Strong Motion, Johnathan Franzen

Journal: 55


Strong Motion Franzen

‘Strong Motion’ is a term associated with earthquakes. Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992), ostensibly an ecological thriller about artificially induced earthquakes, is really a literary work about a relationship, between Louis, 21, unemployed, and Reneé, 29, a post-grad seismologist at Harvard. I don’t know Franzen, I don’t know his place in US or world literature, but I recognise his name and was was willing to give up the 21 plus hours this book – read well by Scott Aille – took: a night through northern Victoria, a day across South Australia, Renmark, Burra, Port Augusta, Ceduna, another night, out across the Nullarbor, and with the morning, on into Western Australia.

Franzen (b. 1959) is a literary novelist, columnist and educator. A quote by one of his students: “He read our stories so closely that he often started class with a rundown of words that were not used quite correctly in stories from that week’s workshop” is amusing as I noted that Franzen had someone waiting for a printer to “divulge” a printout, as if printers knew what they were printing, when he should have used the more prosaic “disgorge”.

My mind wanders. The 1990s were a decade when ecology was the concern and not global warming. In the 1990s in my circle (me, Milly, Lou) it was de rigeur to read Ben Elton who had become famous with a movie about rockets in the Australian desert (Stark) – and yes, I saw every episode of The Young Ones and most of Blackadder, I just didn’t associate them with Elton the novelist. Elton lived for a while in Fremantle and was treated as WA’s most prominent public intellectual, a role now granted to a chancer from the upper classes who lived for years mining mum and dad investors on the stock exchange until one of his gambles paid off spectacularly well and now he is a Boyer lecturer (I cringe for ‘our’ ABC).

My mind wanders to Elton because halfway through Strong Motions the most likeable  protagonist is shot. One of Elton’s books has a protagonist in a wheel chair who just as you are getting fully involved with him is run down and killed and the book goes on without him. I still remember the shock, though nothing else except that the book is set in London.

The ecological thriller part of the book concerns a Boston-based petrochemical and weapons company, Sweeting-Aldren. I immediately think of Dow, indelibly associated with the Vietnam War and napalm (but not as it happens, Boston-based). Louis’ grandfather had been a S-A exec. and on re-marrying had invested his $20 mil fortune in S-A shares which on his death had gone to his new wife. At the beginning of the book Louis goes to visit his step-grandmother only to find she has fallen off her bar stool in a localized earthquake and died. The shares then go to Louis’ mother who shares her good fortune with his sister but not with Louis or with his father, a history professor.

Reneé meanwhile comes to believe that the localized earthquakes being felt in the Boston suburb of Peabody are being caused by S-A pumping toxic waste into a disused very deep (6 miles) well. Louis and Reneé meet and begin to sleep together. I don’t mean to go on with a full account of the plot. Reneé has self-image problems. Reneé says she does not intend to mother Louis, but does. Louis has family problems. Louis has a girl in Texas who has plenty of problems of her own. Louis tells Reneé he loves her. Louis goes off with the other girl. Reneé has an abortion. There’s a whole other sub-plot going on with an anti-abortion Southern Baptist church. The earthquake/villainous chemical company thing comes to a head.

It is all very well done. Louis is the principal protagonist, but Franzen is omniscient and quite happy to look at a given scene from Reneé’s POV and occasionally from someone else’s. No, I don’t think he is as convincing giving Reneé’s POV, especially when she speaks passionately as a women’s libber (or a woman during sex).

I get the impression reading up on Franzen that, despite his appearance on the cover of Time as the ‘Great American Novelist’ (in 2010), he has never really made the transition from really good to ‘great’, and that like many other ‘really good’ novelists before him, in a decade or two he will be forgotten.

Did I like it, Melanie? Yes I did. Though for once I wasn’t really keen on the two protagonists getting/staying together and thought they could have done better with other people.

Now, how am I doing in this time of Covid? For once the rules didn’t change as I was crossing the border. My electronic passes into SA and WA worked fine. To meet SA’s rule about being tested every 7 days, I did a second test in WA before I left and that carried me over, though I saw a sign saying that I could get tested at the border if necessary. I got in to Perth yesterday (Friday) morning and did a test when I finished unloading to meet WA’s 48 hour rule. No result yet. There is talk of WA and SA having the same testing regimen, but probably not in my lifetime.

More importantly, Milly says I can see her once I have my test result. But I still have to wear a mask. Seeing Milly, though still not Gee and the grandkids, probably makes waiting 14 days till I’m clear bearable, but as it happens I have the makings of another load (to Leongatha again) and so should be on my way by Thursday.


