When The Corrections came out last fall, I realized right away that I had missed, until now, a very important writer. It seemed impossible to think about the magnificent new novel without reading Franzen's earlier work. Which I did straightaway. I wrote the following comments on The Twenty-Seventh City immediately upon reading it, but, owing perhaps to the holidays, I didn't do the same for Strong Motion. Determined, this month, to say something about these novels before the third novel's anniversary rolled round, I read 'Strong Motion' again, with great pleasure. I'm about to reread 'The Corrections,' but the feeling that I've dragged my feet long enough makes it impossible for me to keep what I've written to myself any longer. Uploading in haste, I can correct at leisure.
Probst was sick. He had a bad cold, the worst in several years, complete with chills and sizzling headaches, a sore throat, and a general sense of injury and injustice. The usual drugs hardly helped. Over the weekend he had touched some surface, or some surface had touched him, and then he'd touched his eyes or nostrils and the viruses had entered. It could have been any surface. Everything had surface, and active germs were waiting, hopping eagerly into the air, on an indeterminate number of them - on pens and seat cushions, on shoes and sidewalks, street and floors, on tumblers and towels and parking meters. Telephones crawled with viruses. Quarters taken as change were warm, aswarm. Elevator buttons were pustules glowing with received virulence. Rolf Ripley had wiped wads of living goo on his sleeves and Probst had grasped them. There were secretions of Buzz all over his office. Hutchinson had taken Probst's coat. Dr. Thompson had shaken his hand, Meisner had a runny nose, and the General - Sam - had handed him doughnuts. In retrospect he trusted no one.
This passage, written in the Big, strong, and rich. The loquacious toughness I think of as Norman Mailer's expressive answer to Hemingway, occurs near the middle of Jonathan Franzen's first novel, 'The Twenty-Seventh City.' It is winter in St Louis, the city of the title, and the year, according to a note prefixed to the novel, is 'somewhat like 1984'; global warming has not yet hindered snowfall. Martin Probst, the novel's hero, brackets the paragraph, but he is not really its subject; what the paragraph is about is microbes - dangers that swirl around us unseen. 'The Twenty-Seventh City' is much concerned with invisible influences - and also with trust.
It is Martin Probst's fiftieth birthday, but he has to shop for Christmas gifts for his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Luisa. Luisa, a senior in high school, has moved out of the house, and Probst has found himself powerless to stop her.
The Twenty-Seventh City is an ambitious novel, and all the more audacious for being a first one. A map of the St Louis area has roughly the same impact as a long list of characters would, announcing that this is no introspective love story, and the narrative begins with the news that in June of a certain year the Chief of Police retired and was succeeded by a woman from Bombay. Within two pages, the focus has closed in on a veiled figure who will turn out to be a particularly unlikable secondary character, as he pays a nocturnal visit to the mistress he keeps at the airport Marriott. The hero makes his first appearance thirty-odd pages into the book, and a reader might be forgiven for failing to recognize him as such. Franzen is playing with the big boys. The breadth and speed of his opening show that he has nothing to fear from comparisons with the more eminent American novelists of the second half of the twentieth century: Mailer and Updike, to name two; Franzen's avowed literary hero, De Lillo, to add a third. I don't mean to claim exaggerated success for The Twenty-Seventh City, but only to point out that Franzen declares his bold intention right away, and proceeds to meet the challenge of writing a Great American Novel fairly well.
But the imperfections of The Twenty-Seventh City, as of any novel, fall lie on two nonparallel planes. The first set consists of the tactical miscalculations that would mount up in any novel of this audacity no matter how brilliant the writer. We may say that a writer has erred, for example, wherever a minor character distracts from the narrative by making the reader wonder what his role is, and such errors will abound whenever a novelist not of the first class follows the rule of showing, not telling. They certainly do not abound here, but there are more of them in The Twenty-Seventh City than in the (understandably) more assured 'The Corrections.'. For example, that veiled figure at the beginning of the story. We don't know who he is or what his role will turn out to be, and if this ignorance impedes our getting on with the story, the novelist has miscalculated. Perhaps he ought to have told us more. Perhaps he ought to have presented some other episode. A novel of the size of The Twenty-Seventh City involves hundreds, perhaps thousands of such calculations, and Franzen handles the bulk of them correctly. As for the errors, they're of interest mostly to other writers. The general reader is unlikely to notice them. It's wrong to think of them as 'mistakes,' rather, they're things that might have been done a little better.
