Jonathan Franzen’s Masterpiece That You Probably Haven’t Read
Most bibliophiles have a significant amount of trouble naming their “favorite” book. Usually they can get it down to their five or ten top choices. I consider myself a bibliophile of the highest order—when I change my sheets on Sunday afternoons, I can count on finding at least one book in my bed or wedged between the wall and my mattress. When I go to the beach, my totebag weighs around twenty pounds because I bring a minimum of five books: I don’t know what I’ll be in the mood to read when I get there and I’m usually reading ten books at any given time.
But I can easily name my number one, favorite book of all time: Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen.
Almost everyone who loves books saw at least one (or five) press mentions for Freedom last fall, when Franzen’s first novel in nine years hit shelves. Franzen made the cover of Time, and President Obama obtained an advance review copy of Freedom from a bookseller to read on vacation. When it comes to The Corrections, Franzen’s bestselling and National Book Award-winning 2002 novel, virtually every person who has ever belonged to a book club has read it and probably owns their own dog-eared copy.
Most hardcore Franzen fans have read his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988 and his collection of essays, How to Be Alone (2003). But not all Franzen fans have read his 1992 novel Strong Motion, and most people who aren’t familiar with the author haven’t even heard of the book. This is extremely unfortunate, because I–a huge fan of Franzen’s work–consider this to be his best book of all and one of the great novels to come out of the 20th century.
Strong Motion opens with Louis Holland–a recent graduate of Rice University in Houston, Texas–working around-the-clock for the college radio station and living with a crotchety professor and his depressed, much-younger wife. Louis falls madly in love with their rebellious, adopted daughter, but she’s engaged, and Louis can’t stand to be in the same time zone as the woman he loves but can’t have.
Louis moves to Boston and rents a room in the then-unfabulous Somerville neighborhood. Per Franzen’s descriptions, Somerville in the late-80s sounds nothing like the tony Somerville of today that most recent grads can’t afford. Louis lives extremely frugally while working for just above minimum wage at an independent Boston radio station (“Paychecks were issued with precise instructions about when and when not to attempt to cash them.”) Louis is preparing to be laid-off because a young southern minister buys the radio station to make it the official mouthpiece of his evangelical group of anti-abortion crusaders. They’ve come to Boston because of the recent series of earthquakes rocking Boston that they interpret as God’s wrath for abortions in New England.
Lonely, Louis makes plans to meet his late maternal grandfather’s eccentric, extraordinarily wealthy second wife for drinks, but she stands him up, leaving him sitting alone at the Ritz Carlton bar. It turns out she was the lone victim of the latest small earthquake that struck eastern Massachusetts that afternoon.
When Louis’ unlikable mother and pothead Northwestern University professor father return to Boston to attend the funeral and deal with the estate, we learn that Louis’ mother has inherited $22 million worth of stock in her late father’s chemicals company. Louis’ spoiled older sister Eileen, a graduate student in Harvard Business School, has swooped in on this money; she wants to buy a house with her arrogant fiancé, another young, MBA candidate who is the son of the CEO of a chemicals company, specifically, Sweeting-Aldren, the company for which Louis’ mother now holds $22 million in stock.
Enter Renee, a Harvard seismologist in her late 20s, brainy and politically progressive, and privately insecure. Franzen describes her as having “more passion than self-esteem,” a line that probably resonates with virtually every overachieving woman in America. Renee is investigating the unusual New England earthquakes and she’s deeply curious about Louis’ grandmother’s death. Louis persistently badgers Renee for a date, and they have some of the roughest, most unglamorous–yet simultaneously most riveting–sex scenes you’ve ever read. What’s more captivating though, is what Renee overhears Louis’ sister’s fiancé say when they’re at a party together: Sweeting-Aldren is drilling chemicals into the ground that are causing the earthquakes! Louis and Renee’s relationship deepens as they embark on a mission to prove this and stop the earthquakes.
When Renee is interviewed by a television station seeking her academic perspective on the earthquakes, she unwittingly answers a loaded question about the antics of the visiting abortion protestors and suddenly finds herself the target of waves of hate mail and threats from people who think that her doctorate makes her a provider of abortions. Lauren, Louis’ love from Houston, comes to Boston and offers to end her engagement and uproot her life for Louis. He doesn’t know what to do, leaving Renee heartbroken but giving her more time to research and determine whether the massive earthquake that she’s predicting could actually happen, and how to stop it.
From there, Strong Motion unfolds into one of the most engaging, carefully plotted, beautifully-written books you’ve ever read. The characters are so real that it’s very possible to feel like you know them or that you’ve passed them on the street. For women readers, Renee is one of the first characters to come to mind when I think of an “everywoman” in literature: she’s smart, hard-working, and goal-oriented, but she has her insecurities and is secretly desperate to be loved. In one scene, she’s feeling horribly depressed and decides to score some pot from her teenaged neighbors. She smokes and listens to the Rolling Stones and dances by herself, “her arms and legs mixing the last faint banks of smoke into a haze.” The scene ends with this poignant line describing Renee laying on her roof in the muggy night: “Outside the kitchen window she lay down on the wet, sloping shingles. They were made of real slate.”
Louis Holland as a protagonist is likeable and angsty in a way that helps you identify with him. He seethes about his selfish mother and sister and his oblivious hippie dad and how much he hates the yuppies in Cambridge (like his selfish sister). Louis Holland is like Holden Caulfield on Xanex (toned down and less unstable). In terms of sex appeal, Louis– described as having a lean frame, a receding hairline, and the 80s apparel favored by today’s hipsters–is sexy in a blasé, secretly-needs-to-be-taken-care-of kind of way. In a hypothetical Strong Motion movie, I always pictured him being played by Jesse Eisenberg, or Andy Samberg attempting a dramatic role.
The Corrections is great, but Strong Motion is so masterly crafted that one could assume it was one of the later books in Franzen’s career. So why isn’t Strong Motion the household name among New Yorker and New York Times subscribers that The Corrections is?
Blame book publicists, blame the book’s being published during an election year, or blame the fact that book sales can be pretty random. As Rebecca Skloot told inReads: “I know a lot of writers who have written amazing books and spent a decade or more writing them, and no one reads them because they were published on the wrong day of the year.”
With current issues like the deteriorating environment and budget cuts to women’s reproductive health groups, Strong Motion is more relevant than ever. As the “family saga” becomes an increasingly popular sub-genre in fiction, you won’t find a better one than Strong Motion.
So here’s a question: can a book that was published nearly twenty years ago still tap into the power of internet word-of-mouth and “go viral?” Can the Go the F— to Sleep effect work for backlist books?