Strong Motion

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

Earthquakes are rare in Massachusetts, which is all the more reason the citizens are unnerved by a whole series of tremblers of less than 5.0 magnitude on the Richter Scale. These quakes change people’s lives the way war changed lives in Leo Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE and Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND.

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Franzen’s story focuses on twenty-three-year-old Louis Holland and thirty-year-old Renee Seitchek, who deduce that the earthquakes are not acts of God but are being created by the illegal pumping of hazardous waste materials deep underground via an abandoned oil well. The irony of the situation is that Louis’ mother has just inherited an estate valued at $22 million from her mother, who was knocked off a barstool by a quake while she was trying to reach a whiskey bottle, and most of the estate is in shares of stock in the company apparently responsible for the tremblers.

If Louis exposes the company, the stock may become worthless, and he will remain as poor as he has been all his life. Yet he is perversely delighted to assist Renee, a Harvard seismologist, with her investigation. Unknown to Louis, she has been promised a big reward if she can advise his mother whether to dump the chemical company’s stock. Renee is threatened by company representatives and finally shot in the back; nothing, however, can discourage her scientific zeal in pursuit of the truth.

Eventually the company is exposed as the cause of the earthquakes and goes bankrupt, but not before Louis’ mother has saved her inheritance by selling out. She presents Renee with a reward of $600,000; Renee, however, unwilling to profit from what she considers tainted money, burns the check in an ashtray.

Throughout the book, the hero and heroine have a stormy relationship complicated by Louis’ infatuation with a younger woman; in the end, it looks as if Renee and Louis will remain together and might even be so radical as to get married.

Jonathan Franzen caused a minor literary sensation in 1988 with his first novel, THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY. Critics were amazed that a writer still in his twenties could display intelligence, creativity, and craftsmanship reminiscent of the young F. Scott Fitzgerald. In STRONG MOTION, Franzen demonstrates that he can handle that hardest of all literary forms, the “second novel.” The only thing that betrays his youth and inexperience is the quixotic and exasperating idealism of his two protagonists.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, December 1, 1991, p. 677.

Boston Globe. January 17, 1992, p. 79.

Chicago Tribune. January 12, 1992, XIV, p. 7.

Library Journal. CXVI, November 15, 1991, p. 107.

Locus. XXVIII, March, 1992, p. 57.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 2, 1992, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, February 16, 1992, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXIX, January 20, 1992, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, December 6, 1991, p. 53.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, January 12, 1992, p. 3.

Strong Motion

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1927

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 the literary scene. With Strong Motion, Franzen has cleared the perilous hurdle of the “second novel” with almost insolent insouciance and appears to be charging into what one critic described as “a virtually limitless writing future.”

The course of true love never runs smooth in a novel of this type, and Louis and Renée inevitably break up. The problem is a twenty-two-year-old ingenue whose clinging femininity and physical perfection make Louis uncomfortably aware of Renée’s mental toughness and multiplying gray hairs. Renée is terribly hurt by his rejection. She was not used to love either and has the same mistrust for human affection as Louis. She may remind the reader of John Updike’s description of the young women of her generation in his beautiful short story “The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd” (1981):

[O]ur daughters haunt the town as if searching for something they missed, taking classes in macramé or aerobic dancing, living with their mothers, wearing no makeup, walking up beside the rocks with books in their arms like a race of little nuns.

When Renée discovers she is pregnant, she is too resentful to tell Louis about her condition. Franzen’s novel is based on two volatile contemporary issues, environmental pollution and abortion, evidently the only two issues members of the Nowhere Generation can really get worked up about. When Renée goes to a clinic to have an abortion, she finds herself right in the middle of the prolife and prochoice factions, who use her and her unborn baby as the rope in their tug-of-war.

Here Franzen introduces the only real villain in the story, and he is surprisingly charismatic. Instead of explaining the case for so-called “freedom of choice,” the unpredictable author gives the Reverend Philip Stites center stage for seventeen pages to explain the “prolife” position on abortion. This is admirable writing in view of the fact that Franzen’s position is almost certainly antithetical. Although Stites’s followers often seem like ignorant, irrational yokels, the reverend himself is moderate, reasonable, and obviously well educated. He tries to talk Renée out of getting an abortion but does not try to intimidate her with threats of retribution in the present or the hereafter.

