Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion and otherwise deemed farfetched connections between earthquakes and “corporate greed;” seismology and love



And this is what I would have to admit: after reading Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion two days ago, I am missing it. Franzen’ characters just grow in me, which obviously gives credit to the author – no more of Louis’ facade of coldness and carelessness and subtle search for something to devote himself to, and Renee’s charming insecurities about herself. After perhaps two weeks and 500 pages, this novel had stuck on me and I wish Franzen had brought me further into the earthquakes in Boston and Loius and Renee’s theory against Sweeting-Aldren company.

Jonathan Franzen compressed earthquakes and abortions and a hypocritical media and more in this one.

What started quite slowly and blandly a plot had evolved into a moving tale spanning Loius’ familial relations – from its initial periods of turmoil to an uncheesily concocted reconciliation, — his budding relationship with thirty-year old, young professional, Harvard-graduate but perpetually self-guarded Renee and the ensuing connections with the enigmatic earthquakes occurring in Boston and the chemical company who might just be the culprit behind the ground shakings. Franzen nicely and neatly crafts quite an elaborate plot revolving on interconnected characters and circumstances – the earthquakes, Louis’ sister whom he first had petty disagreements with and whose boyfriend’s father is a top official of Sweeting-Aldren, Louis’ mother whose suddenly found wealth goes back to a famly history tied to the beginnings of the alleged waste dumping of the company, Renee who suddenly became targets from the center with her alternative views and deeds both regarding the anti-abortionists and the implication of the Sweeting-Aldren company to the earthquakes.

Moreover, I like novels like this where the characters are allowed to speak and allowed to introduce themselves by virtue of the things they say and the actions and decisions they take. Louis sulks upon how his mother seems to exploit his submissiveness and general goodness, while in turn, spoiling Eileen, his sister. This is why he mocked her when she got hold of the large sum of money she obtained when her step-mother, Rita Kernaghan, died off an earthquake. He met Renee and finally, he had someone to share time with and to whom he can be genuine and sincere and not jaded about the world. They ended up making love but when Lauren, the previous apple of his eye, returned, her blooming relationship with Renee was stalled only to be resuscitated when he realized he pines for her and wants to be with her, and not just in bed. Always, we will come with realizations and these will change the course of our lives, sometimes forever, sometimes for a moment.

Then there was Renee, seemingly adorable Renee, the smart scientist from Harvard who used to listen to punk music, but has become ashamed of it now that she’s 30. Perhaps jut insecured about her age and her looks, she preoccupies herself with things she is passionate about: seismology and her pro-choice stance regarding abortion. While these preoccupations have evidently imperiled her life in the novel, it was also because of these that she meets Louis and found something on him that at the end, we can be certain in positing that this finding offsets the dangers on the course. For when she was battling for her life, bandaged and all, weak and recovering at the hospital and then at home, she had Louis, patiently waiting, patiently staying, and accompanying her through those times.

To his further credit, Franzen covered these 500 pages with micro-critiques of the operations of big-time corporations by just trying and succeeding to sound matter-of-factly, without shock or pretensions of grandness, and not sermonizing. Also, he was good enough to sew together several issues at once by keeping the relevance among the scenarios. And in the classical butterfly effect phenomenon, every development in each subplot affects the others and either complicate it further or resolve it in the end. The tensions within the Hollands, Louis and Renee’s affair, the earthquake investigation, the peculiar source of the 22 million dollars, the anti-abortion crusade led by Philip Stites – all of these were masterfully presented, developed and resolved neatly by Franzen in the novel. Notable as well is the way Franzen zooms in and out, digresses and reverts in his storytelling. For instance, in page 379, when Louis and his father Bob was talking about Bob’s deep knowledge about the history of Sweeting-Aldren Company and his wife’s family’s significant involvement in that history, Franzen abruptly pans out into the immediate setting:

“From the darkness outside the screen door came tearing sounds, accompanied by the growling of a cat intent on business.”

and mentions in passing the dismembering of a small animal (presumably by the cat). Then, Franzen also infused a lot of chemistry in this novel, inevitably so as he has a chemical company seriously involved in the story. Not to be forgotten is the seismological parts, which of course emanates from the earthquake occurrences and Renee’s profession. Franzen even had several of pure seismological visual cant which only makes his work less fantastic, closer to what there really is in the same world as the readers.

Franzen also had his way with those narrative shifts, most notably to baseball events, which served a lot of functions in the narrative. Most naturally, they can be deemed as to offer breaks that can facilitate the readers’ comprehension of what is going on in the story. Also, these can be read as again, grounding the story to the actual world, precluding the need for suspension of disbelief to arise. As if to say: the characters’ world is the same as ours; they are surrounded by people and events that are all common to us.

And for now, I shall momentarily conclude, just like how all conclusions are now and ought to be, this first read from Franzen surpasses being worthwhile. It was precious – and makes me itch on starting either The Corrections or the Twenty-Seventh City (although my copy of the former is in Manila). This is how Contemporary fiction sometimes sears.

This is him.
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