A new collection of personal essays from a self-proclaimed “depressive pessimist” and “angry, bird-loving misfit.”
Franzen’s (Purity, 2015, etc.) third collection of recently published essays and speeches sparkles with intelligent and insightful forays into a limited range of subjects. The opening piece, “The Essay in Dark Times,” could function as a primer for the book. We might be “living in an essayistic golden age,” while the personal essay “is in eclipse.” After recounting lessons learned while working on an essay with a wise New Yorker editor, the author jumps to bashing a “short-fingered vulgarian” and his “lying, bullying tweets,” concluding with his bird obsession and global warming, the “biggest issue in all of human history.” In “Why Birds Matter,” Franzen lovingly describes falcons, roadrunners, and albatrosses, among others. “Wild birds matter,” Franzen writes, because “they are our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding.” In another piece, the author describes his visit to South America to observe the beleaguered Amazon Conservation Association in action. In “May Your Life Be Ruined,” he chronicles his travels to Egypt to painfully watch migratory bird-killing with Bedouin falcon trappers. There’s literature here, too. In the expected writer-to-writers advice essay, he offers up one page of 10 pithy, odd dos and don’ts—e.g., “You see more sitting still than chasing after.” Franzen resuscitates Edith Wharton, praising her “most generously realized” The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, in which she “embraces her new-fashioned divorce plot as zestfully as Nabokov embraces pedophilia in Lolita.” There’s also the affectionate “A Friendship,” in which the author praises William Vollmann’s work ethic, vast projects, fine style, and “hunger for beautiful form.” The last, titular essay about a voyage to Antarctica is worth the cover price.
Witty, reflective, opinionated essays from a writer with the ability to “laugh in dark times.”