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Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen
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Strong Motion (1992)

by Jonathan Franzen

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Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
Pretty poor. Read "The Corrections" some years back and enjoyed it as a good yarn about real people, though recall very little (not even the reason for the odd title). Here the characters are one-dimensional (the shopaholic mum, the quirky female scientist obsessed with dated pop music, the pretty slapper with no brain). The central character is a charmless chap sitting somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum which doesn't hinder his love life. Nothing much happens except a few earthquakes which Franzen harnesses clunkily to some wild sex scenes. There's a side-story about big industry wrecking the environment and triggering earthquakes - plus a lot of facts (I presume they are) about seismology. I'd rather get that from a geology book. Gave up half way. ( )
  vguy | May 10, 2013 |
Franzen writes about what he knows and never deviates too far from that. (It goes without saying that Strong Motion was probably manufactured after he’d crossed paths with earthquake seismology, and not prior to it.) From his real life father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and it playing a huge part in 2001’s The Corrections, to the cities he’s lived in (Chicago, Evanston, Boston, New York City), to possibly the deluge of his character’s awkwardness (just watch one of his interviews online; sorry Jonathan), his novels are ripe with experience, the highs and lows of everyday life. He trims the fat only in a structural/grammatical context; in Franzen’s very real world, be prepared to dig deep into stilted sarcasm, an abhorrent amount of one-liners, and the hilariously mundane. His characters typically echo the cold gray days above them with an above average intelligence. They do their best to fumble with their pitiful existences. His protagonists (not antagonists, not anti-heroes, but deuteragonists, as sidekicks to a living breathing dysfunctional world) often view things from the outside. They judge. They wait to unleash zingers Franzen’s probably got pinned on his board next to his computer.

There are those who abhor this, who think it’s gimmicky, who, although with possible justification, need the pacifier of a character who is relatable on a superficial level (while negating the authenticity of such characters), and there are those who love this (like me), who know perfectly well that characters like the prudish Renée (our seismologist at Harvard) and the capable yet maladroit Louis (the reckless youth who falls in love with her) do actually exist in the real world. We thank Franzen for his portrayal of them, which includes a plethora of insecurities and bad habits they in no way attempt to bury under pretense. This is an anti-fantasy where people hurt one another and a majority of the time, for no other reason than they are just as confused as you and I with this miraculous and horrific It that swirls around them—a little thing called life.

Franzen’s a great writer, pure and simple, anyway you wanna cut it. You are supposed to find disdain in his major characters. Louis’s mother, Melanie, who inherits a fortune after a low-grade earthquake in the Boston area sets in motion the death of her step mother, takes on the role of the ultra real during a time of crisis/affluence. A middle class to upper middle class (now upper class) white family in New England is somehow not peachy keen. Their inheritance becomes a burden, and at this cusp which we as a reader enter, we experience a peak of disorder. The important thing is that we feel something. If you feel anger, then it’s probably been orchestrated for you. Franzen is a great writer because his characters are amongst the most real in modern literature. If you’re looking for a presumed happy ending, a pleasure spot that is meant to please an ambiguous reader of every stripe, a cover up to the supposed fraud of everyday life, its hang-ups, its irregular preponderance to eccentricities over formality, then you might as well go elsewhere, and with all due respect, nowhere near realistic modern fiction.

In Franzen’s Strong Motion, lines like “You make me want to be a woman,” as communicated by Louis when he is accosted with the savagery of Renée’s sex, are readily abundant, both funny and strangely realistic, as in, it is something someone has probably said one time or another when presented with an opportunity to do so.

Take for instance this paragraph early on in the book, when Louis is dating Lauren, an easier catch, as she offers up no resistance, no immediate chase, like a wounded antelope that takes out all the fun inherent in the thumping blood of the carnivore, Louis put his arms around her and held her head against his shoulder. It fit in his hands. It was as if this were all there was to her, this crying head. He didn’t know why he loved her so much, he only knew he wanted admittance to her grief, to her whole damaged self, as he’d wanted it since the first time he saw her. He kissed her bristly hair and kissed behind the ear. For this liberty, she slapped him so hard that his glasses were bent and the plastic pad cut his nose and bruised the bone. This story masters the unrequited love, the literal slap in the face when life is seemingly going your way. Franzen leaves everything up to chance, to pure luck. Like all of his novels, Strong Motion knows better than to give its characters a strong sense of destiny, or the miraculi of the intangible. Literature doesn’t make one’s woes ironic or absurdly funny. Life does. We don’t have to do anything here except watch things unravel.

It may be that to understand is to forgive; but Louis was tired of understanding. Almost everyone he knew seemed to have good reasons for not being kind and polite to him, and he could see these reasons, and yet it didn’t seem fair that it was always him who had to understand and forgive and never them. It seem3ed like the world was set up so that the unhappy people who did rotten things—the abused child who became a child abuser, the injured Libby who injured Louis and Alec—could always be forgiven because they couldn’t help what they did, while the unhappy people who still refused to do rotten things got more and more hurt by the other people’s rottenness, until they’d been hurt so many times that they too stopped caring what they did to other people, and there was no way out. This is the vitality blood of a typical Franzen book. People get trapped in the muck of life. Louis stands at the edge of the world, a young twenty-two, yet to be processed through the machine. People know he is susceptible to being used (others are just naïve as he is). Their non-emotionality is taught from experience, from the environment around them. And as Louis proposes to intertwine with another soul, others around him swarm, from the pathetic shrillness of his sister, to Stites, the leader of a marauding group of anti-abortionists, to the conspiracy of a corporate influence (or laziness or profiteering) that is causing the recent string of unnatural earthquakes (and no less, as both Louis and Renée work together to put a stop to it—their goodness as people rupturing when together). Let me tell you the hard half of the truth about women: They don’t get any prettier when they get older; they don’t get any saner when they get older; and they get older very quickly as was once passed down to Louis via his father, which he remembers during a moment of urgency. Another line later, which encompasses the idea of unknowing transformation in less abbreviation, is said by Louis’s mother: “Ever since I became rich I became a very Christian person.”