Having learned from Louis that Renée is investigating Sweeting-Aldren, Louis’ mother contacts her and tries to pump her for information. They conclude a deal whereby Renée is to receive a substantial reward if she notifies Melanie of the results of her investigation in time for Melanie to decide whether it would be wise to unload her shares. Renée pursues her investigation without Louis’ help. At one point, she calls dangerous attention to herself by hiring a plane to fly over the extensive Sweeting-Aldren facilities while she takes photographs. Eventually she gets the documentary evidence she needs to prove that the company indeed has been illegally pumping hazardous waste liquids down an abandoned oil well for many years and that these liquids are causing the earthquakes.

Renée shows her unusual courage by defying both the antiabortion fanatics who are trying to prevent her from disposing of her unborn child and the sinister Sweeting-Aldren executives who are trying to sabotage her investigation of their operations. After she is shot in the back and is lying in an intensive care unit, no one, including the reader, is quite sure whether the assailant was a prolifer or a goon from the chemical company. It is not until Louis learns that Renée has been critically wounded that he realizes how much he really loves her. He rejects the younger woman and rushes to the bedside of the older woman he truly loves.

Louis has the earmarks of a phenomenon of the late twentieth century, the househusband. One can picture him staying at home scrubbing the floors and diapering the babies while Renée goes on to become a full professor in the geology department of some prestigious university and occasionally takes Louis along to academic social functions.

With Louis’ help, Renée exposes Sweeting-Aldren and brings about the company’s downfall. Melanie, however, has had sufficient advance notice to sell out. When she presents Renée with a reward in the form of a check for $600,000, Renée casually lights a match to it and watches it burn in an ashtray. Louis, who is present at this ceremony, characteristically approves of this display of contempt for material possessions.

What is particularly impressive about Jonathan Franzen is not his plotting or style, which still show callowness and a tendency to ape such authors as Vladimir Nabokov, John le Carré, and J. D. Salinger, but his precocious observations about human character and life in general. He continually surprises with statements by the third-person narrator such as the following:

A person accustoms himself to what he is, after all, and if he’s lucky he learns to hold in somewhat lower esteem all other ways of being, so as not to spend life envying them.

Or:

This was as close to fighting as she [Melanie Holland] and Louis ever got; and it wasn’t really fighting. It was like what a pair of bar magnets do when you try to force the north poles together.

If Strong Motion has any faults, it might be accused of capitalizing on the emotionally charged issues of environmental pollution and abortion by wrapping them together in one cumbersome package. Some readers may be troubled by the perverse idealism, or militant antimaterialism, of the hero and heroine. It is bad enough when Louis nonchalantly goes about trying to do his mother out of $22 million but when Renée burns the check for $600,000, she is in danger of losing the mature reader’s sympathy altogether.

Franzen has acquired an impressive amount of technical knowledge about seismology, but he has only a youthful filmgoer’s conception of how executives operate in a big corporation. Corporate executives, like the top brass of the Central Intelligence Agency, make good whipping boys for youthful writers; yet these all-purpose villains with their state-of-the-art technology and fanatical pragmatism invariably turn out to be faceless clones who are more of a handicap to the plot than an asset.

These are about the only indications that Strong Motion is the work of a young writer who needs another ten years of worldly experience before he can produce his best work. By that time, he will no longer have the convenience of blaming all the world’s troubles on the greedy, irresponsible older generation, because he will have met the enemy and found it is himself.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, December 1, 1991, p. 677.

Boston Globe. January 17, 1992, p. 79.

Chicago Tribune. January 12, 1992, XIV, p. 7.

Library Journal. CXVI, November 15, 1991, p. 107.

Locus. XXVIII, March, 1992, p. 57.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 2, 1992, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, February 16, 1992, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXIX, January 20, 1992, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, December 6, 1991, p. 53.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, January 12, 1992, p. 3.

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