Jonathan Franzen’s new book, The End of the End of the Earth (FSG, Nov.), is a collection of his essays about everything from fellow novelist William Vollman (“A Friendship”) to his experience of 9/11 (“9/13/01”) and his ideas about Edith Wharton (“A Rooting Interest”).
And birds. There are several pieces about birds. There are birds on the cover.
Why birds? The author groans. “That’s my least favorite question,” he says, speaking from his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. “No matter what the subject, I’m always asked, ‘So, why birds?’ I mean, the full answer is in an essay called ‘My Bird Problem’; it’s in my collection The Discomfort Zone.”
However, Franzen’s groans are really window dressing. He wants to talk about birds and birding and being a birder. “I go birding to experience their beauty and diversity, learn about their behavior and the ecosystems they belong to, and take long attentive walks in new places,” he says. “I traveled quite a bit in the first half of my life, in Europe. I’d arrive, check into a cheap pension, then head straight to the museum and the churches. I learned a lot about the Western tradition of art and architecture, but the actual experience of place was mostly confined to the food. And food is completely transferable. But to see a hwamei bird in the wild? Then you know you’re in China.”
Franzen says his travel goal in “the second half of life” (he’s 59) is “making sure there are days when I’m just out in the place where I am, experiencing the bird life.” He adds, “I have, now, a keener sense of visiting Peru once than I have of my several trips to Italy, because, in Peru, I went to places no tourist would ever go unless they were in pursuit of a bird.”
But not all birding spots are remote. For example, Franzen asks, “Did you know Berlin is the birdiest city in the world? It’s home to 150 bird species. The streets tend to be quiet, and the city has a great system of parks, and there’s all this empty space. When the Wall came down they could have built on that land but they decided not to.”
Berlin, especially its once-divided incarnation, figures in 2014’s Purity, Franzen’s most recent novel, in which the book’s great villain, Andreas Wolf, who was born in East Germany and is the head of a WikiLeaks-like organization, is a true believer in the former German Democratic Republic. Does Wolf still exist in Franzen’s imagination?
“That’s an interesting question, especially in the case of Andreas, because immediately after publication, I spent hours on Showtime scripts for the novel,” he says. “I got to know these characters in a different way than I have any others. I actually know strangely more about Andreas now than I did when I published the book. I was thinking, the other day, in the shower, where I often think about things, about some family memory I’d written about, and realized there’s this strange thing that happens when you tell a story and make it formally tight, where the written thing displaces any authentic memory. I think something similar may happen with a fictional character, as well. Purity isn’t going into production. There’s this whole world we built, larger even than the novel, and it’s in this weird kind of purgatory with a door that isn’t fully closed on it—and may never close.”
Franzen laughs ruefully. “The only thing to do is to displace that set of characters,” he adds. “As recently as last week I was writing some pages, trying to fall in love with, oh, about eight new characters.”
However, something psychological may be at work in Franzen’s inability to say goodbye to characters—which would be unsurprising for a novelist whose breakout book, The Corrections, examined an American middle-class family’s inability to reflect. “If there’s something left in a major character at the end of a book, then I haven’t done my job as a novelist,” he says, just a few minutes after he’s discussed the expansion of Wolf as a character. “It gets harder and harder as you get older to find major characters, because my experience is finite and my experience of intense relationships is finite. To do character at the level I want to do it means going through the content of my mind—is there psychological content I’ve overlooked? It feels like going over the furniture. This is not pleasant work. It involves failure.”
Failure stings, even after years of accolades, fame, and controversy, including the well-known Oprah snub and hashtags like #Franzenfreude, meant to poke fun at Franzen’s very public persona. When it comes to interviews, he says, sometimes “as the interviewee, I get in trouble.” He adds, “One forgets that it is going to take some form in the digital world, and things you say will have a life of their own and can, of course, be quoted out of context. I am a competitive person, and earlier in middle age I was very motivated by a sense of competition. But that’s not enough to make me go through what it takes to write a novel now.”
What keeps Franzen working, he says, is that he’d rather spend a day writing than not. “I get up in the morning and I know what I am going to do each day. My purpose is to go and write another 1,000 words.” He continues to write because of “how quickly time passes when you’re writing.” He adds, “I feel like I really have escaped from time. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to that kind of immersion, in the pursuit of something that gives shape to my days and meaning to my life.”
Meaning matters to Franzen, who labels himself “a 1970s person” who grew up reading Foucault and Derrida and essays in Semiotext(e). The first piece in The End of the End of the Earth, “The Essay in Dark Times,” includes the line, “It all depends on what we mean by meaning.” Could that be an epigraph for this book?
“Meaning is very bound up, in a way I’m not going to try to explicate here, in loving something,” Franzen says. “I need to be able to love my characters—even the ones doing very bad things. And once I love them, I become responsible for them and for what happens to them. The ending actually matters. If you succeed at that, then you feel you’ve created a thing in which for a little while you are involved in a story that has some purpose. Even if the larger world is completely meaningless, you’ve created something in which meaning is possible.”
Although the essays in Franzen’s collection aren’t fiction, he says, “I can still fall in love with my subjects, and that’s why I knew my climate piece [“The End of the End of the Earth,” about the global seabird crisis seen through the lens of its author’s three-week Lindblad National Geographic expedition] couldn’t be about me telling anyone anything. It had to be about what I love, which is birds. You have to love, love, love, and you have to convey that in some unsentimental way before you can bear down and offer any advice. I added a line to that essay: ‘Love is a better motivator than guilt.’ ”
Bethanne Patrick is a writer and book critic who lives in Northern Virginia.