Customer Reviews: Strong Motion: A Novel
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on December 22, 2001
I just finished this book yesterday and I must say that it's going on my top ten favorite books list.
I picked up Strong Motion because I'd heard about Jonathan Franzen through some fans of David Foster Wallace. I was not dissapointed. I'll skip the plot synopsis, since I've noticed that it has been done already, but I'll tell you what I loved about the book.
Scenery. The book is set in Massachusetts -- mostly in Boston and its surrounding areas. I grew up just south of Boston, so the territory was familiar to me. Franzen really made me feel like I was back in that city, walking its streets, taking the train around. Many authors can write about being in the city, but few can really capture the feeling of a specific city like Franzen does for Boston. I really like that.
Characters. Franzen creates some of the most memorable character I've ever read. Not for their quirkiness (a la Dickens) but more in the way that it is easy to see yourself in them. In Strong Motion, I was able to see some of my own qualities in both Louis and Rene and it gives the book a kind of intimacy.
Details. There is a lot of detail in Strong Motion. I learned a lot about earthquakes and chemicals while reading the book. Franzen's skill, however, is integrating the technical details with the storyline, making the two fit together seamlessly. I never thought "ok, here we go with more technical stuff...".
I really loved this book and I'd suggest it to anyone who enjoyed Franzen's The Corrections (which I also loved) or even David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo or Paula Fox. I found myself very involved in the story (which hits on abortions, earthquakes, sex, love, family, religious zeal and more). Do yourself a favor and read this book.
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on June 30, 2003
I picked up Strong Motion after enjoying Franzen's The Corrections. The story lines in this novel are more complexly layered than those in The Corrections, but also more tightly organized. Most notably, in stark contrast to The Corrections, Franzen does not send us off to the Baltics to experience needless side stories. Every overlapping and interwoven piece of text is important to the rest of the novel.
Brief decriptions of the plot do not do the book justice, because they come off as unbelievable, even gimmicky. While Franzen does take bold risks with this story and his characters, this novel is so well crafted that I did not even pause to consider whether a particular plot twist was plausible. Like all good fiction, the unreal becomes real as the story unfolds.
With rich, conflicted characters and smart, penetrating observations of American society, Franzen's Strong Motion is a master work. It is easy to see why there was such a buzz around the release of The Corrections: Franzen is one of the best contemporary American literary fiction has to offer.
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on June 19, 2002
I read Strong Motion after reading Franzen's excellent The Corrections, a much more complete novel that is superior to this one in almost every aspect. That said, there is a lot to like in Strong Motion.
Louis Holland is a complex and well defined character; he's not completely likeable, but the reader ends up caring about him despite his shortcomings. His introspectiveness perpetuates his isolation and strains his relationships with those around him - his parents, sister, and romantic interests. The one person that he does make an effort to extend himself to rejects him so completely that he sleepwalks though the one subsequent relationship that might have had the potential to have made him happy.
The plot is based on some premises that I found a bit difficult to swallow (large-scale seismic activity prompted by pumping waste into deepwater wells?), but if you can suspend your disbelief in the concept of a big evil corporation trying to cut costs and inadvertently moving around tectonic plates then the plot does a nice job in steering big business, academia, and religious fundamentalists on a collision course.
The novel often feels quite experimental. At one point we're looking at the world from the vantage point of a solitary raccoon, whose superior intelligence doesn't quite make up for the fact that he doesn't move in a pack like other night creatures - dogs and rats (the raccoon might mirror the man-in-isolation Louis Holland character). At another point we look through the eyes of a computer program. Emotions fly as earthquakes toss characters around. All of this is interesting and masterfully written, but some of it ends up being fairly extraneous to the heart of the novel.
