I did not mean to be absent all this time. Between the polar vortex and the month turning into the snowiest February on record (and in the top ten of snowiest months on record), I’ve been shoveling snow or recovering from shoveling snow pretty much every day. I’ve heard a number of climate change doubters try to use all this as proof that climate change isn’t happening. But weather is not climate.
I have read and listened to some interviews with climate experts who indicate that polar vortexes (vortices?) might actually become more frequent as the climate continues to warm. With the Arctic ice melting, the jet stream is becoming more erratic. A warmer arctic is still cold, and the various ways air pressure used to work to keep the jet stream stable and the worst of the cold up in the Arctic is breaking down. As it continues to break down, it becomes more likely that while winter in Minnesota is overall warmer, there will be more frequent outbreaks of extreme cold. Yay.
So it was with great interest that I read The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen. I have not read Franzen before. I know he gets knocked on a lot, sticks his foot in it, stirs the hornet’s nest and all that. But he is also an avid birder and I thought these essays might see him taking a hard line against climate change and the damage it is doing to the world’s bird populations. It would give us common ground I thought and I could appreciate his writing and care for the birds and environment.
Was I ever wrong.
His writing is lovely, don’t get me wrong on that. Smooth, strong prose that flows along with barely a hiccup except for the occasional $10 word he likes to toss out now and then. But I can forgive the $10 words because if you’ve got the vocabulary you shouldn’t be ashamed to use it. So I really liked his writing. It’s him I didn’t like.
I tried, I really tried to not be offended by what often felt like condescension. I tried to ignore the ego that was forever looming up behind the text. But the Bubble World he lives in that makes him so utterly clueless about anything that is not a bird or himself is so gobsmacking irritating that I often caught myself wondering how someone so smart could be so stupid.
He jets around the world to exotic places to go birdwatching. He insists over and over that checking birds off his “life list” is not the point of these trips. The point is to experience other places and cultures through looking for birds. I have no trouble with this. What I had problems with is that pretty much every essay was more about checking off the birds than about the experience and the culture. He’s either a hypocrite, deep in denial and self-justification, or has no idea how to write about anything other than himself. It is entirely possible that all three are true.
The real kicker though was in the titular essay. His uncle died and left him a nice chunk of change. He decided since it was an unlooked for windfall he would really splurge on a big vacation. And he would even take his girlfriend with him. She was living in California at the moment taking care of her mother who had dementia. Franzen remarks that his girlfriend was so grateful to him for being understanding about why she needed to move to California that she said she would go on vacation wherever he wanted to. Whoa, wait. Back the truck up. Did I read that right? Yes, yes I did. And Franzen changed from being irritating into a giant turd. He cemented it when, knowing his girlfriend’s idea of vacation was relaxing on a beach, he booked them on a National Geographic expedition to Antarctica. She ended up not going and Franzen took his brother instead.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the whole climate change aspect of the book was disappointing. Franzen is bothered by climate change, he even gets worked up that climate change was not talked about on the National Geographic cruise until the very last day on ship during a sparsely attended lecture on the topic. But yet he claims there is nothing he can do personally to make a difference. The cruise that used millions of gallons of fuel a day, the airplanes he travels in around the world to see his precious birds—the ship would still sail and the planes still fly even if he wasn’t on them so why not be on them?
I would have thought he would have much to say about the effects of climate change and loss of avian habitat. But he thinks that birds will be just fine. They can fly after all so they can move to more hospitable places. Seriously. He says this even as he writes about the thousands of albatross killed every year by fishing boats and the shrinking fish populations the birds feed on. Where does he think they are going to relocate to when all their food is gone? He is terrifyingly fatalistic about it all and in spite of his love of birds, doesn’t do them any favors.
Well, now I have read Jonathan Franzen and I can rest easy about never ever reading him again. Like I said, lovely prose. But the first class schmuck behind the words makes it impossible to enjoy.