How To Get Over Your Imperial Guilt, America: A Review of Strong Motion
"The world was ending then, it's ending still, and I'm happy to belong to it again." â€" Jonathan Franzen, 1996

I do not have anything personal against Jonathan Franzen. He seems fundamentally unserious, which is a very good quality for a moralist to have.

I figure that Franzenâ€"or at least his literary self-representationâ€"would be a good person to hang out with, to drink a beer with. We could talk about things we have in common: the grim excellence of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, maybe, or the secret malicious joy of representing bad writing in a story, or whether Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the best book in the Chronicles of Narnia or just one of the best. We would drink beer and discuss these things and enjoy the rich literary veins of uncomfortable silence.

But we're not talking about the excellence of Peanuts; we're talking here about Strong Motion, Franzen's 1992 novel.

The plot of Strong Motion centers on a chemical company. This chemical company needs to dispose of industrial runoff without running into problems with the EPA. The EPA, being spoilsports, are not fans of dumping poisonous wastes into the water, and the chemical company, being misers, are not fans of spending lots of money to dispose of the waste through recommended means. So with the help of a seduction attempt performed on a sexy lab worker with Ideas, the company drills a five-mile-deep injection well and pumps waste down into the mantle of the planet. Like an oil wellâ€"in ironic reverse!

The trouble is the earthquakes. According to a theory put forward by Dr. Renee Seitchek, seismologist and love interest, the earthquakes are being caused by the injection well. Capitalismâ€"short-sighted, wicked capitalismâ€"is wrecking the Earth!

At the same time, the news media glorifies violence and we secretly lust to see disaster footage! Also, abortionists: a mysterious modern anomaly!

So there you have it. Commodification, regret, apocalypse. Typical Don DeLillo stuff. You can't grow up in America todayâ€"or at least you can't grow up being a reader in America todayâ€"without growing through this crust of literature that reminds us that by God, capitalism comes with a price. That the planet is being despoiled and that the government is hypocritical. That images have a terrible power over consciousness. That we are growing less human, day by day. Social novelists in the 1980s did their work well; it's now just an accepted fact among our fiction-reading club that our planet and our souls are slowly and unavoidably being killed. We know, novelists. We know!

American fictionâ€"of the DeLillo schoolâ€"is about imperial guilt. It is about unredeemable sins and about our responses to them.

American fictionâ€"of the Franzen school, wherever it's formingâ€"is about accepting imperial guilt and moving on with our lives. It is sort of a twelve-step program.

American fiction of the Franzen school is about finding really, really mild redemption for our unredeemable sins, redemption that does not actually do anything to reverse or resolve these sins. As the opening quote from Why Bother? says: the apocalypse is no longer news; it's the way of life. So now it's time to find that human thing again, buried beneath all the rubble.

Finding humans beneath rubble is, in fact, straight-up the plot of Strong Motion, which ends with the main character finding a dead body by the side of the road. It's a man killed by the last great earthquake. The main character is somehow distantly responsible for this earthquake is what the book tells me. All America is responsible for the earthquake, is what the book tells me!

This plot is pretty much the usual.

But the other plot has its moments and its characters. The other plot is less coherent but much more fun. It has Renee Seitchek, a very, very depressed person who now listens to exactly one song on one tape, the remnant of an entire adolescence spent living inside bad punk albums. It has Bob Holland, an aging Marxist professor who's slowly converting his backyard into a pre-Columbian paradise of wild growth and growing secret ecosystems, along with giant spikes to stop neighborly lawnmowers. It has fun-loving pro-life zealots and chain-smoking radio executives. It has a completely careless college girl who gives the book one of its better speeches about the narcotic power of moral striving.

Those moments and characters are what matter in Strong Motion. They drag the book away from its vestigial smelters and its supermarket rants and its lovingly detailed urban blight. They dwell within Strong Motion like the raccoon outside of Renee Seitchek's windows: flashing its face for a moment, vanishing into the gutter, disappearing completely in the face of larger events to come.

That's one of the solutions to American imperial guilt: transcend it. Retreat into experience.

Which is certainly the solution to the structural problems with Strong Motion. It's hard to pay attention to the fact that Louis Holland's motivation doesn't make any sense when you're following along with the fine details of a night of drinking and grinding at Renee's. And it's hard to pay attention to apocalypse if, say, your plot depends on whether or not Louis and Renee get together rather than on how to stop this chemical company from pumping toxic waste underground, on how to care for the victims that are not also your girlfriends.

Structurally and explicitly, this is the message from Strong Motion: the solution to American imperial guilt is to distract yourself from it. You're guilty, congratulations; now find something else to do with your life.

And maybe that's wise. But I'm worried, because it's an extremely convenient kind of wisdom.

"Because, see, it seems so uncool to give something up. Other people don't, so why should you? Or the people who do are disgusting and seem like they've only given it up because they didn't like it to begin with. It seems like all the really interesting and attractive people in the world just go on doing whatever they want. It seems like this is how the world works... And that's why you go all around today and it seems like there aren't really two ways, there's only one way. Maybe sometimes you still get little glimmering feelings of what it's like to be a good person. But the big glowing thing just doesn't seem like a real option." â€" Strong Motion

Posted by future on Mon, 17 Mar 2008 03:09:15 -0400 -- permanent link


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