The other imperfections are in one way just the opposite: they're errors not in execution but in the nature of the form that the novelist has tackled. Ordinarily, the critic overlooks these problems. After all, there is no point in complaining of a thriller that it does what thrillers are supposed to do, and, as such, fails to deliver a lot of laughs. If a particular genre doesn't appeal to you, then the generally appropriate response is to ignore it. Over the course of three novels, however, Jonathan Franzen has wrought some changes in what we might expect of the 'big' novel, and it is fair to judge the form of The Twenty-Seventh City against that of 'The Corrections.' To turn this around: bearing 'The Corrections' in mind makes it easy to see why Franzen did not write a second book like The Twenty-Seventh City. Does this mean that he was mistaken to write The Twenty-Seventh City in the first place? That's a tough question. I'd love to report that I enjoyed The Twenty-Seventh City and that I recommend it to everyone, &c. But in fact I read The Twenty-Seventh City because I had read 'The Corrections.' The Twenty-Seventh City itself has been available since 1988, but there are some plain reasons why I didn't read it. My joy in 'The Corrections' is greater because it overcomes the limitations and distractions of what I will call the Great American Novel.
It seems pretty clear now that no one is ever going to write a novel that permanently qualifies as The great American novel, unless of course Herman Melville's 'Moby-Dick,' a book that I've dreaded reading all my life, takes the palm. But now that we're safely into the new century, it also seems clear that writers who set out to write the Great American novel did succeed in establishing a genre. What perhaps has always kept success at bay is the rule that the Great American Novel is about failure. It's about the failure of American society to live up to the promise of the Revolution and the Constitution (but, interestingly, it is not about the failure of the Revolution and the Constitution to dispose of the problem of slavery). In the Great American Novel, the failure plays out among a handful of highly-drawn figures against the background of larger political or environmental turmoil. John Updike's 'Rabbit' novels are well-known entrants. So are &c&c. But what interests me is taking The Twenty-Seventh City as a representative Great American Novel and criticizing its template with what I know of 'The Corrections' in mind.
The novel's armature is a fictional political issue that Franzen has drawn with a high cinematic verisimilitude. Battling a decline that the heroic Arch long ago failed to reverse, certain powerful interests in St Louis conclude that redemption lies in urban renewal. They're persuaded that this trend is their friend by the alacrity with which block after block of ghetto is bought up and razed. High-tech industries are wooed in from the suburbs. The chapter in which a group of Probst's friends discuss the trend is the most difficult in the novel, because you have to love St Louis to care about its politics on this level. Franzen makes the discussion as interesting as possible, but I suspect that most readers will skim right through it. Particularly because the novel exemplifies the tough-writer tradition of showing rather than telling. This puts a heavy interpretive burden on the reader, who may be disinclined to infer all the political motivations behind the maneuvers on view. Franzen insists that the tension between the actual city of St Louis and the county of which it began as the easternmost patch is the secret spring of local history. Once, the city could grow only by detaching itself from the rural surround; now, it can prosper only by annexing it, and a referendum in which city and county voters will be called upon to permit the merger sits at the climax of the book. Were Franzen to rewrite The Twenty-Seventh City today, he would have learned, from 'The Corrections,' how to make this matter important to the reader. He would know that the reader has to be told more than tough guys think it's cool to tell. He would not expect the raw display of power to make the reader sit up, as if reading a novel by Grisham or Clancy.
Franzen has been very ambitious. He has made an honest businessman - a contractor, no less - the protagonist of a great American novel. As Sinclair Lewis showed long ago, businessmen are sitting ducks for satire, but this is precisely because they never learn. There is also the question of innocence, the garment that must be torn from the limbs of every great American hero. We don't commonly think of successful businessmen - and Probst is a leading figure in St Louis; Franzen has audaciously credited his fictional creation with the building of the Gateway Arch - as innocent, but Probst qualifies. He inhabits a climate of candor; he reflects at one point that in a recent year he has not been lied to at all. Probst is some sort of Arch himself, breathing a clearer, simpler air than other people. But now he has been brought low, and not just by a cold.
What Probst does not know - indeed, he never finds this out - is that he has been singled out for persecution by the new chief of police, one S. Jammu, a woman from Bombay (the child of an Indian mother (related to Mrs Gandhi) and an American father). Jammu's henchman, Balwan Singh, has engineered Luisa's moving out, and he will abduct Barbara not long after Christmas, making it appear that she has run off with him voluntarily.
