Franzen in February in May

Every February, Laura Frey takes a pause from her regular book blogging to “love, hate, and love-to-hate that great American novelist”, Jonathan Franzen. The event, aptly titled Franzen in February, is hosted at Reading in Bed and attracts a delightful array of guest writers.

I promised to supply an article this year, but, as I am wont to do, I didn’t write one.

Why? I’m enigmatic AF, that’s why.

Instead, I reserved the right to submit my piece 84 days late. As everyone knows, the number 84 resonates with creative expression, making today the perfect day to write about Franzen’s not-exactly-awesome sophomore novel, Strong Motion.

And yes, I totally knew about the 84 thing before I wrote this, and no, I didn’t just Google “significance of the number 84” mere seconds before writing that last paragraph. Who would do that.

So without further adieu, I present Franzen in February in May. Now get off my back, Laura. Gawd.

“Instead of bridges, the words form high unscalable walls. One is continually offended by the form, so that one can never penetrate to the content. The words never condense into language. They are a shriek and nothing more.”

– Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka

It seems altogether unfair to judge an author’s earlier work after he’s become an award-winning “voice of a generation.” There is a world of difference between the Jonathan Franzen who wrote the critically-acclaimed, but ultimately unread Strong Motion in 1992 and the Jonathan Franzen who wrote the National Book Award winning, Oprah scandalized The Corrections in 2001. The younger was overly concerned with the novelist’s role in media and culture, while the elder had rejected the idea of the great social novel–one focused on issues and ideas–in favor of characters, emotions, and internal drama.

That being said, it seems incontrovertibly fair to knock self-aggrandizing egotists like Franzen down a peg or two (if a humble blog like this can even do such a thing). And so, here goes.

In Strong Motion, Franzen’s second novel, young curmudgeon Louis Holland returns to an earthquake-rocked Boston to settle a controversial $20 million inheritance settlement after his grandmother is killed during a tremor. After several hundred pages of angst-ridden digressions, Louis finally meets Renee, a former punk rocker turned super cool seismologist. Renee’s discovery about the origin of the earthquakes “complicates everything.”

Except nothing happens. Almost nothing at all. Strong Motion has a lot to say–about big business, abortion, the environment, consumerism, sex, ivy league intellectualism–but little of it is relevant to this little thing Franzen hadn’t learned to love by 1992: plot. The novel is very much a show piece for Franzen’s big brain, at the expense of almost everything that’s important to a novel.

In terms of characters, we’re treated to a veritable who’s who of “who gives a fuck.” There’s Louis’ pothead father, his narcissistic mother, his birdbrained sister, etc. They are, to a man, made of cardboard. Their dialogue is aimlessly meandering. Everyone says with 100 words what they could have said with 10.

Franzen writes these cartoons entertainingly enough, but you won’t care what happens to them. Had any one of them been sucked underground–at any point–I wouldn’t have cared. Louis, included. Much of the time, I was wishing for it.

What’s frustrating is that every so often Franzen will launch into a beautifully constructed, insightful passage, the kind we have come to expect from the man Chuck Klosterman called “the most important fiction writer in America.” These moments of brilliance feel like an oasis amidst a sprawling, hopeless desert. You stop to soak them in before plodding on, knowing you’ll succumb to the emptiness eventually.

The hallmark of Franzen’s later novels, that borderline depressive social realism, comes across as insipid and overbearing in Strong Motion. Everyone is dithering between bitterness and outright unhappiness, and like a sad song with nothing to say, Franzen doesn’t make a point of it.

Some writers miraculously emerge fully formed, while others have to learn and change and grow. I finished Strong Motion with a strange, newfound respect for Franzen, because he grinded his way to stardom. He wasn’t an overnight success. There were 13 long years between his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, and The Corrections, his breakout. Franzen could easily have spent the rest of his career churning out overwrought, under-emotional, ineffective novels like Strong Motion, but he didn’t. He re-invented himself, to great success.

Early Franzen was sadness for sadness’ sake. Later, he used it as a stepping stone toward insight and understanding.

It’s amazing what a little empathy can do.

More Franzen in May February

8 thoughts on “Franzen in February in May

  1. First of all, I don’t think I even reminded you about Franzen in Feb, because I’ve learned my lesson!

    It’s hilarious how much everyone hates this book. I definitely have to read it. Well, literally, it’s next in my chronological read through… ughhhh… it’s not long is it??

    Imagine if Franzen had been an overnight success, had written The Corrections at 25. How much more we’d hate him. Or would we? Then he’d basically be Jonathan Safran Foer… and I wasn’t kidding when I said next year I might dedicate February to him. Here I Am is sitting in my #1 spot for 2017 so far, still. Plus, Franzen never wrote me back, rude.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL you definitely didn’t pester me about this. At all. 110% sarcasm at play here.

      Foer in February would be AWESOME. I’d be down, for sure. Here I Am was so great. I already own and plan to read Everything is Illuminated. Would love to read his vegetarian book, actually. So yeah, I’m on board.

      Strong Motion is like 500 pages. Pretty gentle read, though. You can breeze through it if you’re dedicated.

      The thing that’s fascinating (and infuriating?) about Franzen is that he SHOULD have been humbled by the extraordinary lack of commercial success with his first two books. But he got the critical love he wanted, so he seems fine with them. I actually read an interview with him that said that Strong Motion is better than people give it credit for (paraphrasing). Agree to disagree.


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