Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

Strong Motion

By Jonathan Franzen

4th Estate 2003

Jonathan Franzen writes about the kind of Americans you rarely see on TV: difficult, complex people crippled by insecurity and doubt. He puts these characters in dull urban landscapes and sends them to work at unglamorous jobs. He questions national sacred cows, like capitalism, the will to power, and the family. His excruciating families either ignore or persecute each other: Jerry and I dont discuss things, we just blame each other afterward. Within all this grit and gloom, Franzen reveals microscopic flashes of faith in humanity. His criticism of social and political ills is often expressed with grim, subtle humour: I guess they dont want to offend retarded people by saying its bad to have a retarded president.

Strong Motion is full of compassion and respect for those who choose to stand outside the American Dream of unlimited consumerism: He thought that driving a car was an act of personal immorality. However, the general tone is one of profound cynicism: The decent working people in this country turn out to have the same consumer greed as the bourgeoisie, and every single person is dreaming of having the same luxuries that Donald Trump has, and would poison the world and kill his neighbours to get them.

Even the romance here is entwined with idealogy, and the personal is totally political. Our prickly protagonist falls in love with an equally defensive seismologist. He doesnt ask her if the earth moved for her during sex; levity isnt his strong point. Neither of them can accept the gender roles or lifestyles promoted by mainstream media, and their unpredictable relationship is full of contradictions. Just like a real one.

Strong Motion was originally published in 1992, and I suspect this edition was rushed out to cash in on the success of Franzens more recent book, The Corrections. That best-seller is an exceptional novel, and this earlier work doesnt quite hit the same standards. But its still a terrific read, especially in its second half, when all the (sometimes excessive) details fit together, and the earth does indeed move.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.


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