As part of Franzen in February, I asked some of my favourite readers to pick up their very first Franzen novel, and a few of them actually did. I guess I’m what you’d call an online influencer (come at me, brands.) Today, #CanLit poster boy Jason Purcell reviews Strong Motion. For more of Jason’s brilliance, check out his YouTube channel, his Instagram, his blog, or just stalk him on Twitter.
I wonder now if I went into Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) planning to dislike it, perhaps as a way of proving my politics, whatever those may be, however they may speak to Franzen’s. I admit that I approached this, my first Franzen, with suspicion, with my eye already mid-eye roll, pencil poised to write some critique in the margin. I certainly did do these things. But then I stopped altogether. As of this moment, I’ve only made it 116 pages in, and so I don’t have a lot to report. The protagonist is a white male who is a social outcast of one kind or another. There are a number of damaged women who surround him who exist to be critiqued by our protagonist. There are earthquakes. There are several earthquakes.
I may never know why there are so many earthquakes, because as I’ve said already, I’ve given it up. This brings to mind a 2010 piece by Julia Keller called “When to give up on a book” which reads: “Like a spouse who has already made a secret appointment with a divorce attorney, … I found myself smitten with guilt. ‘It’s not you,’ I murmured to the novel. ‘It’s me. Really.’” But in this case, is it me? It appears that this novel received mostly praise, and the criticism is largely concerned with Franzen’s ambition, that he has written too much here. And, when I think of this novel, and of abandoning it, I don’t feel “smitten with guilt,” though I do feel each individually—glad not to be reading it and guilty for not having finished.
But there were too many moments in this novel that caused visceral discomfort that I feel I can’t even fight through it. Selecting the most revolting is a real Sophie’s Choice.
“You’re fucked up,” he said without looking at her. “You’re really fucked up. And you’ve got the wrong idea about me.”
“But you like me, right?” she asked him from the doorway.
“Yeah, sure. I like you. I like you.” (75)
I was warned that this novel is not Franzen’s most mature, and I’m willing to believe that his later work really does deserve the praise they have received, and I’m even willing to believe that Franzen might be worthy of his title as one of the greatest living American novelists. But the first hundred pages of Strong Motion are littered with clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl moments rendered in lackluster prose that I don’t feel willing to sacrifice my time trying to understand. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it. As Keller notes at the end of her piece, “I did finally finish Wolf Hall. Part of that was a sense of professional responsibility; the novel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and is simply too highly regarded by too many smart people to be ignored.” Franzen, too, is highly regarded by many smart people, someone whose work I’d love to read and understand. But Strong Motion is to be shelved until someone is able to convince me it is worth the struggle, that it is a great novel that deserves my attention. There is so much to read. So much so that to spend time reading something as uninteresting as this seems the saddest thing to do.
Okay, so this didn’t work out so well. I’ve advised Jason to give himself time to recover, perhaps indulge in some self-care, and then try again with The Corrections. Stay tuned for another edition of My First Franzen in the next couple of days.