At this point in the novel, Probst has just begun to think that the General - Sam - may be right. Sam Norris is a conservative crank who happens also to be a millionaire businessman. He has been trying to persuade his fellow Pillars of the Community that S. Jammu spearheads a plot. We know that the General is on the right track, because Franzen begins the novel by telling us so. I have to wonder if he experimented with keeping Jammu's secret life a secret from the reader as well; 'The Twenty-Seventh City' would have read even more like a thriller than it does had he seen a way to pull it off. We don't ask it when we read a thriller, but when a novel carrying more freight than thrillers usually book has us turning pages, then we may wonder. Franzen seems to be saying that grownups can have fun, too; that the 'literary' novel needn't be a stranger to suspense. If so, he's right, in principle; 'The Corrections' bears it out. But 'The Corrections' also shows that the suspense of a literary novel is not the suspense of wondering how five or ten plot lines will be tied up.
The interesting twist is that Probst ought to be paranoid (which is to say, it wouldn't be 'paranoid' of him to believe that he was the object of a nefarious plot), but he isn't. He ought to have lost his bearings. I thought that's what the novel was going to be about: a man losing his bearings. But we do know about the plot, and since we do, 'The Twenty-Seventh City' takes on a passing resemblance to the Book of Job. There is no thought of retribution here; conversely, Probst's - some of his associates want him to join in the scheme. He sees that there is a scheme, but he does not see that the death of his dog, the loss of his daughter, and the disappearance of his wife are part of an effort to bring him around. That's because they stiffen his resistance to it.
But he sins. He sins out of vanity. Franzen plays the scene exquisitely - the Time interview. His aloofness bites him: the reporter who has already disappointed Probst by not bringing along a photographer) closes up after half an hour, just when Probst is warming to serious discussion. He has had a talk on the phone with Jammu in which they've sparred like grownup Romeo and Juliet, respectful of the obstacles between them. He is looking forward to having dinner with her after the interview, but this doesn't mean that he's in a hurry for the interview to end. On the contrary.
"Sure." Stone nodded. "Appreciate it. You've been very helpful." He turned off the tape recorder. "Unless there's something you'd like to add."
"Well - no. No. I do have some thoughts on the city-county - "
"They're well documented." Stone locked his briefcase and spun the combination wheels. "And I had a very productive talk with John Holmes this afternoon. We hate to take your time when there's already so much on the record. You've been very eloquent in the past."
Very eloquent. Rabbits know instinctively the meaning of the shadow of a hawk. Probst felt the shadow of New York.
His vanity wounded, Probst tries to hold onto the reporter's attention, but fails to re-ignite his interest.
Probst stalled. 'The special election?"
"The referendum, the Baltimore situation. Sure. It's interesting. We'll treat it. But at this point it's mainly news because it's divided the region, not because it's united it. And what we're interested in is the forces of unity."
Probst stood up and walked to the fireplace. He was so in love with her he couldn't see straight, but he could see how generous she'd been on the phone, talking like he mattered. "You want a scoop?" he said.
And, once he has fallen for love, he sees the evil in himself - sees what he's capable of - and, all on his own, sees the evil in Jammu as well. This tragedy, however, will have an American outcome: the hero will walk away, whole if not unscathed; the temptress, having lost her gamble, will shoot herself the morning after Probst says 'goodbye.'
Jammu remains a problematic character. The implausibility of an Indian national's attaining any public office in St Louis in 1984, and the extreme implausibility of an Indian woman's becoming the local Chief of Police, pestered me no less than the General's doubts about her benificence pestered him. But novelists have been making this kind of demand for decades now. I'm willing to regard it as a kind of thought experiment: what-if... Franzen is able to make the Indian angle pay, if not richly. Singh, criticism of America, &c. But the more nagging problem is Jammu's motivation. What makes her run? This is not a question that we find her asking herself. It's Singh who, thinking about her, offers what insight we're given.
But the operation had turned out to be a repeat of her performance in Bombay, where, as a member of the People's Reading Group, she'd infiltrated the Indian Police Service and penetrated to the depths of its bureaucracy, becoming the police commissioner in India's largest city and receiving along the way the active financial support of Indira and her party, and then turned her back on the entire country. She'd sold her work, all her chances, for a job in St. Louis. And here again she'd ridden history at a velocity that seemed miraculous to the unthinking. And here again velocity undid her. She loved it for its own sake, obsessively, with a modern desperation that tied her progress to the ghetto, which was also modern and obsessed with speed. The sudden trends, the sudden deaths. And where she'd had perhaps the only opportunity ever to arise in latter-day St. Louis to bring a small revolution to its black residents, she'd subverted subversion instead. ...
