As part of an anthology of the United States, Jonathan Franzen wrote a satirical essay on the state of New York. His essay, New York, is a successful satire in its personification of the state of New York and the interactions with the writer. Franzen takes on the role of himself in his essay as a writer who is looking to interview New York. He has an image of the State based on past experiences, but he soon finds that his image is no longer representative of reality. The displayed expectations, interactions with characters, and expressed feelings of the writer steer the audience into a satirical view of the state of New York, and the expectations of its visitors.
In the essay, New York is an actual character that personifies the characteristics of the state, and Franzen has scheduled an interview with his lost love. In his search to reach the state, his path is blocked by other fictionalizations of real life departments. The essay is written in the format of a conversation. Along with Jonathan Franzen and New York State, the characters include New York State’s Publicist, New York State’s Personal Attorney, The New York State Historian, and The New York State Geologist.
The characters help bring to light the way the state has changed from a time when Franzen was familiar with New York. The essay opens as the publicist inquires about the intentions of the piece, and Franzen explains to her that he has been asked to write an essay as part of a 50 State anthology. The publicist asks if this could possibly be cut down to an anthology of the top five States. This initial interaction satirizes the business like aspect of New York, and the obsession with being recognized as an important and unique part of the country. Franzen is then dragged from department to department, and each time he is told what he can and cannot write about, or bring up to the state in the interview. He reminisces about the time he fell in love with New York in the 1970s and 1980s, saying, “It used to be so easy to see her. And just, you know, hang out and talk.” New York State’s Personal Attorney goes on to say how embarrassing of a time that was, and that the State has now grown. Jonathan Franzen responds “I guess I don’t see how having been open and available and exciting and romantic to [me,] a kid from the Midwest is equivalent to having let the Hudson River be polluted…[I loved her] and I had the feeling she loved me, too. Like she was waiting for me to come see her. Like she needed us.” The attorney says, “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 how she’s not the same anymore. Which-damn right she’s not! And a good thing it is!” This conversation best illuminates the disconnect felt by Franzen, which satirizes the drastic change in ideals of the state, and the attempt at covering up the past. He describes the novelty and excitement that felt reciprocated, but his memories are discarded as part of the shameful past. The attorney even recognizes the fact that those who held images of the past so dear—“thinking they know the ‘real’ New York”—are no longer relevant.
With a final interview time of 15 minutes, cut down from an hour, Franzen finally gets his chance to speak to the state. The conversation shows a clear disinterest from the state, and the final disappointment for the forlorn writer. He tries to remind the state of their past together, but she has forgotten. He was not a high-profile person, so he ultimately meant nothing to her. The final lines are as follows:
John Franzen: 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.
The format of the essay allows for direct parallels between fiction and reality, allowing the reader to take the assumptions of the piece to the real world. The character of New York is representative of the attitudes and impressions Franzen feels of the actual state. In his estimation, vanity ultimately defeated the dreams of a romanticized image, showing that the state of New York has changed over the decades. In effect, it has become more cold.