Trigger Warning: This book is set in Boston and deals with disaster, so given the events of last week, I want to give people a heads up. I’m posting it today because it’s Earth Day, and the disaster in the book is related to environmentalism.
I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how wacky Jonathan Franzen can be until I read Strong Motion. We see a lot of it in The Corrections and a little of it in Freedom, but by then he had become Jonathan Franzen, Great American Novelist. That’ll do wonders for turning “wacky” into some other charming and witty adjective.
Strong Motion, Franzen’s second novel, is a different story. At that point in his career, he was still just Jonathan Franzen, Extremely Talented Writer. And you’d think that with so much on the line with your sophomore effort, you’d play it a little safer. But no, Strong Motion is anything but safe.
The book follows Louis Holland, a disaffected and assholish recent college grad who has returned to Boston just as the city is experiencing a series of mild earthquakes. His wealthy grandmother is the sole fatality of one of these earthquakes, though she only died because of a freak accident, not because of the strength of the earthquake. The tremors are a scientific curiosity since the area isn’t known to experience earthquakes. Enter Renee Seitchek, a thirty-something career-focused seismologist from Harvard, who’s in the area with coworkers to check things out. Through a series of unlikely events, she crosses paths with Louis and ends up staying in touch.
Meanwhile, the death of Louis’s grandmother sets off family discord: all of the money goes to Louis’s mother, who won’t divulge to anyone just how much was left to her, but Louis figures it’s in the millions. His mother makes it clear that Louis and his sister won’t be getting any of that money — that they should all continue to live and act as if there was no money — but Louis’s sister has a way of getting what she wants, and she wants some of that money. This makes Louis even more antagonistic than usual, because he’s just graduated and he’s supporting himself by working in an unstable job.
Louis is drawn to Renee for reasons he can’t quite pinpoint, and age differences aside, she’s drawn to him as well. They’re both outliers — she the bitchy careerist and he the family black sheep — and as they get closer she confides her secret theory for what’s behind these mysterious earthquake swarms.
Keep in mind that this book was published twenty-one years ago.
We live in a time when “fracking” — hydraulic fracturing employed to extract natural gas — isn’t too uncommon a word. There are documentaries about it. Mark Ruffalo is very outspoken against it. It’s generally considered a very bad thing by environmentalists because of what it does to our water supply. Not everyone is familiar with the word, but it’s gotten a decent amount of attention in recent years, so it’s gaining traction.
Twenty-one years ago, Franzen used it as the basis for his second novel. Except he took it even further, having his heroine propose a theory that all the other scientists in the book dismissed as an impossibility: that fracking can cause earthquakes. At the time I read the book, I was mostly stuck on, “How did he come up with this stuff?” Cut to several weeks ago when I saw this Mother Jones headline and went, “Holy shit, this shit is real?!” (I’m eloquent sometimes.) Anyway, Franzen called it twenty-one years ago.
Futuristic revelations (at the time) aside, Franzen’s sophomore effort is already showing hints of the themes (environmental awareness, corporate accountability) and darkly-comedic-yet-borderline-farcical subplots (think Chip’s story in The Corrections) he’s since become known for. Strong Motion is an ambitious project that juggles numerous such subplots: earthquake swarms, twenty-something angst, an unlikely love story, family feuds, workplace backstabbing, the Big Brother-esque corporation with a lot to hide, and even an anti-abortion group that sustains its presence throughout much of book.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I loved a lot of the deadpan, ludicrous humor; the book can be over-the-top in the best possible way. But there’s a fine line the good kind of over-the-topness and just plain ridiculous, and Franzen crosses that line a couple of times. At one point, I actually even said, “Jonathan, get real!” out loud.
Then there are the characters. One of the most common complaints I see about Franzen’s characters is that they’re unlikeable. I actually like — even love — many of those characters in all their unlikeable glory, but Louis and Renee are a different story. There’s no real depth behind Louis’s motives most of the time; he just acts out because, well, he’s a petulant asshole. And poor Renee doesn’t fare much better. As the best student in her department at Harvard, and as a woman in a male-dominated field, and with academia being what it is, she’s naturally the target of much ire. But oh, the stereotypes! She may or may not have been misunderstood or snubbed at first, then developed a cool demeanor as a type of self-protection, but by the time Louis meets her, she’s the ball-busting bitch of the department, with a terrible mean streak to boot. And, of course, she’s lonely. Because most career-oriented women are. Or something. These two are definitely not my favorite Franzen-produced unlikeable characters.
If you’re already an established Jonathan Franzen fan, I’d say go for it and read this book. It’s interesting to see how he’s grown as an author and compare all the elements of his writing that have always been there. Otherwise, it’s a toss-up: if you’re a fan of intricate plots you might like it.
Strong Motion was released in 1992 by Farrar Straus & Giroux. I read the 2001 Picador USA reprinted edition.
Check it out: autographed copy! 🙂