June 20, 2011

Earthquake Romance

Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen
reviewed by Courtney

With all of the media attention Jonathan Franzen received surrounding the Oprah controversy and awards for The Corrections, and the subsequent reconciliation and acclaim for his most recent Freedom, it is all to easy for the actual writing to get pushed to the side. The author's second novel, Strong Motion, published in 1992, though perhaps overly ambitious, is an excellent testament to the strength and creativity at the core of Franzen's prose.

Most of the story takes place in Boston during a wave of inexplicable seismic activity, and focuses on Louis Holland and his highly dysfunctional family as they become embroiled in a complex and morally ambiguous struggle over inheritance following the death of his grandmother in the first major earthquake. As Louis falls in love with Renee Seitchek, a Harvard seismologist investigating the cause of the earthquakes, Franzen interweaves their relationship with family and character history, as well as other seemingly irrelevant threads concerning as disparate subjects as abortion, environmental history, and even one notable passage from the perspective of a local raccoon.

Despite the largely uncomplicated plot, the many character threads can be difficult to follow, and much of the first half of the novel is spent in introducing and reintroducing the central characters and themes. Though Strong Motion could easily have descended into an impenetrable, convoluted mess, Franzen does an admirable job of pulling together the various disparate narrative threads in the final portion of the narrative. Where the first half of the book is at times frustratingly slow and wandering, the second half gains enough momentum to eclipse these earlier lapses.

Strong Motion has all the conventions of a traditional mystery novel: a somewhat unlikable but morally unshakable protagonist, his mysterious, emotionally damaged but brilliant older girlfriend, debated inheritance, a corporate conspiracy and cover-up, ineffectual government regulators, stolen evidence. That Franzen chose to focus on character rather than plot has an interesting muting effect; the characters are real and relatable, but their realism makes their lives fantastical by comparison. The plot seems almost too neat (one scene in particular in which Louis' father provides missing information comes across as unrealistic) because the characters are otherwise realistically complex. The relationships Franzen presents are so relatable and multifaceted that what would otherwise be a workable mystery plot seems trite by comparison; the reader is in the interesting position of watching characters react believably to unbelievable situations.

Which is not to say that Strong Motion is ultimately a failed novel. Its strength is merely to be found in its characters rather than its plot. In the novel Franzen explores the way that discontent can become habitual, love can breed resentment and even hatred, events and ruptures can have their root in decisions and actions decades previous. Franzen's vision of the world is somewhat fatalistic, but his fatalism creates an overwhelming sense of human responsibility, and even when we don't like his characters we relate to them. Strong Motion is not Franzen's best book, but it does provide an interesting preview of the kind of character depth and themes that led to achievements like The Corrections.

Posted by at June 20, 2011 04:26 PM
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