Way down south in Antarctica, Jonathan Franzen trains his binoculars on the crumpled ice and snow and, lo, discovers a rare Emperor Penguin. Although he is not on a birding cruise, Franzen becomes an instant celebrity. The captain of the cruise ship even changes course to get a glimpse of this good fortune, and Franzen gets a special table at that evening’s dinner.
“For forty years, in large social groups, I’d accustomed myself to feeling like the problem,” as he already had been a couple of times on the cruise. “To be a group’s game-winning hero, if only for a day, was a complete, disorienting novelty. I wondered if, all my life, in my refusal to be a joiner, I’d missed out on some essential human thing.” You want to weep.
There are plenty of opportunities to weep in The End of the End of the Earth – mostly for the birds – a collection of crystalline thought pieces and nonfiction stories. Even when you find yourself wagging your head in disagreement, you have to admire the work that went into the writing, as there is much at stake for Franzen. “Our identities consist of the stories we tell about ourselves, it makes sense that we should get a strong hit of personal substance from the labor of writing and the pleasure of reading.”
Franzen ranges far and wide here, sometimes leaving skid marks between pieces. A longish item on the character of Edith Wharton as seen in the mirror of her work – and that sparked a groundswell of sexist allegations on Franzen’s part because of his emphasis on her looks – is followed by a one-page set of ten rules for a novelist, of which number 3 is “Never use the word then as a conjunction – we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.”
There is a touching piece on his near-puppyish friendship with the writer William Vollmann, sitting cheek by jowl with pitch-perfect stories of living in New York and traveling in East Africa, or consideration of Sarah Stolfa’s photographic portraits that “evade our everyday aesthetic judgments and restore the subjects to a natural world in which everything is interesting, everything incites sympathy and wonder, everything is worth a careful second look. She’s a classical short-storyist of the camera.”
It will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Franzen’s nonfiction work that birds will command much of the page space in the collection. They are the most intimate of what he considers these works to be: essays. “Something essayed – something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity.” Though versed in birding, he makes no claims on being an expert: He makes mistakes, he maintains a life list, something a higher sort of birder would consider déclassé.
But he is a high enough birder to feel the meaningful elementalness of the birding experience. “What bird populations do usefully indicate the health of is our ethical values. One reason that wild birds matter – ought to matter – is that they are our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding.” He finds the dire predicament of, say, seabirds, to be an infinitely more compelling canary-in-the-mine indication of the state of the environment than, say, climate change.
Climate change is Franzen’s bête noir, not because he denies it – he considers it one of the great environmental disasters at work. But he also sees it as a bully on the environmental stage, a problem that we can all feel guilty about and whip out the checkbook to assuage that guilt. It has been made the problem before all other problems, problems that the everyday Joe and Jane can do something about, such as the plight of songbirds and seabirds, which are menaced by everything from trapping to plastic rubbish to gill-netting, all human threats that could be addressed today. And, yes, Franzen also considers climate change another of the problems birds face.
Franzen writes elegant essays without being prim because he is too idiosyncratic and opinionated for that, and his opinions are the kind that inevitably will ruffle feathers, which are the best kind.