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Entries in Jonathan Franzen (1)

Friday
Feb012019

The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on November 13, 2018

I didn’t know what a gloomy guy Jonathan Franzen is until I read The End of the End of the Earth. There’s no point in having a bucket list, he says, because it won’t change the fact that you’re going to die. Well, okay, but seeing every bird you possibly can before you die won’t change the fact that you’re going to die, and I’m not sure how Franzen squares that obsession with his rejection of bucket lists, except for his impression that bucket listers want to cheat death by “strategic vacationing.” I don’t have a bucket list but I’ve taken a lot of vacations, and I always thought they had something to do with enjoying life rather than cheating death. Maybe if the buckets are filled with birds, Franzen would have more use for them. Or maybe he’s just the kind of guy who sees the bucket as half empty rather than half full.

Franzen starts this essay collection by telling the reader that the “pure” essay, the personal exploration of an idea, is an extinct form, in part because subjectivity is the new norm in reportage, reviews, and even literature, which increasingly conflates fiction with autobiography. In an essay that explores the idea of essays, Franzen contrasts the subjective opinions of bloggers and activists on the left and right — the people who claim “the right not to hear things that upset them and to shout down ideas that offend them” — with essays that, like the best literature, invite you “to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.”

Franzen pushed my buttons from time to time, and I’ll gladly acknowledge that he might be right and I might be wrong. Maybe it really is too late to avert climate change and we should stop pretending that environmental doom is avoidable (although misplaced hope, in my view, is a necessary motivational tool to even incremental policy changes). To his credit, Franzen admits that he might be wrong, that maybe the focus should be on climate change deniers, a conclusion he pondered while writing and then abandoning an essay about birds. He eventually converted the essay to one about finding meaning in improving a world that is coming to an end. That’s a perspective I hadn’t considered. Inviting readers to consider new perspectives is an essayist’s greatest gift.

Most of these essays in this collection touch on Franzen’s love of bird watching and the anxiety it produces. I couldn’t tell from reading Freedom whether Franzen was on the side of birds or cats (fans of both are excoriated in the novel), but now I know. Franzen has a passion for birds. Cats, not so much.

Franzen makes an inspired defense of the ethical imperative to protect the environment in order to protect birds. I suppose one could translate that to an argument for saving all habitats to protect all wildlife, and for that matter oceans and possibly even places where people and their dogs might dwell.

One essay discusses the impact of unregulated hunting on bird populations in Albania and Egypt. Another discusses his frenzied attempt to see all the possible birds in a couple of Caribbean islands. His birdwatching trip to East Africa sparks his gloomy condemnation of bucket lists and tourism (because the world doesn’t need another picture of a giraffe, as opposed to, I don’t know, another sighting of a bird?). One of the more interesting bird essays discusses the decline of seabird populations and the simple ways that fishing fleets can avoid killing birds by accident. And the end of the end of the Earth turns out to be Antarctica, which has glorious penguins, although the essay morphs into a gloomy discussion of death before it becomes an amusing take on expensive tours to places most people don’t want to go. I’m glad Franzen went there and described the trip so that I can cross it off my bucket list as a vicarious trip taken.

Franzen writes about his personal experience with (and contribution to) the gentrification (and whitening) of New York City. He shares Sherry Turkle’s concern that smart phones and social media are reducing empathy. He dissects friendships (Bill Vollman and David Foster Wallace). In an essay about Sarah Stolfa’s photographs of patrons in a Philadelphia bar, he talks about the miserable lonely year he spent in Philadelphia. Being lonely and miserable is an undercurrent to many of the essays, but not to the same extent as his love of bird watching.

One of the most interesting essays addresses how readers feel about books when they cannot sympathize with the author, and how authors make readers sympathize with characters who are in many ways unsympathetic. He uses Edith Wharton and her novels to advance both discussions, but he also points to a string of unsympathetic characters (from the murderer Raskolnikov to the sociopath Tom Ripley to the pedophile Humbert Humbert) to whom the reader feels drawn, perhaps as a function of “the guilty pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be unburdened by scruples.” I think Franzen explained my love of crime novels that focus on criminals rather than good guys.

Bird watchers will probably love this collection. I grew a bit weary of the bird themes, but there are enough non-avian essays to make the book worthwhile for readers with more generalized interests.

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