Ah Jonathan Franzen. He don’t half get people’s goat do he? P125 of his latest book, The End of the End of the Earth, a collection of largely ecological essays, caused a veritable Twitterstorm despite running to barely more than a couple of hundred words. ’10 Rules for the Novelist’. Ah but the Twitterverse didn’t like that! Jonathan Franzen! Internationally bestselling novelist! Having the temerity to toss off 10 rules for being a novelist! After dispensing wisdom in rather Ent-like fashion in an earlier essay, ‘The Essay in Dark Times’, an essay, furthermore, which had the temerity to knock social media. And this from a writer known to hate social media! Argh! RAGE! RAGE disguised as COMEDY! SNARKY COMEDY, yes, but RAGE all the same. This writer – who doesn’t value the medium in which we all operate – dismissing things we all do every day because they are not for HIM! Argh! Dismissing things – like RAGE!!! – for having a detrimental effect upon modern discourse! If I could be bothered pursuing this I’d mention Trump and suggest he was some kind of Twitter apotheosis but really who cares? (ARGH! WE CARE! RAGE!!! Sssssssh now.)
The Jonathan Franzen we meet in The End of the End of the Earth is a complicated chap. Concerned with climate change, certainly, but unwilling to be swept up by the hullaballoo (we get a couple of takes on his row with The National Audubon Society, a non-profit environmental organisation dedicated to conservation who went on record to say climate change was the biggest threat to bird populations, when there is, according to Franzen, little proof that climate change has yet had a serious impact on bird populations, especially when you compare it to the damage inflicted by household cats – which Franzen has written about, fictionally, before in Freedom). Willing to share the things about himself that he recognises as slightly strange (such as his time-swallowing habit of travelling the planet to list birds – birds he can only list if he really, truly, honestly sees them). Here he is admitting personal shortcomings:
“Philadelphia is a city suited to the purest and most fundamental form of short story, the form as practiced by Chekhov and Trevor and Welty – writers whose reservoirs of empathy and curiosity are equal to the mindless particularity of regular people’s lives. Walking Philly’s streets, I used to be consciously oppressed by the greatness and virtue of those writers, and to wish I had the heart to imagine my way into regular human stories whose tantalising exteriors I could see everywhere around me. I felt defeated by the insufficiency of my own courage or curiosity or brotherly love.”
As you’d probably expect he engages with 9/11 and capitalism and Trump. But there are also stories of William T Vollman (a faltering friendship, an imaginary alternate world in which he, Vollman and David Foster Wallace went camping together) and Edith Wharton (an unpleasant person in many ways who beguiles him nevertheless) and Sarah Stolfa (formerly of the Delta 72, appreciated here for her photography). Some or all of which may annoy the kinds of people who get annoyed by Jonathan Franzen.
Where The End of the End of the Earth may surprise some readers (and we emphasise the some – we know that there are readers out there who cannot forgive Franzen for being Franzen) is in the extent of his bird-watching. “Admittedly,” he writes on p216 in the eponymous essay, “I love birds.” Now, each of these essays was written apart but taken together there are a lot of essays on just how much Franzen prefers birds to people. To hit “Admittedly, I love birds” 216 pages in, having read seven previous essays that go into some detail regarding Franzen’s globetrotting birding adventures, you can’t help but chuckle. You don’t say, Franzen. You don’t say. For a short while, his enthusiasm is odd. (He gets that.) Man, you think, as he admires a family of Hunter’s Cisticolas (“the most beautiful and moving thing I saw on my safari”), maybe this guy needs to get out more (and we say that KNOWING IT’S A JOKE!). But then, the commingling of knowledge (The End of the End of the Earth is full of bird facts) and full-blooded passion is wildly infectious.
“A twenty-pound Tristan Albatross can’t stop a one-ounce mouse from eating its young, and yet it thrives in frigid saltwater and brutal winds and can bully a large gull.”
“A Wren-like Rushbird will spend its entire life beside one half-acre pond, while a Cerulean Warbler may migrate to Peru and then find its way back to the tree in New Jersey where it nested the year before.”
“The Flappet Lark, which gets my vote for the best East African bird name, is very hard to see outside its breeding season, when the male shoots high in the air and hovers there, beating its wings so hard that it sounds like cards being shuffled.”
There is also the Franzen that puts people on edge. The Franzen that feels pompous to some. The Franzen that challenges established orthodoxies. He talks about reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, “in which she assured the reader that, although “time is tight”, we still have time to radically remake the global economy”. Franzen finds the optimism “touching” but also “a kind of denialism”:
“Even before the election of Donald Trump, there was no evidence to suggest that humanity is capable – politically, psychologically, ethically, economically – of slashing carbon emissions quickly and deeply enough to change everything.”
Ah, some people might say, climate change matters to him but he travels all over the world looking at birds. Hypocrite lecteur, right?! (Or should that be HYPOCRITE LECTEUR!!!) “I’m still susceptible to this sort of puritanism”:
“Rarely do I board an airplane or drive to the grocery store without considering my carbon footprint and feeling guilty about it.”
There are times as you read The End of the End of the Earth that you can’t help but hear the kinds of cracks you know people who dislike Franzen would make. But there are also times when the book shuts that rabid chatter down. It’s just you and the book. This is the good thing about a book. It corks the world for a bit. If you like Franzen, you’ll like The End of the End of the Earth. There are good stories here and honest, unfettered joy and fears for the world we’re making. We know that there will be people who won’t like it, who – if they picked it up – could no doubt find a hundred examples of those things that confirm everything they think about Jonathan Franzen. If the Franzen haters could take advice, we’d say don’t worry about it. You don’t like it, don’t read it. It’s alright. There’s enough other books in the world, right? But this reader liked The End of the End of the Earth. This reader would recommend The End of the End of the Earth. Just not to the Franzen haters. Not that they will likely read this. They’ll be too busy crafting 10 rules for Franzen haters to live by…
Any Cop?: The ideal book to read when you’re listening to Eels’ I Like Birds.