My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Jonathan Franzen’s 1992 novel, ‘Strong Motion’, we see the prodigious talent that would bring him worldwide fame with ‘The Corrections’ and the more recent ‘Freedom’.
I enjoy reading earlier novels of authors who I’ve discovered when they’re more famous: you see where they’ve come from, what techniques they use that will be repeated, and how something that is good or even great becomes extraordinary.
In ‘Strong Motion’, Franzen displays his formidable intellect and how he uses it to explore, in depth, and with impressive displays of detailed knowledge, issues related to the global economy and the environment. For example, the premise of the book, a man-made cause to earthquakes is an interesting precursor to the environmental issues that he tackles in ‘Freedom’.
Franzen also shows how he grabs a theme and runs with it for the whole book, the idea of ‘freedom’, the idea of children correcting their parents’ faults, and here, possibly a less defined theme of how ‘strong motion’ whether in history, or in personal relationships, or geology, plays out.
Franzen’s amazing descriptions, wit, observations on familial dysfunction, his laments of alienation in a commodified world, and his leaps between his characters’ points of view are all here. He ties this all in with an engaging narrative, a bit of a detective-style thriller for modern America.
I would hazard a guess at some of the reasons why this book didn’t bring him the fame of ‘The Corrections’. Even though the main character is a young man in his early twenties and bald, I couldn’t help but picture all those author photos I’ve seen of Franzen and imagine him as described in the book (by a raccoon describing himself!) as ‘an individual living in a world that consisted entirely of his sorrow-like compulsions and afflictions and the pleasurable exercise of his abilities.’
The majority of the book is told from Louis’ point of view, and he’s a pretty drab character, sad and not particularly self-aware: he is full of sorrow. He rails often against consumer greed and sabotages himself and relationships. I found it hard to have sympathy for the main relationship in the book when the two characters seemed to have such strange, short interactions, a relationship driven by instinct and need rather than any sort of communication. I found Renée, the secondary character (or perhaps meant as the other main character, but certainly with less focus than Louis), as interesting but detached, cerebral, and somewhat cold.
It feels to me that in Franzen’s most recent novels, by spreading the rich narrative between many characters, he gives us more to hang onto, more to relate to, even if it is to the various neuroses of the characters rather than their virtues. As a writer, he really managed to develop his great strength of creating funny, difficult and complex characters, both men and women, and of different ages. In this book, I think he’s in the category of a great writer, rather than his later crowning as a ‘great American novelist’.
Franzen’s amazing ability to capture both the important and mundane parts of life are wondrous. A mother is described as such: ‘Of her relative proximity to death, or her inability to relax and enjoy a lunch, of her estrangement from the world of things that young people talk about. This really does happen to parents who are unhappy, even those who truly love their children.’
He often seems to describe, perfectly, some great truth about Western life. But also a small observation such as ‘ red pillow marks on his face—sleep’s tantalizing glyphs, which every morning signified nothing in a different way.’ The book is filled with amazing writing that I gasped at, each piling up one on top of the other in response.
I wasn’t quite as taken with his narrative experimentation as in his later books. Occupying the narrative point of view of a raccoon didn’t quite do it for me, neither did falling into Olde English for a historical account of the Indians, before colonisation, though it only lasted a few pages. As a minor complaint, I hate how the Chinese character in the book and his relatives speak in Chinglish, ‘He not here’. Howard’s lack of proficiency is described as a deliberate character trait but he displays no great gifts of character that make him likeable, not that he needed to be, but I personally recoil at an unpleasant Asian who speaks English poorly.
Right to the end, though I’d enjoyed the writing and the story, albeit not as much as ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Corrections’, I was still feeling uncomfortable and frustrated about the narrator and the book’s main relationship, a lack of resolve, an unpleasant heaviness.
But then suddenly, Franzen seemed to sniper-fire my complaints away and the characters show self-awareness and some measure of hope, and an important part of the sorrow and the weight of negativity somehow gives way.
Considering Franzen’s winding and lengthy narrative technique, I think that a similarly meandering book review is appropriate. I also feel that Franzen’s narrative rails against making simple conclusions or exhortations such as: ‘if you’re a fan of Franzen’s other books, you’ll like this’, ‘Great book, read it!’ or ‘See how Franzen became famous through one of his earlier books’.
So I won’t.
[P.S. Amazing interview with Franzen in the Paris Review… I read it after I wrote this review. http://www.theparisreview.org/intervi…]