This is an ambitious, structurally messy novel - but with flashes of brilliance. I could have just as easily given it four stars. Recommended.
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on June 26, 1999
I don't think I've ever read a novel where my opinions of the characters changed so much in the course of the book. That's a good sign - no one in this story is one-dimensional. Franzen has no problem with digression, which provides some of the strength of characterization. His people will take a page or two at any time to go on about things that are really important to them (nostalgia for punk and new wave music, for example, or how it feels to want to buy clothes that you see worn by the kind of people you can't stand.) Even the least important characters get filled in. His plotting is, in the end, a bit weaker, but still serves. Highly recommended - and just where are the novels since this one?
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on December 13, 2003
Great things about this novel include:
- The central idea -- both the concept of earthquakes in the Boston area, and the concept of how they might have been caused.
- The writing -- full of brilliant images, razor-sharp observation, and humanity. Franzen is the only novelist I know whose characters have the real-life habit of ending sentences with "so", as in "Well, he's coming in tomorrow, so." Other reviewers have commented on the raccoon sequence, which is affecting and unforgettable.
- The setting -- if Boston were destroyed in an earthquake, you could reconstruct it from the description given in the book.
- The social conscience -- in particular, the sequence about the effects of the settlers on New England stands out.
- And the gutsiness of having a character who's a militant anti-abortionist with a heart of gold.
The weaknesses:
- The main characters aren't entirely likeable. This applies particularly to the female characters; Louis's mother Melanie is an ogre, his sister Eileen is a spoiled idiot, his Texan girlfriend Lauren is just an annoyance. Even Renee, the main female character, is curiously static; Louis develops far more as the book goes on.
- It's such a big, ambitious book, and yet a small number of main characters are linked into all the plots. In particular, it seems contrived that Eileen's boyfriend Peter has a direct family link into the vast conspiracy.
The weaknesses -- in particular, the events leading up to Louis and Renee's separation halfway through the book -- made me so impatient that I actually gave up reading it for a while. But I'm very glad I returned to it. A lot of the most memorable passages are in the second half, there's a great sense of gathering apocalypse and all the pleasures of a well-constructed thriller, and it ends on an emotional high that prefigures, but doesn't quite match, that at the end of The Corrections. Definitely worth a read, particularly if (by sheer coincidence) you live on the same street as the hero...
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VINE VOICEon July 30, 1998
With Strong Motion, Franzen takes his place in the smart young writer pantheon along luminaries such as David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest, duh) and Richard Price. This book contains more compelling insights about what it is like to be a dorky, disaffected, intelligent young person then a whole truck load of other books with similar goals. That being said, this book is also pretty "heavy" in that Franzen is not afraid to abandon the ironic detachment so common in young writers. But no matter. If you are even here, reading this review, it is obvious that you will like this book. Read it.
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on July 26, 2015
I undertook reading "Strong Motion" to find out how Jonathan Franzen came to his reputation as the current great American novelist even before his breakthrough "The Corrections" (2001). Written in 1992, "Strong Motion" is structured around a central system, like "Gravity's Rainbow" or "Infinite Jest," in this case the geology of earthquakes caused by deep injection wells (as in today's Oklahoma). More than that, it's the story of how a feckless male twenty-something named Louis Holland gets involved with an older Harvard geologist named Renee Seitcheck, has his "And That's How You Lose Her" moment, and is awarded a do-over by the fickle finger of fate. That Seitcheck is such a well-developed character compared to other authors' male manque love objects contributes to Franzen's reputation (the sister in "The Corrections" is another full female character). Whether he actually catches women's thought processes and worldly impositions is doubtful (even geologists must wear high heels if they happen to be women), but he probably does as well as any man can.

