Reviewed in the United States on 1 June 2015
I agree with those reviewers who say that this collection is uneven, but only because some pieces are so good that they set an impossibly high standard for the rest. It starts with what is probably the best commencement address I've ever read - one that acknowledges how rarely anything of interest is said on such an occasion, but then goes on to say some remarkably useful things, including the following:
"What love is really about is bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of yourself."
The hems and haws ("as I understand it," "in a funny way") are characteristic of Franzen the essayist, who is too modest to claim that he speaks for everyone. Don't try to save humanity, he advises; just be good to SOMEONE, and you might save yourself. I gave this essay to a friend here in Berkeley who spends a day or two each week cleaning and restoring the local creeks, and who in a small way is actually helping to make a difference.
Good as that essay is, there is even better stuff further along. That characteristic quality of Franzen's prose - sure of his own convictions, but giving readers room to disagree - is present in many pieces. His essay on David Foster Wallace persuaded me to buy that writer's INFINITE JEST and to try for the second time to read it - but it's just too grim. However, I did read and enjoy Wallace's long essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again," which is an hilarious satire of luxury cruises. Many of Franzen's other literary enthusiasms - generally of an "experimental" nature, unlike Franzen's own fairly mainstream fiction - also failed to convince me, but he opened my mind to them at least, and on his recommendation I did read and enjoy THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, a Swedish murder mystery of the '70's.
I'm no bird watcher, but through Franzen's eyes I could understand the passions of a few of my friends for this pastime. The essay that gives his book its title is trip to an island named "Robinson Crusoe" in the South Pacific, in search of a rare bird that he never even glimpses. This is a priceless account of the hardships of ecotourism. While reading I really had a vicarious experience of the wind, rain, fog, danger, etc. of his failed quest, and his subsequent account of the people of Mediterranean islands trapping and eating songbirds to near extinction was horrifying and effective, too. The mock-interview of New York State, which another reviewer complains of, I found howlingly funny, and the form an ingenious invention of a new way to write what might otherwise have been tourist puffery. For Franzen, who grew up in a St. Louis suburb, is in love with his adopted state.
And so I read on, from cover to cover, enjoying every essay. The self is a frequent topic. Franzen is infected with the modern disease of Self, and admits as much, but so am I, and so are most of us these days, endlessly wondering "Who am I?" and "Why am I not better?" He tackles these questions in his essay on the autobiographical aspect of fiction, including his own, and comes out with some useful warnings not to read novels as the writer's confessions. The message is familiar, but the wealth of detail from an insider makes for fascinating reading.
If you like his novels I think you'll find his non-fiction equally engaging, and if you haven't read FREEDOM or THE CORRECTIONS, reading this collection will probably make you want to do so.
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