He could see now. America was the seat of her atavism. She was just like her mother. All the subtle countertrends that had nagged him from the first days in Srinagar - her lack of direction, her indifference to suffering, the patness of her utterances - had culminated in St. Louis. Senseless St. Louis.
Given the length and breadth of 'The Twenty-Seventh City', this explanation is less than satisfying, not only because its far from comprehensive but because it keeps Jammu herself at a distance, no easier to grasp than a Hindu deity. But Jammu is not a deity. She is a tired, only moderately good-looking woman, beginning to show the toll of burning her candle at both ends (the harnessed efforts of seducing the town leaders while implementing a 'Chinatown'-like real-estate scheme demand superhuman stamina) [Her stamina may be superhuman, or almost] And perhaps her inability to lose is godlike, too. Losing is unacceptable for divinities. But Jammu does lose. Thanks to bad weather, and to a suspicion that redrawing political maps won't make a difference - Franzen glosses the 'Indian' nature of this resigned skepticism beautifully - the electorate doesn't bother to vote.
Jammu shares the heroine's role with Barbara Probst. Barbara is hardly more understandable. Is she bored? Does she really believe that she has wasted her life? Franzen builds up the circumstances of this case but doesn't connect Barbara to them. In fact Barbara is deeply unconnected. One telling aspect is the Catholicism of her upbringing. Religion has become so unimportant that Franzen doesn't bother to assure us that her observance has lapsed. We don't know what she or Martin do on Sunday mornings. It's not important. But what is important to Barbara? It's hard to believe that a woman of such intelligence would lead such a blandly sensuous life, drifting from sensation to sensation. But Barbara doesn't seem to care about anything, not very much. This is almost as unbelievable, as I say, as Jammu's fabulousness.
In no way does Franzen's skill as a novelist - and the humanist sensibility that such skill requires - show more marked development, in the novel that follows, than in the sympathetic, interior portrayal of women. A close second, though, would be his handling of climax. The climax, or dénouement, of 'The Twenty-Seventh City' threatens to run away with the book; had Franzen made it longer, I think it would have been more exciting. There are somewhat too many threads, and too many suspenseful angles. And this is the crucial failure of 'The Twenty-Seventh City' - why, I suspect, Franzen felt (as he has reported) that he could not write another 'plot-driven' book. By offering some of the thriller's orgasmic satisfactions of buildup and discharge, Franzen risks making a prostitute out of his fiction. It raises a doubt: was the point of this novel to keep me turning the pages? He raises the question, what's the point of this novel. Was it to keep me turning the pages? It's a question that can be raised, but never answered, and one sign of the skill of 'The Corrections' is his managing to avoid it altogether.
With 'Strong Motion,' Mr Franzen's prose generates as much excitement as his plot; even 'The Corrections' is not more powerfully written. There are fewer narrative strands, but they are stronger and suppler than those of 'The Twenty-Seventh City.' The background is a detective story that exposes corporate malfeasance even as the effects of that malfeasance wreak havoc, in the form of earthquakes, no less, on the northern suburbs of Boston. The foreground is a romance bringing together the Harvard seismologist who does the detective work and the angry young grandson of the wicked corporation's mastermind. If that sounds like the pitch for a movie, let's hope that if 'Strong Motion' is ever filmed the producers stick to the book: Renée Seitchek, the seismologist, is thirty years old and not beautiful. This is an important point, because the grandson, Louis Holland, twenty-three but balding, screws up big time when a babe from his past shows up at his door at an inopportune moment. Louis is something of a mastiff, stubborn and built low to the ground. Reading the novel for a second time, I had to struggle to see him as more than a case of testosterone poisoning. But when the romance heated up I saw that Renée was every bit as discontented as her boyfriend. Renée and Louis are two porcupines who must connect just so. Their sex is great from the start, but the rest of their relationship bristles with daggers. The lovers disarm themselves painstakingly and arrive at a happy ending. Of Mr Franzen's three novels, 'Strong Motion' is the only one with a fully-realized love story.
