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Jonathan Franzen's essays take flight in 'The End of the End of the Earth'

Published Dec. 20, 2018

Jonathan Franzen's novels — The Corrections, Freedom, Purity — have been widely acclaimed, but in his nonfiction and in interviews he has acquired a reputation for being contrarian and cantankerous. He has had public feuds with everyone from Oprah to the Audubon Society, been called everything from a Luddite to a misogynist to a climate change denier.

In Franzen's smart, often witty new essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, he doesn't so much embrace his curmudgeon image as unpack it. Maybe, he suggests, it's not that he sometimes has the wrong answers to big questions. Maybe the very idea of wrong (and right) answers is the problem, because it's too simple.

This collection of 16 essays covers a range of subjects and begins, fittingly, with a meditation on the form, "The Essay in Dark Times." Because essays are based on the author's personal experience and opinions, he writes, "we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age. ... the presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micronarrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people."

Franzen sees that trend of public self-validation everywhere from Twitter and Facebook to the boom in autobiographical novels, but, he says, none of them do what the essay does: "Writing or reading an essay isn't the only way to stop and ask yourself who you really are and what your life might mean, but it is one good way. ...

"The essay's roots are in literature, and literature at its best ... invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you."

In the same essay, Franzen does just that, recounting personal stories that combine two of his greatest passions: politics and bird-watching. In 2016, he had booked a birding trip to Ghana and was there on Election Day. He weaves the story of his shock at Donald Trump's victory together with the reaction a year before to an essay he wrote for the New Yorker about climate change. It caused some furious readers to accuse him of climate change denial. Franzen notes, "In fact, I'm such a climate-science accepter that I don't even bother having hope for the ice caps."

But, he concludes, he might have been wrong when he wrote that incendiary essay. And he might also have been right. That's less important than understanding and facing the complexities of an endangered planet.

Some of the book's essays focus on varied subjects, such as technology, friendship and literature. Into that last category falls "A Rooting Interest (for Edith Wharton)," which got him in trouble with some feminists for daring to mention that Wharton herself was extremely privileged but "did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn't pretty." Ironically, the essay is about Wharton's own exploration, in her novels, of the power and perils of feminine beauty.

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But most of the essays migrate back to Franzen's obsession with birds: "If you could see every bird in the world, you'd see the whole world."

He takes us on that tour, chasing sightings for his life lists from Jamaica to Albania to Antarctica. He frets about those very lists, and whether they make him a compulsive game player rather than a genuine lover of the natural world. He gets lost on back roads and loses his suitcase in an airport. And when he catches sight of some of the rarest birds, he's lyrically ecstatic.

Birds also become his most powerful metaphor for the complexities of dealing with environmental degradation. His beef with the Audubon Society involved his objection to that organization labeling "climate change" the biggest threat to birds. Franzen argued that's inaccurate — the most immediate threats, killing millions of birds annually, are habitat loss and outdoor cats.

It's not that climate change isn't a dire threat to birds and every other living creature. It's such a huge threat that it paralyzes problem solving. "As a narrative, climate change. .. can be told in fewer than a hundred and forty characters: We're taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we're f-----.

"Conservation work, in contrast, is novelistic. No two places are alike, and no narrative is simple." Hanging the blame on big bad climate change lets people shrug and ignore their kitty's death-dealing ways, lets developers drain another wetland for suburbs. Franzen sees tackling the smaller problems as a way of getting at the big one.

The book takes its title from the final essay, which brings together many of the other threads. Franzen writes about inheriting $78,000 from his Uncle Walt and earmarking it for a trip to Antarctica, which is, of course, chock-full of birds found nowhere else.

That challenging journey is just part of the story. Uncle Walt is the other. Walt was married to Fran, the sister of Franzen's father. As a boy, Franzen didn't know them well — they lived with their daughter, Gail, in another state. Only late in Walt's life does Franzen learn that his uncle had realized years ago that he had made a bad marriage. But Gail died young in a car crash, and Fran, always mentally fragile, was so devastated he stayed with her.

Later, out of the blue, Walt and Franzen's widowed mother are surprised to find themselves in love — but he loses her, too. Despite all that, he's a warm and cheerful man with an enduring sense of adventure. So the Antarctica trip seems a fitting tribute.

Franzen recounts it with a good bit of mordant humor, especially a scene in which a huge, rare Emperor Penguin greets a gaggle of worshipful camera-snapping birders as if it's "holding a press conference." And he's sharply aware of the ironies of spending tens of thousands of dollars to visit such a fragile place on a big diesel-guzzling ship.

But the underlying tone is tragic. As much as he is enthralled by the surreal landscape and the utter charm of the masses of penguins, he knows too much. Climate change really is visibly at work there, as well as a host of other political and economic forces. Taken together in all their complexity, they make it unlikely either the place or its inhabitants will survive.

Franzen knows there's no answer that can be expressed in a tweet. But the essay can take a deeper look at how we respond, and it becomes clear that Franzen gives us Walt's story not just to explain how he paid for the trip.

Walt lived with joy even in the face of loss. His story stands for the human race's situation now: Will we love our planet enough to figure out how to save it? Or must we settle for loving it fiercely as it, and we, wink out?

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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