Earthquakes are rare in New England, which is all the more reason that people of Massachusetts are alarmed over a series of seismic disturbances registering around 4.5 on the Richter scale. The temblors are the “strong motion” of the novel’s title. They change people’s lives the way war changed lives in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the way acts of nature changed lives in two trend-setting disaster novels of the 1940’s, George R. Stewart’s Storm (1941) and Fire (1948). One family most seriously affected is that of Louis Holland, whose grandmother is knocked off a barstool and killed by the first quake while she is trying to reach a bottle of whiskey. Her estate, valued at approximately $22 million, goes to Louis’ mother, Melanie.
Most of Melanie Holland’s inheritance is in the form of shares of stock in a Massachusetts chemical company called Sweeting-Aldren. Coincidentally, Louis meets a woman named Renée Seitchek, who suspects that the earthquakes are being caused by Sweeting-Aldren’s illegal pumping of hazardous waste materials into the earth below the water table, creating slippages in rock formations supporting the entire region. If Renée can prove that the chemical firm is to blame, the resulting fines and civil suits would bankrupt the company. Ironically, the fact that his mother’s stock might become worthless does not disturb Louis for a moment, although he could expect to inherit half of it someday. He goes to work trying to help Renée in her investigation and actually seems delighted with the prospect of seeing his mother wiped out.
This incongruous motivation on the part of the hero is both the novel’s weakness and its curious strength. The story is reminiscent of Henrik Ibsen’s play En folke fiende (pb. 1882; An Enemy of the People, 1890), except that Louis, unlike Ibsen’s Dr. Stockman, does not seem the least bit public spirited. Stockman explains his motives in exhaustive detail throughout the play; whatever Louis is feeling, however, has to be guessed from limited clues. His emotions are like the invisible but formidable “strong motion” of rock formations deep below the earth’s surface.
Louis represents the reticent new generation whose values are impossible for their elders to fathom. What members of his so-called “Nowhere Generation” have in common is their mistrust of ideals, and perhaps more particularly the verbal expression of ideals. They have grown up watching television commercials and know that everything is a lie. When Louis’ father, an ineffectual college professor, tries to draw his prodigal son back into the family fold by telling him how much both parents love him, Louis exhibits one of his rare emotional outbursts.
With bent fingers he pulled at his arms and chest as through he were covered with corruption. “Don’t say that!” His voice was a strangled shriek, like no sound he’d ever made. “Don’t say that!”
Louis will remind some readers of Harold Krebs in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Soldier’s Home” (1925) and others of James Dean in the motion picture Rebel Without a Cause (1955). As a representative of the post-Cold War Nowhere Generation, Louis seems to have gone beyond existential despair, beyond rebellion, beyond cynicism, even beyond any considerable interest in drugs, into a state of self-induced apathy in which his life is simply a process of going through the motions, pretending to be involved in the customary concerns of his age group without really caring much about anything.
Louis is only twenty-three years old. He has been to college but has no career plans and is notably passive. Renée, who is seven years older, is the much stronger personality: She is working hard to get her Ph.D. from Harvard University. Eventually Louis falls in love with her, and this strange new emotion leads to his salvation. Strong Motion is another coming-of-age novel but it is so much more complex and intellectual than most specimens of this genre that the reader keeps wanting to turn to the inside flap of the dust jacket to take another look at the author’s photograph.
At the age of thirty-three, Jonathan Franzen looks like a young man who still only has to shave once a week. His face has a wide-open youthful candor that conceals everything. His eyes have the faraway look that so many young men get these days from staring at computer monitors and thinking the four-dimensional thoughts that computers inspire. His first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), received such praise from critics that it appeared that another F. Scott Fitzgerald might have arrived on...