How He Came to be Nowhere | Jonathan Franzen | Granta Magazine

How He Came to be Nowhere

Jonathan Franzen

Room 471, the Federal Building, Eighth Street, Philadelphia: a perfectly square room which for no obvious reason had an eye chart on the southern wall. A leak in the roof two floors up had spread damage across the ceiling and down two other walls—ricotta-like eruptions of plaster, arrested avalanches of softened latex paint. In one corner where the cracks were especially complex, the ceiling was actually sagging. The room gave the impression of a desperate beleaguerment, as if an immense weight of water, that enemy of paper documents and even more so of anything electrical, were bearing down from above. There was a yeasty, incontinent smell of damp plaster, and rustles of official business outside the door.

In the room: two white men. From the fingers and arm and thorax of one of them, Andy Aberant, half a dozen wires in elementary colors stretched down a cheap particle-board table to a partition behind which the other, Special Agent Barry Thewless, was adjusting levels. Aberant looked wired for a virtual-reality experience, but the signals were all outgoing—respiration rate, skin moisture and so forth. Thewless’s pants pockets were tumescent with Kleenex, his knobby face a bright pink from his morning shave. Watching over the table was a video camera with the sleek body and long legs of a shore bird.

‘You’re smiling why,’ Thewless said to Aberant.

Aberant, who had indeed begun to smile, said, ‘I was remembering the one time I ever had the courage to ask my father why he didn’t fight in the Second World War. He was the right age for it, and I always had the feeling he felt like less of a man for not having fought with everybody else. That all his life he didn’t feel like he really fit in. So I asked him once, and he said high blood pressure. He said he was late for his physical and he ran up six flights of stairs to the doctor’s office. They took his blood pressure and they said he was unfit.’

‘This is amusing why,’ Thewless said.

‘Because it just occurred to me that maybe he was lying. He was a bulldog, healthwise. He took like three sick days in his entire career. He was also uncontrollably honest. When he was dating my mother he told her she wasn’t half as pretty as her sister, stuff like that. He couldn’t control it.’

Thewless inclined his head to read his watch. ‘The point being what.’

‘The point being that he didn’t tell the doctor that he’d run up those stairs. He didn’t ask to be re-tested. So either what he told me wasn’t true, or he wasn’t completely honest with the doctor. You have to understand, this was a man who never lied. I didn’t put it together until this minute.’

Outside the only window, which was closed, the Philadelphia sky hovered proximately. The Ben Franklin Bridge, looking too big for its setting, came to an awkward end among warehouse roofs. On the broad sidewalk below the window, a handful of Catholic pacifists held aloft placards urging an end to the death penalty. There was light residual morning traffic on Eighth Street, the less serious commuters.

‘I thought of it because of the blood-pressure thingy here and of course the whole topic of lies,’ Aberant said.

‘The Plethysmograph,’ Thewless said affectionately. ‘I’m going to pump that up again, if you don’t mind, and then we’ll do the questions a little differently.’ He reached over the partition, gave the rubber bulb a few amorous squeezes and returned to his instruments. ‘Your full name as it appears on your passport is what.’

‘Andrew Kearns Aberant. Stress on the first syllable of the last name.’

‘Your father and mother are alive, yes or no.’


‘You have three older sisters, excellent though substantially overweight Christian women with many children, all of whom reside in Texas, yes or no.’


Thewless belonged to the Neutral Phrasing school of polygraph operators, and he read the questions on his clipboard in an unstressed monotone, as though dictating to voice-recognition software. To speak to a machine, one made oneself machine-like. And this, of course, was the point of the poly: that Aberant was a machine, that the organic wiring that instructed his arteries to constrict and his sweat glands to open partook of the same materia prima in which his ‘higher’-order thoughts held court. There were rumors even now, gnomic whisperings on Wall Street, of new technologies that could patch into this wiring directly and decode, if not thoughts and images, certainly intentions and emotions. The old government-issue poly in Room 471 was Eisenhowerishly sincere and primitive, however, and quite out of its league when it came to reporting on the inside of Aberant.

‘You are or have in the past been an anarchist or a member of or affiliated with any Communist or other totalitarian party including any subdivision or affiliate, yes or no,’ Thewless said.


‘You’re mentally ill or homosexual, yes or no.’


‘You’re currently sleeping with who.’

‘I think you mean whom. Julia Fuller, in Manhattan. I see her on weekends.’

‘Who else?’ Thewless said, somewhat less robotically.

‘The whom here again would be nobody.’

‘Prior to your hiring by the Securities & Exchange Commission your position was what.’

‘I was a full-time law student at Columbia University.’

‘Prior to that you resided where.’

‘Bozeman, Montana.’

‘Your means of support was what.’

‘I had a small inheritance from my parents’ death.’

‘The cause of their death was what.’

‘There was a freak windstorm in Lawrence, Kansas. They were blown off an overpass.’

‘At the time of their death you were employed as what.’

‘I was a staffer with the Environmental Defense League.’

‘At that time you engaged in activities that were in opposition to the United States government or you knowingly associated with individuals engaged in subversive activities, yes or no.’


‘You’re aware that Environmental Defense League literature calls for the establishment of a New Holistic World Order, yes or no.’

‘To the best of my knowledge the EDL is a law-abiding group and always has been.’

‘Yes or no.’

‘No, actually.’

Thewless had no more questions. He released the pressure in the cuff on Aberant’s arm and gingerly untaped the other sensors.

Aberant put on his shirt and jacket with the compact, dignified movements of a man whose honesty had been vigorously impugned.

In front of the Federal Building, under the Eakins-like vacancy of the sky, a broad-shouldered, big-chested woman in a thigh-length red T-shirt detached herself from the other Catholic protesters and intercepted Aberant in the no-parking zone where he’d left his car. ‘Hey you,’ she said. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Taking a lie-detector test.’

‘No shit. How many times did you lie?’


‘So kiss me six times,’ she said.

With a laugh he removed the parking ticket that was lodged beneath his wiper blade, tore it in two and dropped it in the gutter.

Although he’d been lying for as long as he could remember, had incorporated deception so thoroughly into his being that it almost seemed as if his entire life had been a preparation for passing with flying colors the final random polygraph test that stood between him and full federal security clearance, Andy Aberant had seldom been pathological about it. He was simply a skilled withholder of pertinent information, a sower of red herrings; an extrapolator, an interpolator. Having visited North Carolina as a child, he saw no harm in claiming, as an adult, that he’d also been to South Carolina. After all, he had no memory of either state.

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen was born in 1959 in Chicago and grew up in St Louis. He is the author of five novels, including Purity (2015), Freedom (2010) and The Corrections (2001), which won The National Book Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. In 1996 he was selected as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. A collection of his essays, How to be Alone, was published in 2002 and a memoir, The Discomfort Zone, in 2006. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. He lives in New York City.

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