13 December 2018

The End of the End of the World by Jonathan Franzen

For some reason I was living under a rock and by the time I found out Jonathan Franzen had a new book coming out it was only two weeks away from being released in stores. I went out the Tuesday it was released and bought it immediately. Franzen is my second favourite author of all time (after Joan Didion of course) and you can read my author spotlight on him here. His new book The End of the End of the World has maybe my favourite cover art ever, and it's a look at our environment's destruction and its impact on birds - Franzen's true love.

Like a lot of authors, Franzen seems to alternate publications with fiction and then a book of essays or something non-fiction. He has written about environmental issues before, even in his fiction, but this is the first time he has devoted an entire publication to the environment.

My only hope is that we can accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely, and my only faith is that facing it honestly, however painful this may be, is better than denying it."

The book is a little depressing because it feels like his overall stance on the subject is that we're just too late to really fix anything. I think the passage above best describes his hope for our situation, but I also think it is really well said later on in the book when someone compares our planet to a famous Rembrandt painting. They ask:

If you had the only Rembrandt in the world and somebody came and slashed it with a knife - would you throw it away?"

Also, there are so many chapters dedicated to describing adorable little birds and the ways that they are dying that I started feeling sad any time I saw one fly by. Again, this book is mostly about how our current climate is killing tons of different bird species but Franzen maintains that the biggest threat is still our oversized windows and outdoor cats. I have always been very anti outdoor cat, but mostly for the cat's well being, now I am definitely considering the birds. You're welcome Franzen.

He covers a ton of different potential reasons we are so behind on fixing stuff like carbon emissions, pollution, etc. A lot of it was obviously just human selfishness and how horrible/evil/corrupt all corporations are, but one of the more interesting schools of thought was on democracy. In one essay Franzen talks a lot about Dale Jamieson's book Reason in a Dark Time and mentions this line:

Unlike the progressives who see a democracy perverted by moneyed interests, Jamieson suggests that America's inaction on climate change is the result of democracy. A good democracy, after all, acts in the interest of its citizens, and it's precisely the citizens of the major carbon-emitting democracies who benefit from cheap gasoline and global trade, while the main costs of our polluting are borne by those who have no vote: poorer countries, future generations, other species."

My only issue with this is that I DESPISE how large corporations are always trying to put the blame on consumers. Like this whole issue with straws... now no restaurants will give you a straw for your drink and Starbucks is going on about being straw-less by 2020 or whatever. I can't help but think there are probably HUNDREDS of ways these shitty, large, filthy-rich businesses could cut down on their production of waste, instead of focusing on the consumer's choice to have a straw with their iced drink. I'm awful at articulating this sort of stuff, but hopefully you know what I mean.

There were a lot of interesting little details about different bird species and this is the stuff I love to read about. Franzen included all sorts of information about how they catch food, their mating rituals, etc. As I was reading, I kept thinking I need to get involved in a natural-world hobby. I hate being in the heat so I don't think birding would work for me, but I am certainly going to try to enjoy their presence more after reading this book.

The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value. They are always among us but never of us. They're the other-dominating animals that evolution has produced, and their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we're not the measure of all things."

The essays I was particularly interested in were "May Your Life Be Ruined," "A Friendship," and the titlular essay, "The End of the End of the World." I'll briefly go through each one below:

May Your Life Be Ruined:

This essay is about bird hunters, mostly Italian, who hunt in Albania and Egypt. Franzen actually travels to Albania and interviews park rangers, hunters, and those working in conservation. It was an interesting read because so much of bird hunting in Albania actually has to do with class and economic status. It was also a disturbing read because you find out how many park conservationists are paid off so that hunters can enter / hunt birds that have been put on a protected list by the country. This amazing essay title is a direct quote from a young Egyptian boy who screams this at a conservationist after they demand he releases a bird caught in one of his hunting nets.

Franzen spends a lot of time in foreign countries listing all the birds he encounters in the deep wilderness. He makes this amazing point about how standoffish humans can be to the wilderness and states that this is probably because it reminds us so much of death. In the wild death is everywhere ...  animals are killing other animals, trees are dying, forests are burning. He says humans almost prefer the suburbs because it is void of all natural life, and so we don't have to anticipate the death that follows in the natural world.

A Friendship:

This essay is about Franzen's relationship with author Bill Vollman. It is a short read but makes you want to pick up something written by Vollman at least once in your life. One of the things I really loved about this essay was how you can see your own loss of friendships in his own story. It is so easy to lose touch with people you were once so close to, and you almost always regret it when it feels too late to mend the relationship. I can think of two people in particular I feel this way about and I'm only 26. This is particularly heartbreaking in the essay because it ends with him recalling an invitation to go camping with Vollman and to bring Davis Foster Wallace along. Franzen mourns the loss of this opportunity, especially given that the opportunity is forever lost now that Wallace is dead.

Franzen also provides an excerpt from one of Vollman's books which I loved:

How like a book the body is! We each write our life story in it, describing to perfection what was done to us, what was done by us. Evangeline's liver was a chapter entitled: 'What I Wanted.' The text was short, but not without pathos. 'I wanted to feel loved and warm and happy and dizzy,' Evangeline had written."

The End of the End of the World:

This is definitely the best essay but I was really disappointed because I had actually already read it. He wrote it for The New Yorker and I read it online probably a year ago here. He inherits some money and decides to go on an Antarctic cruise with his brother in hopes of spotting some new bird species, specifically penguins. It is so funny but also very insightful. He also spots an Emperor penguin and his reaction is perfect.

So Franzen's newest book isn't entirely about climate change or birds, but it mostly is. At the end of the day I definitely preferred his last book of essays (Farther Away) because they predominantly focused on the death of his friend, and fellow well-known author, David Foster Wallace, while still including some on climate change (a topic he is obviously very interested in). I would recommend anyone who likes Franzen to read this book, especially if you are like me and want to devour every single thing he puts out, much like a cat eats a bird.

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