The lovers in screwball comedies have to put down their armor, too, but their antics are supposed to be funny. Louis and Renée approach each other with the grim determination, albeit rendered in low-key realism, of Tristan and Isolde. Their lives have not been smiling, and, as I say, they distrust just about everything. Louis distrusts the world because his parents (and his older sister, Eileen) have set a bad example. His mother and his sister are singularly inauthentic. They rarely say what they mean, and Louis's insistence on plain speaking irritates them. Louis's father, Bob, is a Marxist Peter Pan who teaches at Northwestern and still behaves as though the calendar read '1969.' From the age of fifteen, Louis has been more or less independent financially, as much out of spite as pride, but he harbors nonetheless a grievance about the way his mother and sister interact about money, a grievance greatly amplified by his mother's unexpected inheritance, at the beginning of the novel, of $22 million. He doesn't want any of this money for himself, but the idea of Eileen's cashing in bugs him to distraction.
Though he'd laughed, it hadn't really surprised him to hear that Eileen had already tried to tap their mother's new resources. Very early in her life Eileen had acquired the ability to beg from Melanie and live with herself afterward. In the years of their common adolescence, Louis would often pass her on the stairs and see her folding up one or more twenties, and then in the dining room he'd find further evidence of a transaction, the maternal purse occupying a new place on the table and its owner visibly composing herself, a message for him in her eyes: The wallet has been put away now, so don't you be asking me, too. Which was interesting, because he never did ask, not even when he had a need more compelling than Eileen's need for another lightweight Benetton item or another concert ticket. He never asked because it somehow always seemed that Eileen had beaten him to it. And this must not have been a matter of timing, since whenever it did occur to him to ask, he always felt he had to hold off for a while because Eileen had asked so recently, and while he held off she would go and ask again and receive again. It was clear that if she really had beaten Louis to their mother's money, she'd done it long ago, once and for all. (p. 61-2)
The women in Louis's family, in short, have made a chump out of Louis, taking advantage of his decency. They have conditioned him to be wary of the world - and, occasionally, spitefully, a little indecent himself.
Renée distrusts the world because she is a woman of fair looks beset by a professional woman's dilemma. She feels that the pursuit of her career has denied her the right to be a complete woman. It's not so much that she wants children as that she wants the mothers in her world to stop smirking and treating her like a case of arrested development. She muses:
They give me these pitying looks, and they actually have the gall to tell me that I can't imagine what a grownup life is like - I can't imagine how busy you are, and how little time to read the newspaper you have - because I don't have children myself. As soon as I have children, I'll understand. And what I want to say is, Let me tell you some of the things you don't know about life and never will. But these women, it's like they've been waiting all their lives for a chance to ignore a person like me, and now that they have their babies they're allowed to. They're allowed to be totally self-absorbed and totally rude to me, because they have children. As soon as you have children, you're allowed to close your mind. (p, 242)
Excluded from every circle of women she encounters, Renée has sprouted anxieties about all sorts of everyday things: what she wears, how she decorates her apartment, the music she listens to. The music she listens to has become a kind of stigmatum, a holy denial. At a certain point, she realized that she was listening to her favorite songs not just because they made her feel good, but because they made her feel young, and then, like a middle-aged man waking up to the folly of a comb-over, she got rid of her record collection, whittling it down to one song on one tape, and when she tells Louis about it, she hasn't listened to the song in sixth months.
Louis and Renée meet on the beach at Ipswich, Massachusetts, near the house that Louis's mother has just inherited (a droll story in itself). Renée and two colleagues have come to the beach in search of 'surface effects' in the wake of a minor quake that Louis, wrapped up in rage at his mother, has just jogged through unawares. A few days later, there's another quake, and Louis calls Renée, to ask her to go to a party at his sister's. She agrees. In the week before the party, Louis sees Renée on television. She's being interviewed not just about the quakes but about the quake worthiness of a decrepit tenement in Chelsea that has recently been acquired by a Rev. Stites, an anti-abortion fundamentalist. The interviewer steers Renée into acknowledging her own pro-choice position, triggering a cascade of hate mail and phone calls. As it happens, Rev. Stites is about to buy the radio station where Louis works, putting him out of a job. By the time Louis and Renée leave Eileen's party, Renée is ready to take things to the next step with her comrade in misery. And thus flowers a romance that would bloom until the last page of the novel, were it not for that girl from Louis's Houston days.
