Review: Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen

A lot of things get shaken up in Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion. Earthquakes figure prominently, though the seismic shifts are not of the apocalyptic variety. Instead, you find the unsettling tremors that do not seem to do much damage but nevertheless also bring consequences with them. And, of course, the lives portrayed in the book do mirror nature, their inner lives and identities as shaken as their physical forms are.

Much of the novel revolves around the Holland family: siblings Louis and Eileen, mother Melanie, father Bob. It is, perhaps, a typically American dysfunctional family. Money-obsessed Melanie gives in to Eileen and alienates Louis, causing friction and raised voices. Bob, a professor from another time (60s Marxist, with a tinge of hippie), doesn’t get too involved. Eileen and Louis have an uneasy relationship, marked by sibling jealousies and guilt, and neither are well-informed about (or much interested in) the life of the other.

In Boston, Eileen and Louis both wind up at some distance from their Midwestern roots: Eileen is getting an MBA, while Louis toils for a small radio station. Eileen has a boyfriend, Peter, whose father is an executive for Sweeting-Aldren – a company that plays a prominent part in the book as well.

The Hollands are brought back together on the East Coast by an earthquake. It is a minor one, but there is one fatality near Boston: a relative who stood between Melanie and a huge inheritance (possibly over twenty million dollars) – that, incidentally, came from a Sweeting-Aldren investment. At the earthquake site Louis meets a Harvard seismologist, Renee. They fall in love. Complications arise, and the earth continues to shake.

Strong Motion shudders along. There are digressions galore – on business, the changing face of settled Massachusetts, abortion, waste disposal, consumerism, and much else. Some are major, some are minor. Some are relevant, some are just little (or big) show-pieces for Franzen to strut his stuff. Few are really well integrated into the flow of the story.

Characters suddenly come to the fore (as does, at one point, a raccoon), and Franzen delves deep into their pasts and presents, only to leave them somewhere on the side of the narrative again.

Franzen seems to go to great pains not to allow the story to move forward smoothly, building on itself – at least not until he gets fairly deep into the book, where he fortunately can’t stop himself and, despite throwing a few spanners into the works, gets a fair amount of momentum going. The novel eventually works itself up into a long-winded but fast-paced story – one that, with some effort, can actually hold your interest. It takes a while to get there, but the pay-off isn’t bad.

It’s an eccentric and lengthy book that, for better or worse, dons a variety of identities: suspense, romance, family melodrama, didactic political novel, bildungsroman, perhaps more. There are subplots and mere meanderings, and despite Franzen’s attempts to tie them all into the relationship between Louis Holland and Renee Seitchek, it’s just all too tediously wordy, and digressive. Unwittingly, Renee manages to become involved in abortion protests, thus adding another element to Franzen’s agenda, err, plot. I would say that the varying subplots of the novel would’ve been handled deftly, but there are simply too many coincidences that are just too convenient for the plot.

Other than that, the odd love story of Louis and Renee is unsatisfying. While it comes together quite well at the end, there are some bumps and hitches along the way that suggest that these characters have much deeper issues than the ones Franzen gets at.

Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen

Strong Motion does, however, exhibit traces of brilliance, particularly in the characterization of Renee Seitchek, the 30 year old self-conscious seismologist who falls in love with the novel’s 23 year old protagonist, Louis Holland. Franzen’s attention to the nuances of Renee’s struggle for identity are brilliant, as Renee ruminates on everything from egotistical and insular women who join the “sorority of child bearers” to being a “boring scientist who lives in a computer room but considers herself less boring than others like her because ten years ago she went to Clash concerts.” Franzen certainly highlights the finer points of the spectrum of femininity.

It is with Louis, Franzen’s austere protagonist, where my problem begins. I cannot bring myself to like him – at all. He’s a spineless, masochistic, womanizing ham radio buff fluent in French. He’s “street smart,” occasionally witty, and has a hipster’s palate for music – revealed in post-coital bliss as he questions Renee about her music habits: “Lou Reed? Roxy Music? Waitresses? XTC? The Banshees? Early Bowie? Warren Zevon?” Franzen has furnished him with the right amount of quirks, but Louis simply doesn’t hold the novel together. He seems to float through it, swaying where Franzen’s supposedly well-thought out plot diagram takes him.

There are other problems as well. This isn’t exactly an experimental, avant-garde fiction Franzen is writing (as I’ve repeatedly heard from hearsay), and yet the omniscient narrator decides to peer into the life of a raccoon for much of a later chapter. Admittedly, sometimes the veering of the narrator is humorous, but in the next few chapters you get a brief history of the founding of America, complete with Jonh Winthrop and arcane Elizabethan spellings. It appears that this is an attempt to add a more epic dimension to the novel, and a playful and pedantic use of English before the days of standardization. Regardless, Franzen tells his stories well: the digressions may be pointless (or rather: trying too hard to make a peripheral point), but they are nice set pieces. And the story is interesting enough – as, indeed, many of the asides are too.

That said, the novel is not an epic, though it tries. Clearly, Franzen has a story with immediacy and scope that spans the range of American lives, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s at the dawn of abortion clinic bombings, the reawakening and strengthening of Christian fundamentalism, and the emergence of a more outspoken environmentalism coupled with questions of corporate responsibility. Franzen includes a Broadway dossier of characters with whom you can sing along for a few chapters, but ultimately, the characterization of these peripheral figures is stock. (Korean immigrant, vacuous Harvard MBAs, lecherous old man, Marxist professor, southern antiabortion minister) and Franzen quickly ends their stories with a sentence here and there in the whirring landfill that constitutes the last few pages.

Somewhat clunky, trying to do far too much – and say far too much about things like American business and consumerism and the question of abortion – Strong Motion is a good, solid read. A bit less ambition (but just a bit), a bit tighter focus, and a less roundabout approach would have helped. Still, it’s quite worthwhile.

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