State The Donald! He is cute. (Giggles) I think he's cute!

JF Oh my God.

New York State Oh, come on, admit it. He really is pretty cute, don't you think?... What? You truly don't think so?

JF I'm sorry, I'm... just taking it all in. This whole morning. I mean, I knew things were never going to be the same with us. But, my God. It really is all about money and money only now, isn't it?

New York State It was always about money. You were just too young to notice.

JF So you remember me?

New York State Possibly. Or possibly I'm making an educated guess. The romantic young men never notice. My mother even came to find the Redcoats rather handsome, back in the war years. What else was she supposed to do? Let them burn everything?

JF I guess it runs in your family, then!

New York State Oh, please. Grow up. Is this really how you want us to spend our 10 minutes?

JF You know, I was back there last month. The hillside where I got married - her grandparents' house. I was driving up through Orange County and I went back to try to find it. I remembered a green lawn spilling down to a rail fence, and a big overgrown pasture with woods all around it.

New York State Yes, Orange County. A lovely feature of mine. I hope you took some time to savour the many tracts of spectacular parkland around Bear Mountain and to reflect on what an extraordinary percentage of my total land area is guaranteed public and "for ever wild". Of course, a great deal of that land came to me as gifts from very rich men. Perhaps you'd like me to be pure and virtuous and give it all back to them for development?

JF I wasn't sure I ever actually found it, the land was so altered. It was all hideous sprawl, traffic, Home Depot, Best Buy, Target. Next door to the town's old brick high school there was this brand-new, pink, aircraft carrier-sized building with signs at the entrance that said, PLEASE DRIVE SLOWLY, WE LOVE OUR CHILDREN.

New York State Our precious freedoms do include the freedom to be tacky and annoying.

JF The best I could do was narrow it to two hillsides. The same thing was happening on both of them. Building-size pieces of earth-moving equipment were scraping it all bare. Reshaping the very contours of the land - creating these cute little fake dells and fake winkles for hideous houses to be sold to sentimentalists so enraged with the world they had to inform it, in writing, on a road sign, that they love their children. Clouds of diesel exhaust, broken full-grown oak trees piled up like little sticks, birds whizzing around in a panic. I could see the whole grey and lukewarm future. No urban. No rural. The entire country just a wasteland of shittily built neither-nor.

New York State And yet, in spite of it all, I am still rather beautiful. Isn't it unfair? What money can buy? And trees do have a way of growing back. You think there were oak trees on your hillside in the 19th century? There probably weren't a thousand oak trees left standing in the entire county. So let's not talk about the past.

JF The past was when I loved you.

New York State All the more reason not to talk about it! Here. Come sit next to me. I have some pictures of myself I want to show you. ·

• This is an edited extract from State by state, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, and published by Ecco

Jonathan Franzen

The GuardianTramp

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