Having lived in Houston myself, I was very impressed by the site-specific references that dot the story of Louis's undergraduate infatuation with Lauren Bowles, markers that make it clear that Mr Franzen knows Houston very well. The Rice professor who lives in the 'poets corner' of University Place 'on Dryden Street, south of Shakespeare, north of Swift.' The miniature railroad in Hermann Park. Radio Station KILT. 'Strong Motion' shows almost as much familiarity with the northern suburbs of Chicago, and as for Boston and its environs, the action can be followed on a map. This is just one of many dimensions of Mr Franzen's encompassing knowledge of the world, a knowledge that grades easily into erudition but that is never displayed gratuitously. The text of 'Strong Motion' often feels like a membrane sheathing some vast, pulsing intelligence. If this intelligence were not so pleasurably deployed, it would be disturbing, possibly even repellent. But every page of 'Strong Motion' contains at least one instance of the Joy of Seeing. It articulates the very cunning handling of the background story. There is never any doubt that the earthquakes have been induced by the illegal pumping of toxic wastes into a deep injection well, but the hard work of proving this, in the teeth of EPA indifference, is all the more exciting for knowing what it will lead to if successful. And there are the earthquakes themselves, which get rather worse as the book goes on. The remarkable thing is that Franzen manages to dispose of the climactic event within about twenty-five pages, a perfectly paced account of local disasters and national news reports. Even more remarkably, he follows this with thirty pages, the book's ending, to patch things up between his lovers.
Behind both the romance and the corporate scheme lies the problem of family. It is easy to place 'Strong Motion' midway in a continuum between 'The Twenty-Seventh City,' in which family problems take a back seat to political ones, and 'The Corrections,' which is all about one family. There are several families in 'Strong Motion,' and they raise the question, more clearly than either of the other books does, 'What do Franzen's families have in common, if anything? Why do they breed so much unhappiness? Misalliance is a big part of it. Two people are attracted to each other and with American optimism get married, only to find later on that they don't really click. They make the best of it, as a rule, but the friction tells on the children, who, excluded from the bedroom, never see what happiness there is between their parents. The marriage of Alfred and Edith Lambert, as we will see in 'The Corrections,' amounts to a gruesome joint solitary confinement by the time the novel opens; from there, the author takes us back all the way to its ill-considered start. 'Strong Motion' abounds in bad marriages. Melanie and Bob, Louis's parents, are like oil and water. Melanie's parents, an Irish lawyer from the back woods of Maine by the name of Jack Kernaghan and a Boston Brahmin, became mortal enemies after their boy's death at the seaside. Jack Kernaghan's second marriage is the most opportunistic marriage possible, designed to take advantage of the privilege against spousal testimony. There is a strong whiff of rough edges between Renée's parents, too. Even at the fringes, there are no happy marriages on view in this novel. Franzen's gift for realizing completely distinct characters forestalls the danger of monotony, but one of Renée's reflections has the weight as well as the ring of an aphorism: 'A family [is] birdlime to the people in it, boredom to the people not.'
The fault lines and tectonic shifts of families grounded in nothing more than natural selection grind through every part of 'Strong Motion.' The first and longest section 'Default Gender,' gets the story going from Louis's point of view, and ends with the bad behavior that Lauren's unexpected appearance seems to require of him as if by hormonal necessity. He regrets what he has done almost immediately, but it is too late, and Renée walks off to her apartment at the other end of Somerville. The book follows her: 'I © Life' tracks Renée's continued investigation of illegal dumping, her ironic pilgrimage to the Rev. Stites's church (which culminates in a conversation of Dostoevskian grandeur), and her visit to an abortion clinic. It ends with a bang. The third and shortest section, 'Argilla Road,' brings Bob to the fore, as he tells Louis old family secrets that explain just about everything. The title of the fourth and final section, 'In the Black,' refers to Bob's someone 60s-ish distinction between living, as almost everyone in America does, environmentally in the red, where convenience is king and costs are deferred, and living in the black, for which Bob's thumbnail is knowing how far Pittsburgh is from Philadelphia because you have traversed the distance on foot. The sections hold together much as the movements of a symphony do, with each point of view setting a distinctive pace. Only the finale steps back to the full vantage of the omniscient observer - as befits a climax built on natural disaster.
