Having upended St. Louis in his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen does his best to rattle the complacency of Boston in his second, employing a series of earthquakes for the job (the quakes are suspicious, since a fiendish chemical company has been pumping toxic waste deep underground). To thicken the angst and the plot, Franzen has stirred in a fanatical anti-abortion crusade led by a fundamentalist minister. And, adding insult to apocalypse, he lets the Red Sox fold again.
There are actually two discernable novels uneasily cohabiting amid the lofty ambitions and agile prose of Strong Motion. One is wry, meticulously realistic, and good. The other is earnest, melodramatic, and puerile. One deserves a slice of a literary prize. The other deserves Hollywood, and may well get it.
Franzen wins the coveted John Updike Award for Distinguished Metaphor and All-Around Alertness when he is documenting the ordinary lives, travails, and relatives of two disaffected young adults, Louis Holland, a 23-year-old odd- job man at a threadbare radio station, and Renée Seitchek, a 30-year-old Harvard scientist who’s looking into the mysterious quakes. While running Louis and Renée through an obstacle course of true love, Franzen misses nothing and spares no one. He’s both tough-minded and sympathetic. He delivers their clothes, food, caresses, poses, and insecurity. He lets us see through the couple’s sulking resentment and rudeness, connecting it not only with a half-submerged idealism but with the comfortable suburban Chicago backgrounds that they’ve repudiated but not quite outgrown. His psychological acuity is at its sharpest in two scenes: Louis being pushed by his conscience toward Renée and pulled by his crotch toward a beautiful, ingenuous, and stupid younger woman; and Renee surveying male advantages and female stereotypes and wondering how to smuggle her own life past them.
Franzen is no less penetrating about the other characters, notably Louis’ father, a hippie emeritus who teaches history at Northwestern, and his mother, who gets the pot boiling when she inherits $22 million worth of nefarious chemical-company stock, and overnight turns chic and grasping. His older sister, Eileen, lives in a Cambridge high-rise that ”loomed above the ambient brick and clapboard like a thing that had failed to erode,” and, beneath a cool, hip urban surface, she is beginning to subside into conventional middle-class materialism: The ”middle-aged Eileen suddenly beginning to show through like old wallpaper beneath a coat of new paint.”
Franzen, however, finally succumbs to the American novelist’s most irresistible temptation and mounts a pulpit. Some of the preachiness is good — for instance, a contrived but charged dialogue on sex, greed, freedom, and irresponsiblity between the surprisingly formidable fundamentalist minister and Renée. But there are too many convolutions of rococo liberal guilt here, and the plot — a sort of children’s crusade assisted by well-timed earthquakes — allows the book’s tough-mindedness to be drubbed by implausibility and sentimentality. Franzen can’t restrain himself from lustily hissing his own villains every time they skulk across the page. His subtlety abandons him just when he needs it most; venturing outside his familiar liberal upper-middle-class territory, he finds mainly gargoyles and automatons and sounds not so much socially concerned as petulant. Yet with all its faults, geological and otherwise, Strong Motion does tend to rattle complacency, even its own. B