Birds are the animating spirits of Franzen’s collection. Photograph: Mihai Stanciu/Alamy How is it possible to live with despair? If, in the wake of last month’s horrifying UN report on global warming, you’ve been asking yourself this question, take some solace (or at least solidarity) from the knowledge that you’re not alone. Jonathan Franzen has been grappling with it for years, and as the final-countdown title of his new volume of essays suggests, his despair at the state of the planet and our absolute inability (“political, psychological, ethical, economic”) to save it is, if anything, deepening. “I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming,” he says bluntly at the conclusion of his opening essay, and nothing in the following pages suggests he is anywhere close to changing his mind.
But by refusing to hope for the impossible, Franzen, improbably, manages to produce a volume that feels, if not hopeful, then at least not hopeless. There’s nothing he can do – there’s probably nothing any of us can do – to avert or even alleviate the coming catastrophe. But for now, he’s here and he’s alive, and over the course of these essays he offers us a series of partial, tentative answers to the question he poses himself at the beginning: “How do we find meaning in our actions when the world seems to be coming to an end?” This is not a collection that wastes time attempting to persuade us of the reality of the climate crisis; frankly, we’re way past that. “Drastic planetary overheating,” Franzen assures us, “is a done deal” – and by the way, we need to revise significantly upward our definition of what “drastic” means. The notional two-degree figure widely cited by politicians as the upper limit of what we, and the planet, could possibly accommodate is a line we’re on course to gallop past in just a few years’ time. By 2100, we may well be looking at a five or six-degree temperature rise, and even then there’s a possibility we’re being lowballed. “The scientist who confidently predicts a five-degree warming by the end of the century,” Franzen suggests, towards the end of the collection, “might tell you in private, over beers, that she really expects it to be nine.” It’s a body blow moment in a book that declines to pull its punches, and Franzen acknowledges that many of his readers – “the people for whom the prospect of a hot, calamity-filled future is unbearably sad and frightening” – might be “forgiven for not wanting to think about it”. But over the course of these essays, he succeeds in demonstrating that resignation brings with it a curious intellectual freedom. His acknowledgment that the macro problem is beyond him allows him to start thinking more creatively about micro solutions: what can be achieved here, now, today. Jonathan Franzen in Santa Cruz, California, where he birdwatches. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian Naturally, there’s another way to read his position. Viewed through the other end of the telescope, Franzen’s acceptance of the coming crisis could be seen as an abdication of responsibility: resignation in terms of action, rather than comprehension; a ducking of the issue that’s just a left-liberal version of the US president’s fatuous claim that the climate will “change back”. It’s an accusation to which Franzen is acutely sensitive, not least because it has been levelled at him before. In the collection’s opening piece, “The Essay in Dark Times”, published as “Is it too Late to Save the World?”, what begins as a fascinating consideration of the role of the essay at a moment of objective peril evolves, via a circuitous route that takes in quitting smoking, birdwatching in Ghana and Trump’s election, into a critical rereading of another essay (“Save What You Love”, also collected here) that he wrote for the New Yorker, some two-and-a-half years earlier. That one was triggered by his fury at the actions of the National Audubon Society, the US’s foremost organisation for bird conservation. Franzen’s passion for birdwatching is almost as well known as his novels, so to say the Audubon Society was an unlikely target is an understatement. But it was precisely “as a bird-lover” that it attracted his ire. In 2014, the Society had, “with much fanfare”, thrown all its resources into the climate change fight, declaring that global warming was “the number-one threat to the birds of North America”. There’s no question that climate change poses an existential threat in the medium-term, however, “in 2014, the most serious threats to American birds were habitat loss and outdoor cats”. In Franzen’s view, the society’s position was both “narrowly dishonest” and potentially harmful, in that it might discourage people “from tackling solvable environmental problems in the here and now”. He said as much in his essay, was duly denounced as a “climate-change denier”, and retreated in a mixture of shame and regret on the one hand, and injured self-justification on the other. The irony, of course, was that he wasn’t attempting to deny climate change at all: “In fact, I’m such a climate-science accepter that I don’t even bother having hope for the ice caps.” Rather, he was denying that our current piecemeal, unserious attempts to mitigate it will have any consequential effect, and arguing that therefore we might better expend our efforts on conservation projects whose benefits “are immediate and tangible”. Where Franzen perfectly strikes the balance between form, content and voice you know you’re in the presence of a master It’s a complex position, both to articulate and to accept. But it is not, in the years since he first set it out, one that he has backed away from, because it represents the only hope he has left, and the central hope of this collection: that facing the future “honestly, however painful this may be, is better than denying it”. Rather, as these essays show, the conclusion he has come to is that it’s not his position that’s lacking, but his ability to put it across in a way that readers can accept. It’s a challenge to him as a writer: to think harder; to write more clearly and with more sympathy. It’s a question of what the essay, as a form and specifically in his hands, can do. Sightings to live for … a king penguin. Photograph: Alamy And it’s a challenge to which he rises. This isn’t a flawless collection: there are uneven moments, and occasional longueurs. There are also – and I say this as a bird-lover – a whole lot of birds. They are the animating spirits of the collection, flitting and rustling through the essays, and Franzen ably makes the case both for their hold over him and their symbolic significance (“If you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world”). But as the pages turn and the feathers pile up, it becomes harder and harder to keep the murres, taikos and storm petrels straight in your head – or, finally, to invest too deeply in the differences. Yet there are essays in which the balance between form, content and voice is perfectly struck, and when you reach one of those, it’s clear that you’re in the presence of a master. The opening essay, in which the idea of the essay itself is held up to the light, is a thing of supple, compelling intelligence, and by placing “Save What You Love”, his piece on the Audubon Society, after his retrospective analysis of its weaknesses, he effectively contextualises it, and allows us to read it for what it is: a teasing-out of complex arguments that refuses to reach for satisfying but reductive conclusions. Then there’s the title essay, which comes fittingly at the collection’s close, brings together all of its strands (climate change, humanity, thinking, writing, birds), and is simply a delight. In it, Franzen weaves together, lightly but tightly, two narrative threads: his expedition on a cruise ship to Antarctica, and the life of his uncle Walt, whose unlooked-for bequest paid for the trip. The timelines diverge wildly (the trip takes a couple of weeks; Walt lived to a ripe old age) but by combining them, Franzen expertly shows how they speak to each other. They’re both stories about death: Walt, we learn, “lost his daughter” (in a car crash in her 20s), “his war buddies, his wife, and my mother” before mortality caught up with him; the Antarctic is both a death zone, the literal and metaphorical end of the world, and, thanks to climate change, dying itself. But read on, and we find that the real resonance between the two tales is the urgent case they make for the worth and beauty of life. Walt survived his tragedies, kept faith with the world, and “never stopped improvising”; in Antarctica, Franzen comes face to face with a king penguin in the wild, and finds that it “seemed to me, in itself, sufficient reason not only to have made the journey; it seemed reason enough to have been born on this planet”. It’s the work of a writer at the top of his game – limber and lovely, delivering deep insights with delicacy and grace – and it poignantly makes the only case for climate action that has any chance of succeeding: that there is so much worth living for. “Even in a world of dying,” Franzen concludes, “new loves continue to be born.” • The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate, £16.99). To order a copy for £12.99, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.