To say that it's the writing that makes rereading 'Strong Motion' an appealing prospect is, as such remarks always are, fundamentally meaningless, because writing at this level is not an aspect of the novel but the whole novel itself. Casting about for something to read at bedtime two days after I'd finished reading 'Strong Motion,' I tried an airport thriller that my wife had brought back from a trip, but the writing was so asphyxiating that I couldn't get past the fifth page. Perhaps there's a good story there, but I couldn't read it now, not with Franzen's prose echoing in my head. As examples, I have settled on four extracts, each of which shows a different kind of strong writing. First, there is the tightly coiled, pitch-perfect dialogue. Here, Louis has just learned the size of his mother's inheritance - from Bob, of course; Melanie would never have told him - and the dialogue choreographs the way the news makes him bounce around his mother's new living room:
Louis's eyes narrowed. "All right," he said. "Let's get back to the twenty-two million, then. What are you going to do with it?"
"I have no idea."
"How about a yacht? They make nice gifts."
"This is not at all funny."
"So it's true?"
Melanie shook her head. "It's not true."
"Oh, it's not true. Meaning it's false. Meaning, what, twenty-one point nine? Twenty-two point one?"
"I mean it does not concern you."
"Oh, I see, it doesn't concern me. Let's forget it, then, let's drop it. Hey, people inherit twenty-two million dollars every day. What'd you do at work today? Oh, I inherited twenty-two million dollars, would you pass me the butter?"
"Please stop mentioning that figure."
"Twenty-two million dollars? You want me to stop mentioning twenty-two million dollars? Al right. I'll stop mentioning twenty-two million dollars. Let's call it alpha." He began to pace around the rim of a rug. "Alpha equals twenty-two million dollars, twenty-two million dollars equals alpha, alpha being neither greater than twenty-two million dollars nor less than twenty-two million dollars." He drew up. "How'd your father get so rich?"
"Please, Louis, I asked you to stop mentioning the figure and I meant it. It's very painful to me."
"Yeah, so I see. That's why I suggested we call it alpha, although I'm afraid alpha doesn't quite capture the impact. What a terrible thing, to inherit that much money. You know Dad says he's not even going to quit teaching?"
"Why should he quit teaching?"
"Don't tell me you need his salary when you've got twenty-two, oops."
"I would be grateful if you did not try to tell me what I need and don't need."
"You'd be grateful if I just walked out of here and never mentioned this again."
Melanie's face lit up as if he were a student of hers who'd blurted truth. "Yes, as a matter of fact, that's exactly right. That is what I would most like from you."
Louis's eyes narrowed further. He said: "Twenty-two million dollars, twenty-two million dollars, twenty-two million dollars." He said it faster and faster, until it twisted his tongue, becoming twollers, twollers. 'What a huge amount of money. It means you're rich, rich, rich, rich." (p. 53-5)
The ensuing paragraph demonstrates the economy with which Franzen's narrative passages offset such rich dialogue.
His mother had turned to face the mantel and covered her ears with her palms, applying such strong isometric pressure to her head that her arms trembled. This was as close to fighting as she 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. It had always been this way. Even when he was a boy of three or four and she had tried to smooth his hair or wipe food off his face, he had twisted his head away on his stout, stubborn neck. If he was sick in b ed and she laid a cold hand on is forehead, he had tried to press himself into pillow and mattress with triple gravity, as blindly and determinedly resistant to her touch as the magnet to whose permanent invisible force the relief of rupture or discharge can never come. Now she raised her head, her white fingers flat on her cheeks, her elbows on the mantel, and looked up at her father. From the rear of the house came the sound of television, amplified rumblings and collisions: howling. (p. 55)
And a few paragraphs later, we have an example of the author's exquisite powers of observation and description.
When Louis got mad, as opposed to merely feeling righteous, he stuck his head out and raised his chin and looked down his nose like a sailor or an ugly asking for a fight. He was completely unaware of doing this; the look on his face was dead serious. And as he faced his mother, who after all wasn't likely to shove him or take a free swing, he looked so incongruously belligerent that her expression softened. "Are you going to punch me, Louis?"
He lowered his chin, angrier still to see he was only amusing her. (p. 57)
Then there are the crackling expositions of backstory, which always tell a story that the reader is eager to hear (and always look like great fun to have written).