Franzen uses different eras of popular music (an era in popular culture being about 4-8 years) to indicate changing worldviews. Even though Louis, as a radio nerd, is a likely person to make such distinctions, it is with Renee that Franzen most applies them. To me, the use of a popular culture reference, presumably shared with the reader, as the way of communicating some aspect of the zeitgeist, seems the mark of a lazy or insufficiently articulate writer which de-universalizes the message. How well will the novel communicate in translation or to the next generation? Yet the descriptions of technology of the era (Data General computers, Xerox machines run by operators in copy centers) irrevocably binds the story to the late 70s/early 80s. So do the militant fundamentalist attacks on abortion providers of which Dr. Seitcheck becomes a target. Is it that any story, our stories, are time-bound to the culture in which they exist? Can we really understand Anton Chekov? Ishmael Beah? Or is Franzen just not up to writing something timeless and universal?

Probably it is a bit pretentious for an author to aspire to write the Great American Novel. Perhaps it is more realistic to expect an author to have a unique, interesting voice in which s/he tells complete stories about complex humans addressing the existential challenge in their own times and places. That good, Franzen is.
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on August 14, 2010
First, a caveat: Strong Motion is not The Corrections. It does not deliver the scintillating prose, caustic wit, and epic scope of Franzen's National Book Award winning later novel. It's an eccentric and lengthy book that, for better or worse, dons a variety of identities: suspense, romance, family melodrama, didactic political novel, bildungsroman, perhaps more. There are subplots and mere meanderings, but Franzen ties them all into the relationship between Louis Holland and Renee Seitchek, and especially Renee's role as a Harvard seismologist examining earthquakes that have recently disturbed the Boston area. Unwittingly, Renee manages to become involved in abortion protests, thus adding another element to Franzen's agenda, er, plot. The varying subplots of the novel would've been handled deftly, but there are simply too many coincidences that are just too convenient for the plot.

Strong Motion does, however, exhibit traces of brilliance, particularly in the characterization of Renee Seitchek, a 30 year old self-conscious seismologist who falls in love with the novel's 23 year old protagonist, Louis Holland. Franzen's attention to the nuances of Renee's struggle for identity are brilliant, as Renee ruminates on everything from egotistical and insular women who join "the sorority of child bearers" to being a "boring scientist who lives in a computer room but considers herself less boring than others like her because ten years ago she went to Clash concerts". Franzen certainly highlights the finer points of the spectrum of femininity.

It is with Louis, Franzen's austere protagonist, that the problem first begins. I cannot bring myself to like him. At all. He's a spineless, masochistic ham radio buff fluent in French. He's smart, occasionally witty, and has a hipster's palate for music (revealed in postcoital bliss as he questions Renee about her music habits: "Lou Reed? Roxy Music? Waitresses? XTC? The Banshees? Early Bowie? Warren Zevon?")
Franzen has furnished him with the right amount of quirks, but Louis simply doesn't hold the novel together. He seems to float through it, swaying where Franzen's well-thought out plot diagram takes him.

There are other problems, too. This isn't exactly experimental, avant-garde fiction Franzen is writing, and yet the omniscient narrator decides to peer into the life of a raccoon for much of chapter 11. Admittedly, sometimes the veering of the narrator is humorous, but in chapter 13 readers get a brief history of the founding of America, complete with Jonh Winthrop and archane Elizabethan spellings. It appears that this is an attempt to add a more epic dimension to the novel, and a playful and pedantic use of English before the days of standardization.

The novel is not an epic, though it tries. Clearly, Franzen has a story with immediacy and scope that spans the range of American lives, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s at the dawn of abortion clinic bombings, the reawakening and strengthening of Christian fundamentalism, and the emergence of a more outspoken environmentalism coupled with questions of corporate responsibility. Franzen includes a Broadway dossier of characters with whom we can sing along for a few chapters, but ultimately, the characterization of these peripheral figures is stock. (Korean immigrant, vacuous Harvard MBAs, lecherous old man, Marxist professor, southern antiabortion minister) and Franzen quickly ends their stories with a sentence here and there in the whirring landfill that constitutes the last few pages.
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on February 18, 2016
Although I am a big fan of Franzen, I found that this was not one of his better efforts. The plot was interesting enough, but just enough. It was not even as good as "Twenty-Seventh City," which I believe he published during the same period. It certainly did not live up to his more recent efforts such as "Purity." If you're a Franzen fan, it should round out your reading of his works. However, I don't recommend it for those unfamiliar or unimpressed with his writings.
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on January 10, 2016
I came to Franzen late and the first book of his I read was The Corrections which I loved. So now I judge all his works based on this novel as I liked the Corrections even more than Freedom.

Strong Motion does not have the writing chops that compares to The Corrections. It's not a bad book but I was just expecting much more from it. It's a unique story that is very Franzen but the characters just didn't feel as complete like his later novels.
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