Johnathan Franzen, Strong Motion, first pub. 1992. Brilliance Audio, 2013, read by Scott Aiello

Recent audiobooks 

Aaron Elkins (M, USA), Deceptive Clarity (1987) – Crime
Kendra Elliot (F, USA), Spiraled (2015) – Crime
Jasper Fforde (M, Eng), Shades of Grey (2009) – SF
Robert Wilson (M, Eng), Capital Punishment (2013) – Crime
Michael Connelly (M, USA), Bloodwork (1998) – Crime
Loren D Estleman (F, USA), Ragtime Cowboys (2014) – Crime/Hist.Fic.
Annie Ernaux (F, Fra), I Remain in Darkness (1999) – Memoir
Robert Pobi (M, USA), American Woman (2014) – Crime
Patti Henry (F, USA), And Then I Found You (2013) – Romance
Fannie Flagg (F, USA), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987/2000) Abridged to 2 hours. I wouldn’t have read it if I’d noticed, but it’s read by the author
Gigi Pandian (F, USA), Pirate Vishnu (2013) – Crime
Peyton Marshall (F, USA), Good House (2014) – SF
Johnathan Franzen (M, USA), Strong Motion (1992)

Currently reading

Thea Astley (F, Aust/Qld), Collected Stories
Thea Astley (F, Aust/Qld), Drylands
Paul Magrs (M, Eng), Exchange




21 thoughts on “Strong Motion, Johnathan Franzen

  1. I’ve read something by Franzen, but I can’t even remember what it was which makes it only ok rather than great.
    For my money the great US writers are Wharton, Hemingway, DeLillo, Doctorow, Roth, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Toni Morrison and Bellow. I know, I know, mostly men. Let me know if there is a *great* female US writer that I should have read instead. Maybe it’s just what I’ve read, because it’s bestsellers that tend to be promoted here, but I find a lot of US novels are a bit vanilla. (Jodi Piccoult &c.) I could do something to redress this, but hey, I’m busy redressing my ignorance of Women in Translation, and Lit from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Asia!


    • Well first of all Lisa, I’m not going to tell you to read more, that would be ridiculous. Anyway I know very little about US Lit, I certainly haven’t read all the writers in your list of greats. If I were to add any it would be William Gibson, William Burroughs, Kerouac, and Acker. And in a different direction Jack London and Willa Cather (to whom I was introduced just this year). If you ever have a moment to spare ask Melanie (GTL) for some older Black women writers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is an area that I’m interested in, and although I dislike — correction *loathe* — categorising people by colour or race or identity in general, I’ve set up a shelf at Goodreads to guide my choices there. I’ve read Alice Walker and Nora Neale Thurston and I’ve got a few more on the TBR. One contemporary book by an African American author that interests me at the moment was featured at the MWF, it’s called The Vanishing Half and it’s about two sisters, one of whom ‘passes’ as White, and the other doesn’t and how those decisions have ramifications into the next generation. It’s made me realise, I’m looking for the Australian novel by an Indigenous writer about the way Indigenous people sometimes chose to do this officially if they agreed to renounce their Aboriginality altogether. The pain that must have caused both sides of a family bureaucratically estranged like this is a story that needs to be told, because the MWF presenter made no mention of it, and you’d think she would have if she’d known about it.


      • Thurston I must read. I saw something recently, probably on another blog, about Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen. ‘Passing’ was a very fraught issue for Indigenous Australians because if they accepted citizenship it became illegal for them to mix with their non-passing relatives.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, the author to which you are both referring is Zora Neale Hurston, who most famously wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, though she was also famous as an anthropologist of the Gulf of Mexico coast and Caribbean. I’d also recommend Alice Walker, Nella Larson, Octavia Butler, Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry, and Anne Moody.


  2. For a while there, Franzen was very noisy. There was a brouhaha over his book (The Corrections) being selected for the Oprah book club (she wanted it, he didn’t…or something like that), and then he got other authors cranky by making some remarks about their presence on Twitter/ social media. I didn’t pay much attention because I thought he was being a nitwit (and deliberately provocative). BUT I did enjoy The Corrections. And Freedom. Which was why I went to hear him speak when he came to Melbourne a few years ago. I’ll admit, it was partly a ‘love to hate’ kind of curiosity but he started talking and was funny and interesting, and I could see why his sense of humour dies when it’s reported as a printed interview (here’s the post I wrote: )


    • I’m not sure that author interviews should affect how I read. Though the reason I don’t listen to them on the radio is that I generally find the questions infuriating. I guess I can see that author talks might be interesting, if you accept that writers should also be performers – I really don’t see the connection. Franzen seems to enjoy his role as a public intellectual. Good for him. But it doesn’t affect whether or not I choose to read him.
      I read that Franzen rejected the Oprah stamp of approval because he was worried it would stop men from reading his book.
      I’ll certainly try another one, they’re probably all available from Audible on which I am building up a considerable TBR.