oward's mother was a screen actress. She'd lived one of those colorful lives engendered by the union of war and money. She had no great acting talent, but as a girl she'd made a medium-sized splash in Beijing's bourgeois cinema, most notably in the title role in Maple-Tree Girl, an otherwise forgettable film containing one immortal sequence in which Maple-Tree Girl is pursued by a rug merchant with immoral aims through the great Wuhan flood of 1931, eleven stupendous minutes of this chaste beauty staggering through ever deeper and dirtier water and more menacing locales, clutching her rent garment to her throat, her round eyes radiating unmodulated terror and anguish for the entire fifteen thousand frames. In the mid-forties, Miss Chun and a director old enough to be her father lived in a fashionable exile in Singapore and ate up the pretty nest egg she'd set aside, making it necessary for her and her three young children to join her relatives in Taipei as soon as the Nationalists were back in the movie business. For a while she was prized by casting directors in need of "the less pretty older sister," and she subsequently spent many lucrative years playing a wicked stepmother on a soap opera called "Hostages of Love." At least once in every installment of "Hostages" the camera caught her baring her teeth and rolling her eyes, to remind viewers of her evil, scheming nature. In real life she was vague and good-natured and selfish, and mainly lived for eating sweets. When Howard came home from Queen Victoria on days when she wasn't filming, he would find her sitting up in bed, chewing in slow motion on some piece of candied fruit, frowning as though the flavor were a message trickling into her head by telegraph., which she had to strain to catch each word of. (p. 230)
The expository narrative, mostly set in the novel's present but occasionally recurring to an earlier episode, combines uncommon economy with amazing, but always utterly relevant, erudition.
The three of them put on hard hats and toured the process structure of the brand-new AB Line, into the maws of which went ethylene and chlorine and out of the anus of which came while prills of polyvinyl chloride. The structure was an orgy of metal forms, twenty cottage-sized modules straddling and abutting and embracing one another tightly, each with its own voice of thermodynamic ecstasy and all with their fat appendages rammed deep into steel-collard orifices; but a rigid orgy, full of power and purpose, never ending. In these plants, chemists transformed the verbs of their imaginations into the nouns of their achievement by adding -er or -or or -r. There were 5,000-gallon double-arm mixers, paddled blenders with carbon-steel shredder blades, a triple-wall main reactor built like Charles Atlas, an 80-ton two-stage chiller, a jacketed continuous turbulizer, a shuddering particulate-transfer screw feeder, nozzle concentrators, triple-effect evaporators, intensifier bars, a 400-cubic-foot-cone dryer, a cylindrical concrete priller, a heat exchanger with stainless tubes and a carbon-steel shell, a 6,250 square-foot vertical condenser, a twin-cone classifier, and a dozen centrifugal compressors. The scary thing was smelling so many smells that reminded you of nothing in the world. They were like alien ideas impinging directly on your consciousness, unmediated by a flavor. This was how it would feel when space invaders came and took control of your brain, some insidious something neither spirit nor flesh filling your sinuses and clouding your eyes. . . (399-400)
For all I know, Franzen could have invented all of this machinery. But it sounds completely plausible. I couldn't find 'prill' or 'priller' in the Random House Dictionary, but 'prill' appears in the OED, with a sense rather like 'pellet.'
Much too long for extraction here is a wonderful passage on the transcendence of human experience, as critically viewed by a proponent of artificial intelligence, in Chapter 10. "It's absolutely wiser to laugh at the person who tells you that without your subjective experience of cinnamon you would have hanged yourself at the age of thirteen, and that without your subjective experience of the smell of melting now your attitude towards your mother or your wife or your daughter would be no more than How can I make her give me what I want?" But this sentence reminded me of an earlier description of Louis's growing interest in Renée: the thought that she might not like him back "maddened him and he began to dislike her, because he wanted to use her body and was fully prepared to like her, if this was what using it required."
Louis Holland, especially in the first part of 'Strong Motion,' can be a terrific pain in the neck. There's a nice guy in there somewhere, but he's asleep in briar forest. Drawn to fights, discomfited by accommodation, he can barely manage everyday politeness. Keeping the social machinery greased and turning is a job that triggers something more than mere adolescent rebelliousness in Louis. Whenever I felt the urge to give Louis a good smack, I had to restrain myself for the simple reason that this would suit Louis down to the ground. Renée Seitchek is the likeable member of this pair; she is also the more beautifully, if I may say so, drawn. If she were the hero of this book, instead of part of its love story, the novel might well have been called 'The Implications,' because almost everything has implications of worthlessness for Renée, everything except geology and sex. A thousand years after college students forgot the word 'existential,' Jonathan Franzen has given us a full-length portrait of a fraught American existentialist. When everything implies something else - something bad, more likely than not - then it becomes hard to get ahead with one's life. I can't help hoping that in his next book Mr Franzen will show whether and how love eases the tension of Renée's implications. For only someone with Renée's scruples can navigate the rocks that await the unwary. That, in any case, is one of the lessons of 'The Corrections.' (August 2002)
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press