Jonathan Franzen is an award-winning American novelist and essayist. Franzen was born in Chicago, Illinois, raised in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and educated at Swarthmore College. He also studied on a Fulbright Scholarship in Germany. He lives on the Upper East Side of New York City, and writes for The New Yorker magazine. Franzen's "The Corrections," a novel of social criticism, garnered considerable critical acclaim in the United States. It became one of the best-selling works of literary fiction of the 21st century and won both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.
Question: What was your experience of China?
Jonathan Franzen: It made America feel very old and tired and not like the most happening of places, basically.
I was sorry it had taken me so long to get to China.
I was hanging out with a lot of people who were environmentally concerned. There is no real western style activism, there cannot be any western style activism, environmentally in China. So it gets channeled into these relatively safe and acceptable forms. And because of my pre-existing interest in birds, I was hanging out with a lot of people who cared about bird conservation.
China has, as we all know, somewhere between 1.3 and 1.4 billion people and very little good land and what land there is, is pretty much as dense as Hoboken, New Jersey. And you just drive for hours and hours and it never gets any less densely populated than Hoboken, which is pretty densely populated. And you keep waiting for, like let’s get to the actual city center, and you realize no, we’re not on the outskirts, this is what the countryside looks like. It’s very, very densely populated.
And it takes some getting used to, the fact that it is almost entirely wildlife free. People will grab you by the arm and say, “Look, a gull." It’s a seagull; like it’s the way we react to a bald eagle or something. There’s an actual gull there.
So you drive by these harbors, you take ferries and it’s just brown water as far as the eye can see because every bit of protein is being extracted and eaten.
So in certain ways, from a biodiversity or wildlife perspective, I was in eastern China; it’s very bleak and conversely, when you find an animal or when you find somebody who cares about a wild animal, it just seems like the most miraculous gift.
And birdlife does continue to hang on there and there is suddenly increasingly a homegrown community of bird watchers, for one thing.
Once people were no longer hungry and there was such a thing as a middle class, almost instantly, very much contrary to our notions of Chinese eating tiger gallbladder and trafficking in rhinoceros horn, and basically, skinning cats and eating song birds and all of that. In fact, instantly with a certain level of affluence comes an ability and the leisure to appreciate nature.
All of which is very heartening until you try to do the math on what it would take to make the entire country affluent enough to care. You basically need to clear cut all of South East Asia, Central Africa and the Amazon in order to bring the Chinese population up to a European or American standard of living.
So in that brutally paradoxical way, raise the possibility that just to the point where there’s nothing left, we will be able to appreciate what we had, which is kind of where we are today.
However, having said that, I think the Chinese are actually coming along more rapidly than we in the West have, when it comes to the environment. So that was also very heartening to see.
But the main thing was just the sort of shock of being in, certainly the most Republican place I’ve ever been. It seemed like just a pristine vision of what Bush/Cheneyism [George W. Bush; Dick Cheney] leads to, logically. Which is a money and business-centric society in utter environmental ruin with this basically weak central government that nonetheless is very good at paranoid security and at stirring up patriotism and nationalism. And the country basically consisting of some unbelievably rich people and a significant relatively well off group and then a large immiserated [sic] under class. And the country basically being run by this kind of corrupt commingling of local politicians, regional politicians and business interests who’ve just figured out how to divide up the spoils and maintain social order.
And some of that is very exciting.
Let’s give Bush/Cheneyism its due. Pre [Hurricane] Katrina, there was a certain kind of excitement. One felt like, wow, these people are evil and the world is changing, but man they’re so far ahead of what the Democrats can do in terms of political organization, political sophistication and militant eyes on the prize, you got knocked down here, you lose a division, it doesn’t matter, let’s pick up and keep going.
That excitement that one felt sort of circa 2003/2004 when Grover Norquist seemed like the most prescient person in America. And Tom Delay seemed unstoppable and a titan. That excitement is there tenfold in China. It’s like, wow, they’re just going for it and everything is getting stapled on behind on an as-needed basis. there is no way this thing’s going to work and yet it's kinda working still.
My primary emotion was excitement there and of course a deep undercurrent of sadness as somebody who cares about nature.
Recorded On: Apr 1, 2008