  3. I read this one back in 2003 according to my blog and really loved it, although I can’t remember a thing about it and my “review” was written before I was a critical reader. Back then I subsisted on a diet of steady American fiction and Franzen was a leading light. I read The Corrections in 2002 and, again, according to my “review” I loved it. I loved it so much I declared it my book of the year. But as Kate rightly points out he said a few critical things and slagged off social media (at a time when it was new and everyone loved it), and so he was no longer the darling of the literary elite. I certainly haven’t read any of his recent novels. Interestingly, following on from Lisa’s comment, Franzen helped shine a light on a long-forgotten American women writer, Paula Fox. I would highly recommend her novels to you… they’re a bit hard to come by but they are excellent.


    • I’ve just read Paula Fox’s wikipedia entry which says her adult books have been out of print since 1992. But what a bio! Abandoned by her mother, brought up by her homeless grandmother until fostered by a reverend. Marlon Brando as a lover. Adopted out her own first child. Grandmother to Courtney Love. She wrote two memoirs, that might be the place to start.
      It seems too I must chase up Corrections (and I must say I agree with Franzen – being selected by Oprah is not a recommendation).


  4. “Did I like it, Melanie? Yes I did.”

    BAAAAhahahahahaha. You’re just a delight. I haven’t read any Franzen, largely because the way he’s described as so pretentious in the media, and so overdone with his writing, there seems to be a gap between how he portrays humans and the messiness that makes humans so intriguing.


  5. I think your assessment of Franzen being good and not quite great is a fair assessment– but this does come from one who hasn’t read any of his works. I have his essay collection, Further Away on my TBR. I like essays. But I find that most people I’ve spoken to about his works either deeply connect with them in a highly elitist way or don’t connect with them at all. It sounds like you’re closer to the latter based on your distractions. 😉

    Oooh. Some great audiobooks you listened to lately! You should listen to all of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe if you can someday. It’s got a lot to unpack. Though you know all the twists now, so it might not be as compelling…

    What did you think of Shades of Gray</em??


    • I’ll give Franzen another try, he’s certainly better than the ordinary genre fiction I listen to so much of. Luckily, I forget books pretty quickly so if I see Fried green Tomatoes UNABRIDGED I’ll certainly pick it up. Why did the author participate in this. Doesn’t she value her own writing?
      Shades of Grey was fun, though I thought Fforde tries too hard sometimes. As I remember, the girl didn’t get the guy, which is always sad.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Some quick research shows that Flagg’s abridged version is offered exclusively through Audible. I cannot find it anywhere else. Perhaps this was a cash grab? I mean, it’s been YEARS since this book was published. It actually took me quite a while to even find the abridged version!


  6. What a lot of uncertainty you face with all your testing/border requirements. It must require a lot of patience and amiability. Even though I don’t actually consider myself a Franzen fan, I’ve read quite a bit of his work, but not this one. One thing that interests me about him is how often people who haven’t read him have an opinion (and sometimes a very strong one) about him and the value of his work. More so than with other authors, it seems. I remember how startling The Corrections seemed when it was new, how uncommon it was, at the time, to have so many unlikeable characters between two covers! That Fannie Flagg story has been a longtime favourite of mine–the film too–but I’ve never heard the author’s reading of it. Too bad it was abridged.


    • Any amiability with which I might have once been credited is being fast worn out by this constant alternation of solitary work and enforced iso. Testing I can handle.
      From what I’ve read, if people have strong opinions about Franzen it’s because he puts himself out there as a commentator – a public intellectual, though they seem to have gone back out of fashion. My tech backwardness extends to me being unable to play audiobooks on my phone through my truck radio. USB to USB doesn’t work and Bluetooth seems to require reconnecting every time I stop. This prevents me from following up recommendations, despite most books being available for downloading from either Audible or public libraries. Eventually I will get to The Corrections, hopefully before I have forgotten Strong Motion.


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