Over lunch in one of the University of California Santa Cruz’s dining halls last Wednesday, the topic of Jonathan Franzen was broached and my friend Leigh and I began a passionate defense of the man’s essay “Farther Away” in the face of an imagined host of detractors. We cited the honesty of the piece; we beat our breasts and stomped the table groaning at its misinterpretation; we rained scorn down upon the man’s declaimers (absent) and supporters (also absent) alike. We wept, bemoaning the poverty of our culture’s literary curiosity, so obsessed with Jonathan Franzen, our horizon and circumference.
At approximately 2:40 that afternoon, I was in the Media Center in the basement of UC Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library checking out Repo Man when I noticed one of the millions of male North American humans who look like Jonathan Franzen approaching the circulation desk. Upon further inspection — glasses, stubble, a palpable, dismissive intelligence — I realized that this was, in fact, the Jonathan Franzen.
I sat down at the nearest computer and a quick Google image search verified my suspicion. It was then that the 2001 National Book Award winner began a fraudulent attempt to rent films from the library’s audio visual department and perhaps defraud the state of California. The conversation, as best as I can recall, went exactly like this:
Franzen: Hi, I was wondering if I could take out a few films?
UCSC undergrad: Sure. Are you a professor?
Franzen: Ahh, no, I’m a . . . graduate student . . .
UCSC undergrad: Oh, well then I can let you watch them here in the Media Center. Do you have your ID?
Franzen: Oh, hmm, no. I’ll just come back later.
Somewhat mystified by the exchange, I followed the Pulitzer Prize finalist who had just attempted to fleece a young desk attendant at a remove. But I think he tried to ditch me because when I reached the landing of the library’s main level, I spotted Franzen creeping onto the stairs from the floor below, where I assume he had hidden, knowing I had spied him like a circling hawk. Playing it cool, I walked back to the computer lab where Leigh was working, gave her the heads up, and triangulated our observation in order to achieve maximum facial recognition. The time was 2:45; the culprit was Jonathan Franzen.
Further research indicates that the author of four novels and three volumes of nonfiction does indeed keep a pied-à-terre in Santa Cruz and that the university has furnished him with an office somewhere on campus. Franzen has described the forested grounds of the UC as foggy:
UCSC is a great place to write fiction, especially in the summer months, when the campus is very quiet and the days often start out very foggy . . . I can go from the fog of sleep and up the foggy drives to a dark office, put in a good morning in the dream state of fiction-writing, and then emerge to a beautiful blue sky in the early afternoon.
Though we are not ruling out the possibility of a mist induced fugue state, several troubling questions related to the sighting remain unanswered:
- Does Jonathan Franzen have a UCSC ID? If so, where is it? Does he want to use mine?
- Why would Jonathan Franzen, modern master of the social novel, attempt to use his abilities to manipulate a child desk attendant?
- Why could said social novelist not weave a better tale than “I’ll just come back later”?
- What “films” was Jonathan Franzen after? What percent of them were directed by women?
- In his memoir The Discomfort Zone, Franzen admits to a fleeting (perhaps pathological?) obsession with the Grateful Dead, encouraged by his friend “Tom.” UCSC’s McHenry Library, the site of the crime described above, is also home to Dead Central, a permanent exhibit space for the Grateful Dead Archive. Is it possible that Franzen was after a relic from the collection? Was the Media Center fiasco just a smokescreen? Does this mysterious “Tom” have the answers to our questions? Elif Batuman has outed Franzen as a fan of the devil’s own herb, Cannabis sativa, which would seem to support this theory.
Speculation, as they say, is cheap. We at Full Stop want answers (and also speculation in the comment section). If you are Jonathan Franzen, you know Jonathan Franzen, or you represent Jonathan Franzen in any capacity, please consider the following proposition:
The Editors generously offer Jonathan Franzen the opportunity to clear his name on a redemptive birdwatching trek through the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, led by Full Stop’s resident ornithologist, Peter Nowogrodzki. Deep in the backcountry, amid the lowering sun’s crepuscular rays, intermittent glimpses of lanky scrub-jays, and the mellifluous clicks of whatever solitary hermit warblers descend from the redwood canopy, nature will grant Franzen an audience. Our guide’s path is true, and if the author walks it with contrition, perhaps Franzen’s path will bend toward absolution. Also, if he could be cool about it and get back to me ASAP (Phone: 859-302-1154 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org), I could start making sandwiches and GORP.
UPDATE: Jonathan Franzen has denied these accusations to NPR, stating that “The dialogue the author reproduces is totally inaccurate. I never represented that I was a student. And I do have a valid UCSC library card, because I’m a fellow of Cowell College. But it’s true that I was there in the media center last week.”
This, as Franzen is surely aware, raises more questions than it attempts to answer.
- Franzen admits that he was in the media center last week. Does he also claim to have successfully checked out “films”?
- Is NPR, with its well known liberal bias, soft on awkwardness?
- Why has NPR not released the entire statement from Franzen?
- Is this a cover-up?
- Why else would NPR attempt to assassinate the character of Jesse Montgomery by misrepresenting him as a woman, just as he was becoming comfortable with his body?
Full Stop is now attempting to reach the UCSC desk attendant for comment — unless of course, she has already been silenced. Nevertheless, our invitation to go birding stands . . . for now. Will Jonathan Franzen walk the path of avian judgment, or will he continue down the path of the earthly and wicked?