Reviewed in the United States on December 30, 2019
In this collection, Jonathan Franzen has a short essay about his friend William Vollmann. Vollmann is also mentioned in the David Foster Wallace biography, so it seems these three writers of big books were once buddies. Vollmann is known for visiting prostitutes and strange places (and prostitutes in strange places), but also for being incredibly prolific. In Franzen's essay, he says, with a hint of jealousy, that Vollmann developed carpel tunnel after typing for twelve hours a day. With each new novel, Franzen has let his ambitions be known, so it galls him to know that Vollmann, his contemporary, has written more books. In a sense, "The End of the End" seems like a way for Franzen to keep pace, a way to keep the Franzen name out there until the next big novel appears. To be sure, there's a little bit of filler here. One essay, "Ten Rules for the Novelist," is literally just a list of ten rules with no additional explication. But the essays, and topics, Franzen throws his weight into are well worth reading. I think it's fair to say Franzen has become obsessed with birding, traveling the world in search of new species. I'll admit I wasn't looking forward to reading multiple essays about bird-watching. But the author's essays are much more than that. He interacts with ecologists in Costa Rica and in islands off New Zealand. His essays seem to be about preserving the privilege of birding rather than the act itself, which he admits (in an essay about a cruise to Antarctica) can be dull. Franzen's a great writer, and he can't be boring. He has important things to say about conservation, learned things. And he has a hot take on global warming. The author sees global warming as too large a threat, too distant, and is far more concerned about things we can do right now to protect our environment and the endangered species in it. These arguments sounded convincing. In his opening salvo, Franzen admits that the essay form is a way to explore ideas, to be wrong at times, and he describes his own early failures. The book is not a polemic. It is narrative, at times about Franzen but also about family and others he encounters. Another essay I dreaded was about a photographer in Philadelphia, but Franzen brings his own history in Philly to bear, and gives the reader some insight on his life and the life of the city itself in addition to the photos. Franzen attempts to alternate his bird-themed essays with those on other topics--writing, photography, Edith Wharton, William Vollmann, New York City--yet he keeps returning to birds: birding trips to the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, Antarctica. Birding is clearly a passion, a fixation, of Franzen's, and I think it's good--essential, even--for a writer to have something else (even birds) to diversify. For the sake of their fiction, writers need to spend time in airports and taxis. And essayists, as Franzen does here, need to admit to uncertainty and errors. There are times, however, when Franzen's opinions come off as a self-justifying stance. He has gone from starving artist to well-off, and he sometimes feels the need to justify his carbon footprint. I found it amusing that the author wanted to honor his uncle by doing something worthwhile with the surprise five-figure inheritance he received. But rather than support some of the ecological efforts he describes (or start his own), he buys a couple tickets on a super-expensive National Geographic cruise to Antarctica. He makes clear this isn't the MOST expensive cruise option out there. At times like these I wish he'd just admit he enjoys luxury, plane travel, expensive coffee, and, as a childless person, doesn't care what happens to the world in 100 years. This seems more honest than trying to ride both sides of the wave, being green, ultra-left, while simultaneously enjoying these other pleasures.