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Jonathan Franzen and his editor debate adopting an Iraqi war orphan: a fictional retelling

Jonathan Franzen onstage making “air quotes” with his fingers.
Jonathan Franzen.
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Since the first pilgrim threatened to "turn this caravel right around if you kids don't behave," American adults have tried in vain to figure out this country's greatest mystery: the nation's youth.

Acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen, who now joins that mission, thought he would be able to solve the generational disconnect by trying something no one else had: He would adopt an Iraqi orphan to teach him about American millennial cynicism.

Franzen, according to the Guardian, was puzzled by The Youth of America and thought long and hard for six weeks about adopting a child from conflict-torn Iraq to help him better understand America's children.

"I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me," Franzen told the Guardian. "One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people."

"Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan," he added, correctly. "The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks."

Six weeks is a long time to toss around the idea of adopting an "Iraqi war orphan," or fiddle around with an "insane" idea. Franzen explains that it was his editor, the New Yorker's Henry Finder, who helped talk him out of it, instead suggesting Franzen meet with a fresh crop of NYU graduates to talk about millennial anger.

Vox emailed Franzen to get more specifics about his desire to adopt an Iraqi child, but he declined to explain further.

"I don't read these things, and after 48 hours they're old news, but thanks for the invitation," he wrote.

We will never know the magical words shared between those two men that eventually resulted in Franzen abandoning the idea of Iraqi orphan adoption. But we can, in the spirit of the novelist, imagine that conversation — as well as the questions we ourselves would have asked. What follows is our best estimation of how that conversation likely went, or how we'd like to believe it went, anyway:


Jonathan Franzen: Henry. Henry, are you there? It is Jonathan.

Henry Finder: Jonathan...?

Jonathan Franzen: FRANZEN. I’m sorry, I thought you’d know it was me. Maybe if I had written instead of calling you on the phone you would be able to recognize the voice of one of the MOST ACCLAIMED AUTHORS OF HIS GENERATION.

Henry Finder: Hello, Jonathan, what can I do for you?

Jonathan Franzen: I have been struggling with a TERRIBLE problem. The Youth.

Henry Finder: Who?

Jonathan Franzen: The Youth of Today. They are cynical, Henry. I think The Youth should be angry and idealistic, but there is something wrong with these ones we have today. They make me feel alienated. I imagine you have never felt alienated yourself, but let me tell you, it is not pleasant.

Henry Finder: I mean, I think everyone has felt alienated some —

Jonathan Franzen: Shhh. Shh. You don’t have to pretend to share my experiences. I understand that as an Artist I just feel things more deeply than other people. It is my blessing and my curse, and also the reason that this conversation is about my feelings, not yours.

Henry Finder: Sorry, sorry. So the youth make you feel alienated, and you don't like that. Do go on, I agree that this conversation seems like a good and important use of my time.

Jonathan Franzen: But I have hit on a perfect plan! Kathy and I are going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan.

Henry Finder: I’m sorry, what now?

Jonathan Franzen: Adopt. An. Iraqi. War. Orphan.

Henry Finder:

Jonathan Franzen: Perfect, right?

Henry Finder: I’m going to need you to walk me through this.

Jonathan Franzen: So first I adopt an Iraqi war orphan.

Henry Finder: What?

Jonathan Franzen: He will be a Youth. And, I would imagine, quite cynical and un-idealistic, having grown up in a war zone, lost his family, and then been cast adrift on the seas of international adoption. Perfect for helping me to grow and learn.

Henry Finder: That seems like not the best reason to adopt a potentially troubled child from a major conflict zone.

Jonathan Franzen: Henry. It is the only reason to adopt a potentially troubled child from a major conflict zone. Anyone who pretends they are doing it for other reasons is lying to themselves. I would never do that. I am very self-aware. So, Iraqi war orphan.

Henry Finder: So the idea here, if I understand you correctly, is that a child whose family was killed during a sectarian civil war in the Middle East is going to have the same outlook as the American millennials who alienate you.

Jonathan Franzen: Yes, but he will be my millennial, here to guide and educate me in their ways. I would call him my "cultural Sherpa," except that I am an excellent writer who knows that Sherpas are from Nepal, not Iraq, and even that hint of mixed metaphor repels me.

Henry Finder: As your editor, I appreciate that. But it really seems like this kid is going to have his own stuff going on. If you want to learn about American millennials, why would you adopt someone from Iraq?

Jonathan Franzen: What, adopt an American? That would just be regular parenting. This is about Greatness and Understanding and Society. That is what foreign orphans are for. That's just science.

Henry Finder: I think that you’re going to find that parenting any child, and perhaps in particular a child who may be grieving the loss of his family and trying to understand life in a new country, is a lot of work, though.

Jonathan Franzen: I do not think of it as parenting. I think of it as an educational experience for myself. And if there is one thing I am willing to invest my energy in, it is myself.

Henry Finder: I’m sorry, I still don’t understand why it needs to be a war orphan. If you really want to adopt someone who can help you understand youth culture, shouldn’t you be checking to see if you could adopt a spare Kardashian instead?

Jonathan Franzen: A spare what?

Henry Finder: You don’t know who the Kardashians are?

Jonathan Franzen: Are they war orphans? Because I really think a war orphan is the obvious way to go here.

Henry Finder: So when this child asks, "How did we become a family?" you are going to tell him what, exactly?

Jonathan Franzen: I will explain to him that sometimes even great men who are great writers need help understanding things, and that is the role that he, my Iraqi war orphan, is to play. And then I will make him explain The Selfies to me, and we will laugh together, we will grill, and I will tell him why typewriters are superior to computers.

Henry Finder: I’m not going to lie, it feels pretty strange that you keep referring to him as your "Iraqi war orphan" and not your son.

Jonathan Franzen: That hurts me and my Iraqi war orphan, Henry.

Henry Finder: Well, but —

Jonathan Franzen: There is nothing I can do about your feelings about the things I say. I cannot appease you. There is really nothing I can do except die.

Henry Finder: That seems extreme.

Jonathan Franzen: I DO NOT DO THINGS BY HALVES, Henry.

Henry Finder: Look, you writing about how adopting an Iraqi war orphan helped you to grow and change would be a bestseller, so I can’t believe I'm not just saying "damn the consequences" and encouraging this. But what if you started by just having lunch with some NYU students to ask them why they are cynical? And then you could come back to the orphan plan if it still felt necessary.

Jonathan Franzen: … Ask them? Actual American Youths, Henry? Is that what you're saying?

Henry Finder: Sorry, you’ve probably tried that already.

Jonathan Franzen: It never crossed my mind.

Henry Finder: Oh.

Jonathan Franzen: Honestly, the orphan thing just seemed so obvious, I kind of went straight there. Wow, I feel … still alienated. This is awful. If I don't feel better soon I'm going to need to get two orphans.

Henry Finder: Hey, hey, don’t be so hard on yourself. Who among us has not found ourselves slightly uncomfortable with the way pop culture is heading and decided that they need to personally acquire a disadvantaged person from another culture to serve as a guide and emotional support?

Jonathan Franzen: Thanks. That means a lot. So, um, about this NYU thing?

Henry Finder: Let me make some calls.

Jonathan Franzen: Good night, Henry.