I won’t quote the exceptionally long passage here, but there’s a great section where we inhabit the life of a raccoon (and this case, Renée’s raccoon, that occasionally would come to her window and stick its poor paw in between the wire and she would feed it food) right before it ultimately dies a slow and probably painful death. It works as a direct parallel to the wanderlust of these characters, and none more specifically than Louis and Renée, the guttural nature of them, or what it means to be human (Renée addressing the merits of sex to Stites, the church leader: “I feel good. I feel like I know something about myself [after sex]. Like I have a base line, and I know what the very bottom of me is like. Like I know that good and evil don’t have anything to do with it. Like I’m an animal, in a good way”). It is a prophetic use of foreshadowing (as the raccoon had been worked into the story at pivotal times before) and something I wish Franzen would use more of.

For reasons that become evident later, Renée is shot multiple times after coming out of an abortion clinic, and specifically, after aborting her and Louis’s child after he was once again lured away by Lauren. Louis goes to see Renée, the woman he knows prior to her injury that he did in fact love, and he sees her in that horrible state, and it works as a mechanism that immediately propels him into the now, this idea of skipping the sarcasm and the wit, to be there with the woman he loves, to administer his own test of courage by revealing to her with all honesty, how he feels. Other presumed boyfriends of her come by to see her but are ambivalent to her pain. This is where truth lies. In pain. Whereas other people use this as an opportunity for something to gain, Louis breaks down, just as any true love would. This is the ultimate canary in the mine used to great effect. Renée just needs to know that she can be loved, and in turn, so does Louis, and so does everyone, no matter how buried in façade or pretense or reserved or cold they appear on the outside. Never, maybe with the exception of his latest opus, has it felt so worthwhile to get to the end of a Franzen novel than this one.

Strong Motion ends on a soft note many probably didn’t even see coming, and many others would’ve liked it to begin with. But once again, Franzen does an exceptional job revealing the inner working of characters over a long period of time. You don’t always get what you want. And if you do eventually get what you want, it’s usually a long time coming. A book that blooms like getting to know someone who’ll later become a good friend. This doesn’t take an overwhelming amount of patience as it does understanding.

When it’s all said and done, this may not be his best book, but it will most definitely be one of his best. ( )
  Mifune | Jan 19, 2013 |
I enjoyed this book very much. I really find a strong empathy with Franzen's cynical perspective on America, families, religion, relationships, etc. He has a very perceptive eye on American society and can write about his observations in a readable and interesting way. The story is complex enough to maintain interest but not so complicated that it's hard to follow. My only criticism is that I prefer plots that are closer to real life, but that's just a genre preference rather than any negative comment on his work. ( )
  oldblack | Apr 22, 2012 |
Franzen touches on many subjects in this novel. As with his other novels, the characters are not very likable but hey that's real life. The plot was very creative and it allowed me to feel a sense of a "who done it" which I appreciated. It was interesting in reading a book from 20 years ago and realizing how up to date the themes were. Franzen does a good job of making social commentary and dealing with the negativity of big business. His themes resonate very strongly when you think about BP and the gulf spill. Having now read his 4 novels , I am convinced he is one of our best writers. Although I meet many people that you do not like his books, it is usually because they do not like the characters. So you cannot question his writing skill but you can question the likability of his characters. I just hope that he doesn't make us wait another 7-8 years for another novel. ( )
  nivramkoorb | Apr 18, 2012 |
I was looking forward to reading this novel because I had enjoyed The Corrections and more recently Freedom and both were gripping reads. However, I was disappointed by this book. I took it away on holiday so all the conditions for getting into a good book were right: waiting at airports, flights, lie ins and lazy days with plenty of time to read...but despite all this I really couldn't get into it for a long time and had to make myself persevere with it. I did get into it eventually - once I'd got back from my holiday - and the determination to finish it took a back seat sort once I became interested in the story.

As with the other Franzen books I've read, the characters are not very likeable: Louis, a disaffected, disinterested, morose and rude young man, becomes involved with Renee, an intelligent but self-hating insecure Harvard researcher. When a series of small earthquakes hits the town they live in, theories of what is causing them begin to surface and Louis and Renee pursue them with dangerous results.

The book's title is repeated endlessly throughout. I don't think it was a case of when you notice a word once, you then notice it a lot subsequently - it really was used a lot and in relation to earthquakes as well as sex etc. The hatred and self-hatred evident in many of the characters was depressing and although the female characters were intensely dislikable, the male ones weren't much better.

The book was overlong and indulgent in its descriptions but despite all this, there is a good plot and I don't regret spending time reading it. ( )
  tixylix | Aug 5, 2011 |
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Jonathan Franzenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Eggermont, MoniqueTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Sometimes when people asked Eileen Holland if she had any brothers or sisters, she had to think for a moment.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 031242051X, Paperback)

Louis Holland arrives in Boston in a spring of ecological upheaval (a rash of earthquakes on the North Shore) and odd luck: the first one kills his grandmother. Louis tries to maintain his independence, but falls in love with a Harvard seismologist whose discoveries about the earthquakes' cause complicate everything.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:48:47 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Louis Holland arrives in Boston in a spring of ecological upheaval (a rash of earthquakes on the North Shore) and odd luck: the first one kills his grandmother. Louis tries to maintain his independence, but falls in love with a Harvard seismologist whose discoveries about the earthquakes' cause complicate everything.… (more)

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