From his relationship with his uncle to the worldwide seabird crisis (he is a keen twitcher), Franzen’s complex, finely wrought essays address how to live in the face of climate change.
There are two stand-out pieces, The Essay in Dark Times and The End of the End of the Earth, where an account of a bird-related expedition is interleaved with broader meditations on essay writing and the life of a much-loved uncle. Cannily, these pieces bookend the collection.
So who is Jonathan Franzen? Is he, as The Guardian has it, “a literary genius for our time”? Not on the strength of these essays. But he is a clever man who cares sincerely about important things, and we should be wary of dismissing him. Piggy has something to tell us. There may come a time when we wish we’d paid more attention.
The essay as a form is itself often said to be under threat of extinction, but Franzen makes a strong case for its importance in leading that quest to be good in a world of social media and constant digital communication. These things offer diversions from an honest self-reckoning, he argues: “As long as there’s no end of little things, you never have to stop and confront the bigger questions.”
When something really captures his interest, Jonathan Franzen is an engaged and engaging reporter. Which is to say, two essays in his new collection, “The End of the End of the Earth,” truly expand one’s knowledge of the world...That makes it more the shame that he usually opts for something much easier. Most of the pieces in this book fall into the loose category of personal essay. Some are travelogues, mostly about his high-end and self-consciously “compulsive” pursuit of adding species to his many lists of the birds he’s encountered...But if Franzen’s travel writing is unexceptional, it’s better than his political essays, which suffer from being under-thought and over-emoted, the chief feeling often being a kind of self-absorbed peevishness.
he breathes fresh life into what had seemed the thoroughly knackered topic of giving up smoking, riffing on how he became “a person so firmly resolved to quit again that I might as well already have been a non-smoker, even as I continued to smoke”. And he writes fondly about his editor at The New Yorker (where a number of these pieces were first published), with his “distinctive tight-chested manner of speaking, a kind of hyperarticulate mumble, like prose acutely well edited but barely legible”.
I tend of think of Jonathan Franzen as being younger than he is. This may be partly because he has written only five novels. All the same, it’s a surprise to think that he will be 60 next year. His novels are good, serious and very readable in the sturdy, American middlebrow tradition of writers like Sinclair Lewis, John P Marquand and James Gould Cozzens. Franzen himself is an old-style WASP, “raised,” he writes, “with a Midwestern horror of yakking about myself.” Happily he has overcome the horror. As an essayist published in the New Yorker he has become accustomed to yakking about himself, and doing so agreeably.
The book does, of course, offer all of the pleasures to be found from reading an author as accomplished as Franzen. His sentences are crisp and clean and well balanced, and when he writes literary criticism, he can be deeply compelling... But by and large, The End of the End of the Earth is so cranky and so condescending that it’s enough to make you want Franzen to abandon nonfiction altogether.
...by refusing to hope for the impossible, Franzen, improbably, manages to produce a volume that feels, if not hopeful, then at least not hopeless... But over the course of these essays, he succeeds in demonstrating that resignation brings with it a curious intellectual freedom. His acknowledgment that the macro problem is beyond him allows him to start thinking more creatively about micro solutions: what can be achieved here, now, today... It’s a complex position, both to articulate and to accept... Rather, as these essays show, the conclusion he has come to is that it’s not his position that’s lacking, but his ability to put it across in a way that readers can accept... This isn’t a flawless collection: there are uneven moments, and occasional longueurs... Yet there are essays in which the balance between form, content and voice is perfectly struck, and when you reach one of those, it’s clear that you’re in the presence of a master.
He goes on, of course, to employ those simple-sounding dictums in supple and seemingly effortless ways... Jonathan Franzen’s essays offer a different escape from the madness. Written over the course of the past decade, they see him take on the political crisis from an environmental vantage... Birds become a way into a wider set of questions. His essays examine the impact of human privations and the consequences of climate change on bird populations – for example how poverty in Albania caused the slaughter with automatic weapons of 50,000 migrating geese that had flown further south to escape an unusually harsh winter in the Danube Valley. Franzen’s travels in search of rare species – in the Antilles, and New Zealand’s Chatham Islands and Antarctica – are revealing of the ways in which human political decisions are shaping the planet and how we should respond.