I tend of think of Jonathan Franzen as being younger than he is. This may be partly because he has written only five novels. All the same, it’s a surprise to think that he will be 60 next year. His novels are good, serious and very readable in the sturdy, American middlebrow tradition of writers like Sinclair Lewis, John P Marquand and James Gould Cozzens. Franzen himself is an old-style WASP, “raised,” he writes, “with a Midwestern horror of yakking about myself.” Happily he has overcome the horror. As an essayist published in the New Yorker he has become accustomed to yakking about himself, and doing so agreeably.
As a liberal Democrat he was horrified by Donald Trump’s election, and I would guess that nothing that has happened since has surprised him. But he recognises that it wasn’t only Hillary Clinton’s blunders that cost her the election: the Democrats and people like Franzen himself had displayed indifference to the concerns of huge swathes of the American electorate. Having stopped listening, they had lost the ability to persuade.
Climate change is of course the issue of our times. Franzen has no doubt about this, except for the fact that he is sure the issue has been settled. We are not going to leave carbon in the ground. We are not going to change the way we live sufficiently to make a difference, and it’s too late, he believes, for the process to be arrested. He has “long been struck by the spiritual kinship of environmentalism and New England Puritanism. Both belief systems are haunted by the feeling that simply to be human is to be guilty... Human beings are universal killers of the natural world. And now climate change has given us an eschatology for reckoning with our guilt: coming soon, some hellishly overheated tomorrow, is Judgment Day.” Any Scot reared in the traditions of the Kirk will recall the dead crying “Lord, we didna ken” and the grimly humorous reply, “weel, ye ken the noo”.
It’s too late to avert climate change. He is sure of that. What we can do is adapt to it, and we have a duty to other species, especially birds (for Franzen is a passionate ornithologist or “birder”) to do whatever is possible to create conditions that will enable them also to adapt and to survive the catastrophe which we have brought upon their world. This may make us question some of what we have contrived in the vain effort, itself evidence of Man’s conceit, to avert disaster. So, for instance, we may ask ourselves whether we should erect wind-farms which can no more prevent climate change than you can push back the Atlantic with a broom, but which undoubtedly slaughter huge numbers of birds. However, he also writes, “then, as so often happens in climate-change discussions when the talk turns from diagnosis to remedies, the darkness became the blackness of black comedy.” We are trapped in a Beckett play, but this time Godot will certainly arrive with the message that there is no remedy for our condition.
There are essays on other subjects here: a very good one on the life and novels of Edith Wharton, in which Franzen shows himself to be the kind of unacademic critic who recognises and does not disapprove of the Common Reader’s natural tendency to feel for the characters the author has brought into being. “One of the perplexities of fiction –and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form – is that we experience so readily for a character we wouldn’t like in real life.” Examples: Becky Sharp, Tom Ripley, the Jackal, Mickey Sabbath, Raskolnikov – he finds himself “rooting for all of them”.
In an essay on Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation, which argues that “so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it” (ie. conversation) “with electronic communication” Franzen, though sympathetic to her endeavour, is gloomily and puritanically pessimistic, for, he writes, no doubt shaking his head, “digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetisation and efficiency, into every waking moment.” We can’t escape it or wish it away. In his Midwestern pessimism he is agreeably at one with Corporal Fraser of Dad’s Army, or indeed the prophet Jeremiah.
The End of the End of the Earth, by Jonathan Franzen, 4th Estate, 238pp, £16.99