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I didn't intend to stop and 'review' strong motion but I can't resist making the point that everything that I have read by JF soars so far above 'predictable', 'some twists' of 'full of surprises' as to render such categorization totally irrelevant, 'Strong Motion' no less than the rest. Franzen is widely appreciated but probably not deeply. He surely will be in the fullness of time when the ultimate critical mass of discriminating readers have weighed in and he is recognized as the American Dickens. I can only express my appreciation for his talents in terms of superlatives which cannot convey any sense of the uniqueness of his gifts for narration and characterization. His writing is powerful, sexy and deeply artistic.He simultaneously exposes writing as craft and elevates it to the highest level. I suppose you can tell I am something of a fan. Don't let that deter you.
I undertook reading "Strong Motion" to find out how Jonathan Franzen came to his reputation as the current great American novelist even before his breakthrough "The Corrections" (2001). Written in 1992, "Strong Motion" is structured around a central system, like "Gravity's Rainbow" or "Infinite Jest," in this case the geology of earthquakes caused by deep injection wells (as in today's Oklahoma). More than that, it's the story of how a feckless male twenty-something named Louis Holland gets involved with an older Harvard geologist named Renee Seitcheck, has his "And That's How You Lose Her" moment, and is awarded a do-over by the fickle finger of fate. That Seitcheck is such a well-developed character compared to other authors' male manque love objects contributes to Franzen's reputation (the sister in "The Corrections" is another full female character). Whether he actually catches women's thought processes and worldly impositions is doubtful (even geologists must wear high heels if they happen to be women), but he probably does as well as any man can.
Franzen uses different eras of popular music (an era in popular culture being about 4-8 years) to indicate changing worldviews. Even though Louis, as a radio nerd, is a likely person to make such distinctions, it is with Renee that Franzen most applies them. To me, the use of a popular culture reference, presumably shared with the reader, as the way of communicating some aspect of the zeitgeist, seems the mark of a lazy or insufficiently articulate writer which de-universalizes the message. How well will the novel communicate in translation or to the next generation? Yet the descriptions of technology of the era (Data General computers, Xerox machines run by operators in copy centers) irrevocably binds the story to the late 70s/early 80s. So do the militant fundamentalist attacks on abortion providers of which Dr. Seitcheck becomes a target. Is it that any story, our stories, are time-bound to the culture in which they exist? Can we really understand Anton Chekov? Ishmael Beah? Or is Franzen just not up to writing something timeless and universal?
Probably it is a bit pretentious for an author to aspire to write the Great American Novel. Perhaps it is more realistic to expect an author to have a unique, interesting voice in which s/he tells complete stories about complex humans addressing the existential challenge in their own times and places. That good, Franzen is.
I read Strong Motion after first reading The Corrections, Freedom, and Purity in order as each was released. I loved all 3 of these books, and became an unapologetic fan of Franzen's writing, carefully savoring every word and character in these books. I was hesitant to read Strong Motion, expecting it to be a raw and lesser novel that could lower my opinion of his work. I was wrong.
I loved this book immensely. It is Franzen through and through, with wonderful depth of character, sharp observations, and a layered plot to put them on display. He speaks with incredible authority on a wide variety of esoteric subjects ranging from seismology to artificial intelligence (in a remarkably prescient way for 1992) to chemical production to Boston neighborhoods to American history. There are 10 books worth of richness in this single novel, an extremely rare treat for the paying reader. While the book is now over 25 years old, it is not dated. Rather, the zeitgeist of the era is on full display and actually adds to the fun of reading it now for someone like me who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.
The many metaphors throughout the book (earthquakes for starters), the central love story, the family dysfunction, and the fearlessness to take on heavyweight issues via everyday extremely imperfect and only barely likable characters, are what make the book so wonderful. I finished it days ago and I've found it is staying with me, and fully expect it will continue to do so. The book has its flaws, but they are minor and pale in comparison to its overall brilliance. Writers today simply do not play at this level, and the book is a masterpiece in its own way. I'm surprised it is not more recognized, as if Franzen barely existed before The Corrections. Loved it and will read it again.
What's to say other than Franzen continues to deliver with this novel? His language is as precise and engagingly sophisticated as ever without being impenetrable. Unlike "The Corrections," the novel's POV stays with mostly one character, which is more befitting the scope of this story. Franzen's ability to write from a woman's perspective continues to amaze and delight, and he explores some corners of the human condition he's not taken us to before. It bears saying that, as with all other of his novels, "Strong Motion" isn't really about earthquakes in recent-past Boston or whatever other plot features the story might turn on. Instead, it's a thoroughly enjoyable tale about being young, smart, naive, and in love.
