Loss marks these es­says

In a se­ries of som­bre es­says, Jonathan Franzen discusses two of his great­est pas­sions, pol­i­tics and bird-watch­ing.

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JONATHAN Franzen’s nov­els – The Cor­rec­tions (2001), Free­dom (2010), Pu­rity (2015) – have been widely ac­claimed, but in his non­fic­tion work and in in­ter­views he has ac­quired a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing con­trar­ian and can­tan­ker­ous. He has had pub­lic feuds with ev­ery­one from me­dia mogul Oprah Win­frey to wildlife con­ser­va­tion non­profit, 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 mi­cro-nar­ra­tive 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.

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 or­gan­i­sa­tion la­belling “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 paral­y­ses 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 US$78,000 (RM320,000) 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 re­alised 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 hu­mour, 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?

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