Strong Motion is about a family, money, earthquakes, corruption, morals. It is a spring of strange happenings in Boston, Louis Holland arrives as a series of earthquakes strike the city, the first one killing his grandmother. While in the middle of a bitter feud in the family over the inheritance, Louis falls in love with Renée Seitchek, a smart and beautiful seismologist, whose investigations into the origin of the earthquakes changes everything.
Well, that’s what the blurb says at least. As with other Jonathan Franzen novels, it is about family, and like family, it is a lot more complex than that.
Filled with diversions into the apparent inner life of our main and supporting characters, Franzen tries to show us the realities of a world – mean, distracted, selfish. This is not an unfamiliar theme, and I think it is a common thread throughout his works. Last time though, it rang true: for me, The Corrections was an indescribable novel. It was brilliant in its observations, sharp and true. What was it about? I couldn’t even tell you. It was a family, and everything terrible and wonderful that goes with it. And here, there is a family, yes, and even some earthquakes thrown in for dramatic tension but… but… this is not a good novel.
Despite how much I enjoyed some of Franzen’s other books, like The Corrections and Freedom, it has become apparent to me that he has a problem with women – this is why I have not yet read his latest, Purity. But Strong Motion was recommended and loaned to me; his second novel published in 1992, I thought perhaps the writer-ego that started infiltrating his later pages would not yet be as prevalent.
Strong Motion is filled with characters who have no apparent motivation or consistency; we are given outline drawings and each layering of colouring in is supposed to be further depth and consistency but ends up being contradictory and distancing. Louis Holland is basically a dick: he bullies his mother over money; emotionally isolates but uses his sister because she just doesn’t think like him; judges and neglects his father just because he still has morals. Yes, he falls in love with Renée, but that doesn’t mean we understand it, and it doesn’t mean he’s any good to her. There is sex and drama and intrigue, especially as they investigate the causes of the earthquakes but he doesn’t want to reveal the truth. Why? He walks out on her for a rather stupid blonde who won’t stop talking and won’t have sex with him. Why? He devotes himself to fixing mistakes when the recipient doesn’t even consent to his presence. Why? He is rude to his employers at the place he loves to work. Why?
Upon discovery that his mother, Melanie, has inherited a lot of money from his grandmother, Louis drives to her house, stomps over her couches, shouts and breaks things, so he can have some cash. What? Why is this terrible man-baby our main character? In what is supposed to come across as deep, or troubled, or studied comes out as pointless, bratty, awful.
And the women, ugh God. Yes, how Franzen has created all the characters here is totally flawed but why does he have such clear destain for the females? It borders on cruelty the way he draws them. Melanie Holland calls up Renée one day, wanting to be friends, lying and manipulating her way into a lunch date. Once again, why? This wicked woman with her money, feigning friendship to get her way. How terrible it is for a woman to control a fortune, she must use mean emotions to have her way, apparently. Even the nice elements of her are drawn with an angry eye:
“Melanie could make her voice beautiful when she chose. It was like a brook in a valley running in and out of the sunshine and pooling among willows, the clear kind of brook you wanted to plunge your hands into and drink from and forget about the deer carcasses and feedlots upstream, which may not even be there anyway.”
Never before have I actually experienced a female character used as blatantly as a mouthpiece for a male author’s beliefs: Renée is beautiful, tempestuous, rude, and completely lacking in transparency or inner life. Why does the beautiful woman behave the way she does? Because shut up. Because she’s smart: look at how complex and deep she is. For example, a rant about motherhood’s limitations devolves from a potential critique on the limited gender roles women are given in society to blaming the actual women themselves for breeding. Um, Jonathan? That’s not the problem here. And having an intelligent, pretty woman say this shit does not give it credence or believability.
There are just too many problems with the characters here for a character-driven narrative. I wanted to like this book, and I have liked other books of Franzen’s, but when the good guys are all guys and are pointlessly not-good; and the women are hated by the guys, and the author, and themselves well…there is not much to enjoy here. Look, I read it, there is some interesting plot points, I learnt stuff. But Strong Motion made me doubt my enjoyment of Franzen’s other books.