I think Frantzen is downright scary! Not only does he write our inner worlds so accurately, most people hate him and his books... but he also seems to know our outer world in an eerily perceptive way. Just read the pages describing a "decadent people's" response to a catastrophe, and there you are in our 9/11 reality. Those pages gave me goosebumps. And then, a few pages on, we watch all the monsters who created a financial and environmental disaster, skip away with their millions. Hmmmm...is he not only damn talented with words, with deep, deep understanding of what people really are, of what love is, what sacrifice is, but also what our corrupt society is. Frankly, I keep being amazed, and I can't wait to read everything he's written. Is it possible that readers become so upset with him because he's bringing literature to a new realm? A realm we may not be ready for? A realm we're not comforable with because it's so much less "arty"--despite his beauty with words, but so much more real. No his characters are not likeable--are we, when we're all naked and confused and scared and selfish? I don't think so. But they--with only one or two exceptions in his books--are loveable. We come to know his characters the way God must. From the inside, where, with all the ugliness and flaws, there is grace and beauty. And ultimately, for all the satire, the irony, the cynicism, these books are rich in hope, in redemption, in grace. Damn this is a writer who Knows Something!
Although I am a big fan of Franzen, I found that this was not one of his better efforts. The plot was interesting enough, but just enough. It was not even as good as "Twenty-Seventh City," which I believe he published during the same period. It certainly did not live up to his more recent efforts such as "Purity." If you're a Franzen fan, it should round out your reading of his works. However, I don't recommend it for those unfamiliar or unimpressed with his writings.
From time to time, reading Strong Motion, I had strong swings in my opinion of the book. In the early going, I liked the credible portrayal of Melanie, an uncaring, selfish mother--she recalled to mind Enid Lambert, another flawed mother in The Corrections.
The focus of Strong Motion is divided between abortion and pollution. This is a work of popular fiction, the usual kind, except that the author's talent shows through to the extent that you know he's capable of more ambitious writing. A big, bad corporation is pumping poison into a deep well, which in turn causes earthquakes in the Boston area. That's the pollution part. The abortion part involves Reneé Seitchek, a Harvard seismologist, who uncovers the source of the earthquakes at about the same time she's aborting the fetus resulting from her relationship with Melanie's (the mother above) son, Louis.
I suppose that Louis is the central character of Strong Motion. Strange to me that I found him the least credible character in the book. He is attracted to an injured youth named Lauren--another shallow and unconvincing character than whom few more preposterous personalities are known to fiction. What does Louis find attractive in her? Why does he abandon Dr. Seitchek for her? Louis didn't, as a central character, engage me in the slightest.
One of the more credible characters in Strong Motion was the Reverend Philip Stites of the Church of Action in Christ. Not a flattering portrait of a pro-life evangelist--about the best you could say of him was that maybe he believed some of his own rhetoric. If you don't believe that, than he's just criminally negligent or worse.
Complicated plots involving people I don't entirely believe in don't make perfect reading for me. I find that if I don't understand some twist or turn in the plot of such books, I have little energy for re-reading or trying to dig out facts that might have illuminated some misunderstood circumstance. Why bother, if the characters aren't sufficiently real to generate an interest in what happens to them.
I think I have read Franzen's books in the wrong order. Neglecting his first book (the "27th City", I haven't read it) "Strong Motion" came out in 1992, "Corrections" in 2002, "Freedom" in 2010. Naturally, Strong Motion is weaker than the last two "big" books of his. Renee Seitchek is the real hero of the book (of the same class of heroines as Lisbeth Salander " with the Dragoon Tattoo" ), and I wished she was around more in the book and the boy's (Louis Holland's) boring sister and mother a bit less. I think the book was overwritten, too long, and for my taste there was too much ideology in it (right to abortion, environmentalism, criticism of religious fanatism, etc.). All in all, it wasn't bad.
I came to Franzen late and the first book of his I read was The Corrections which I loved. So now I judge all his works based on this novel as I liked the Corrections even more than Freedom.
Strong Motion does not have the writing chops that compares to The Corrections. It's not a bad book but I was just expecting much more from it. It's a unique story that is very Franzen but the characters just didn't feel as complete like his later novels.