The End of the End of the Earth: Essays by Jonathan Franzen

The End of the End of the Earth: Essays
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

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Jonathan Franzen’s new book of essays, his third, is another nonfiction intermission between doorstop novels that, though swift and well-crafted and readable, are selling less and less.

Franzen’s image in the public eye, explored in a recent profile from the Sydney Morning Herald, seems never to have been all that favorable, beginning when he refused the chance to have his third novel, The Corrections, selected for Oprah’s Book Club because he was afraid it would deter male readers.

And his image seems only to have worsened.

He’s seen as smug and privileged, a Luddite. His ambivalent disdain for Twitter has somehow become the thing he’s most asked about and, prompted to wax endlessly on the stupidity of something that so many people enjoy, and talking with that slow, syllable-savoring, professorial drawl, it’s easy to see how he’d come off as unfriendly or pretentious.

But this new book, which collects a bunch of his nonfiction writing about birds and the environment (with a few quick bites of literary criticism and, a strange gem, a piece about his friendship with novelist William T. Vollmann), shows an older and calmer guy than the one who slunk through a couple global publicity tours in the past decade. The one who took the bait each time an interviewer (or Alex Trebek) prompted him to riff on the poison of social media. He’s slowly releasing his grip on the moral rectitude of his younger self – the avid environmentalist, the avid Derridian twenty-something who studied semiotics for fun, the guy who had to plant his feet and argue his point.

Franzen’s tone in the new collection suggests he’s come to terms with the fact that, as a person on this Earth, he is also a problem for this Earth, and that it’s perhaps only human to be a little problematic. He flirts with the idea of not hating himself for burning gas on the way to the grocery story, or the fact that he’s the kind of bird watcher who just wants to see the bird and write it down on a list.

He looks hard at the problems they face (deforestation, cats, a street vendor lording over some miserably caged beauties), an overheating planet, the infighting among self-appointed protectors of that planet, a divisive political climate, disparities of class and gender and race, the fact that he himself, as a public figure, can literally (and kind of hilariously) never say the right thing – he looks at all of this and, abandoning the jargon-heavy and figure-fettered brainiac reportage of How to Be Alone (his first collection), studies the issues with a typewritten sigh. The language is simpler, the conclusions are clearer. He sounds like he’s expressing himself, and having a good time, rather than instructing us. It’s like he’s looking at the moral duty in seeing and appreciating these worldly problems, but realizing that he doesn’t have to solve them.

But the book is mostly about birds. Long lists of birds, strenuous details about how they engage with their environments, mesmerized descriptions of plumage and wingspan and gaits. It isn’t necessarily over-the-top or exhaustive, but it’s way more niche than you’d expect a major novelist to go.

Kind of a bummer that lots of these passages prove so tiresome. The title piece, a blend of environmental awareness and personal essay, presents us with Franzen’s neuroses aboard a cruise ship (echoing the breakthrough essay of his late friend and colleague David Foster Wallace), is funny and swift and surprisingly tender in its portrait of the lovelorn uncle, recently deceased, from whom he’s unexpectedly inherited $80k.

There’s an essay detailing his awkward public dispute with, of all possible institutions, the American Audubon Society, a fight that began when he challenged their claim that global warming is the biggest threat to birds. There’s an interesting and controversial essay about Edith Wharton’s novels wherein he concludes that much of their drama stems from her insecurity about not being beautiful.

The End of the End of the Earth, though an occasional strain for readers who don’t share Franzen’s affection for birds, communicates a compelling voice from a speaker who’s well-intentioned, well-studied and considerate, but hopelessly aloof.

It might not do much to redeem Franzen’s image in the eyes of detractors, nor will the occasionally daunting verbiage about environmental science and birdlife hook many newcomers, but for those of us already inclined to like the guy, it’s a delightful addition to his space on the shelf.

Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.