Jonathan Franzen - Strong Motion
Jonathan Franzen's Strong Motion is nothing if not ambitious. It is a novel of family strife, of marital disharmony, of a young man's emergence into the world, and it is also a corporate thriller, a cautionary environmental tale, and a love story. The parts add up to a lot, but the parts themselves are often small, mean, self-serving and at times petty. It is a novel that aims for much and achieves merely the ordinary.
Most of all it is the story of Louis Holland, a mostly dissolute young man who works for a radio station and has a bizarre family he has trouble connecting with. His grandmother – step-grandmother – is the sole victim of a minor earthquake in Boston. His mother's inheritance comes to twenty-two million and change, as well as the large house in which she died. Louis, always the black sheep, refrains from asking for anything from the inheritance in much the same way he has never asked for anything from his parents, ever. His sister, Eileen, however, has no such difficulties, and is soon in the possession of a lovely new house. Louis is jealous, his father is an academic pot-head unable to see the difference between his children until it is too late, and his mother rapidly descends into inanity.
That settles the family drama. The earthquake that killed Louis' step-grandmother soon becomes the first in a series of earthquakes, and a team of Harvard scientists descend on Boston and the surrounding area. One such scientist is Renée Seitchek, seven years older than Louis and horribly smart and horribly self-conscious. They strike up a relationship, with Renée discovering evidence that suggests local chemical corporation Sweeting-Aldren Industries might be responsible for the earthquakes. Sweeting-Aldren takes an interest in these two snooping around their factories in search of information, with increasingly sinister results.
That settles the love story, and the corporate thriller. The environmental aspects concern Franzen's essay-like jaunts into the history and problems associated with a typical chemical company, from WWII contracts to Vietnam-era chemical weaponry, to contemporary issues such as tighter-fitting bras and stronger pesticides. Louis is the focus of the story but not always its primary viewpoint – Renée, her associate Howard, Louis' sister Eileen and Louis' father Bob are among the many characters who have their own chapters, or even entire sections, of the novel.
Franzen's scope is admirable. He is seeking to explore not only the problem of corporate America in a largely unregulated late 80s and early 1990s, but also the many sub-issues that stem from both it, and the people involved. More than occasionally, this is an exhausting and unrewarding method of storytelling. It is important to learn of Sweeting-Aldren's history, yes, but is it equally important to learn the history of the primary employees? Not so much. It is important to understand Renée and Louis' relationship, but do we need pages and pages of exposition concerning Eileen (a very minor character) and her vacations, boyfriend, and insecurities? Not so much. Franzen never met an excess he couldn't justify indulging, and Strong Motion suffers most of all by being two hundred pages longer than it needs to be. At just over five hundred pages this is a monster of a novel, without having a monster of a topic.
The Corrections, Franzen's later novel which made him famous around the world, managed to be both expansive and tight, focused as it was around the concerns of an ordinary American family while allowing itself to roam wherever it needed. The strength of the novel came from its constant adherence and remembrance of this family, circling all the stories around the Lamberts and their affairs. Strong Motion's core is less focused, which causes the novel as a whole to suffer. There are lengthy excursions into born again Christianity and Asian immigration which, while they tangentially touch the novel, they are not critical to it and could easily be removed without any great loss. There is even a section written in ye olde English, though thankfully it only extends for a handful of pages. But why include it at all?
Two major problems wound this novel; both taken singly are enough to be mortal. This first is an accumulation of clutter, of detail, of unnecessary background and unwanted description. Franzen is not content simply to have a character live and breathe on the strength of their dialogue and actions in the scenes they are in, no, instead he must explain them, explain their histories and their family, their immediate past and their childhood. There seems to be trend in contemporary American novels to explain everything, to leave nothing at all to the imagination or, even better, to outside the novel, where it belongs. A primary character may be explained, and explored, and described, and probed, but an endless series of minor characters? This is clutter, untidy housekeeping, the voluminous pen of an author unwilling to cut the flower of his own words. Franzen's fascination with his powers of accumulating data comes to fruition with such sentences as: “P-wave residuals, lateral heterogenity, core-mantled boundary, centroid-moment-tensor, rupture propagation, slab penetration, non-double-couple events, shear-strength coefficients, intraplate seismicity, deconvolution, source-time functions, normal modes, aseismic slip, migration of the poles.” Out of context this is gibberish, a collection of words that mean nothing, add nothing. In context it is very much the same, though admittedly this sentence is one of the worst offenders in the novel. We celebrate Flaubert because he noticed so well, but his noticings also align with the theme of the novel, and had to the greater harmony of the whole. We should not celebrate the mere listing of nouns.
The second problem is perhaps more personal to Franzen's talents of a writer. His characters, by and large, whether they be intelligent or not, wealthy or not, wise or not, tend to be miserable, negative creatures. They are never happy, and their unhappiness is probed deeper than one would wish, for these unhappinesses tend to stem from shallow faults, from small problems. Materialism plays a big factor in Franzen's characters, whether the character has too many possessions or not enough. Characters wonder why they are not liked, while never showing any likeable characteristics, not to others and not through their own inner dialogue. These people are generally middle-class, and generally well educated, but they lack any sense of self-awareness – even those who boast of great self-awareness, and are bizarrely unhappy because of it. They moan and complain of problems that seem, not just when compared to grand problems such as war and famine, but even to smaller problems like debt, cuckoldry, and the immortal question of 'What purpose does my life have?', to be so incredibly tiny, so self-serving and pointless, that one can only shake one's head and wait for another character to come out of their own stupor long enough to shake some sense into the first. Are we to believe that middle-class Americans are so universally, so shallowly, unhappy? The gushing praise from all manner of high quality American magazines and newspapers suggest that Franzen's ear for Americana is 'unrivalled', that he possesses an 'unsheathed view of American life'. I disagree. Americans are not that small, and they are not that petty. Perhaps some are, but the majority, surely, are not. To pigeon-hole an entire nation like that is too much, and is irresponsible of the reviewers who lavish so much praise. Franzen, like so many of his peers, seems to content to detail the malaise of America in the laziest way possible. Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, a generation above and as attuned to the nuances of American life as Franzen, even in their darkest novels never admitted to such apathy and lack of meaning.
Strong Motion is a novel to wallow in if you yourself enjoy wallowing in the mildly pleasant problems of life. If, however, you demand more from yourself and from literature – and you should, surely, expect that there is more to it all than disaffected thirty-somethings – then stay away. Franzen's novel adds to the petty squalor of life, it does not satire it or endorse any form of betterment. We are, can, and should be better than that. Nobody is as small as Franzen makes us out to be.
List of American authors under review
Other titles by Jonathan Franzen under review include:
The Complete Review
The Guardian (UK)