Franzen's dazzling follow-up to The Twenty-Seventh City is about earthquakes, pollution, love, and abortion rights.
Louis Holland arrives in Boston in a spring of ecological upheaval (a rash of earthquakes on the North Shore) and odd luck: the first one kills his grandmother. Louis tries to maintain his independence, but falls in love with a Harvard seismologist whose discoveries about the earthquakes' cause complicate everything.
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:1959
Place of Birth:Western Springs, Illinois
Education:B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin
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By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1992 Jonathan Franzen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSometimes when people asked Eileen Holland if she had any brothers or sisters, she had to think for a moment.
In grade school she and her friends had played foursquare during recess, and when fights broke out in far corners of the playground, it usually turned out that the person whose face was being smashed into the blacktop was her younger brother, Louis. She and her friends would continue to bounce their ball from square to square. They were skipping rope the day Louis fought a boy on the top tier of the old tetanus-infested jungle gym and damaged a different part of himself on each of the pipes he hit during his fall, breaking off his front teeth on level three, bruising his ribs on level two, getting a concussion by impact and whiplash on level one, and stunning his diaphragm on the asphalt. Eileen's friends ran to look at the possibly dead boy. She was left holding the jump rope and feeling as if she'd fallen and no one would help her.
Eileen was a faithful and pretty image of her mother, with astonished dark eyes and pencil-thin eyebrows, a high forehead and plump cheeks and straight dark hair. She had the limbs of a willow tree and sometimes she even swayed like one, with her eyes closed, when she was so happy to be among her friends that she forgot they were there.
Louis, like his father, was less ornamental. From the age of ten onward he wore aviator-style glasses whose metal frames vaguely matched his hair, which was curly and the color of old brass screws, and was thinning by the time he finished high school. His father had also donated a barrel chest to his genetics. In junior high and high school new friends of Eileen's expected to be told, "No, no relation," when they asked her if Louis Holland was her brother. To Eileen these questions were like vaccination shots. The soothing alcohol swab that followed was her friends' avowal that her brother was not like her at all.
"Yeah," she'd agree, "we're real different."
The young Hollands grew up in Evanston, Illinois, in the shadow of Northwestern University, which employed their father as a history professor. Once in a while, in the afternoon, Eileen caught sight of Louis in a booth at McDonald's surrounded by the misfits he hung out with, their snide menu selections, their cigarettes and pasty faces and military clothing. The negativity emanating from his booth made her feel like she couldn't wedge herself tightly enough between the elbows of her peers. She was, she told herself, very different from Louis. But she was never entirely safe from him. Even in the middle of a jammed and laughing back seat she would glance out a window just in time to see her brother striding along the trashy shoulder of some six-lane suburban thoroughfare, his white shirt gray with sweat, his glasses white with road glare. It always seemed that he was there for her alone to see, an apparition from that parallel private world which she herself had stopped living in when she started having friends but which Louis still obviously inhabited: the world where you were by yourself.
One day in the summer before she started college she suddenly needed to use the family car to see her boyfriend Judd, who lived farther up the Lake Michigan shore in Lake Forest. When Louis pointed out that he'd reserved the car a week earlier, she became furious with him, the way a person gets with an inanimate object that she keeps dropping and mishandling. Finally she made her mother go ask Louis to be selfless, just this once, and let her use the car to visit her boyfriend. When she got to Judd's house she was still so furious that she left the keys in the ignition. The car was promptly stolen.
The Lake Forest police were not particularly nice to her. Her mother was even less nice, on the telephone. And Louis, when she finally got home, came down the stairs in a diver's mask.
"Eileen," her mother said. "Honey. You let the car roll in the lake. Nobody stole the car. I just got a call from Mrs. Wolstetter. You didn't set the emergency brake and you didn't put the car in Park. It rolled across the Wolstetters' lawn into the lake."
"Park, Eileen?" Louis's voice was glassed-in and adenoidal. "The little 'P' on the far left? N for Neutral? P for Park?"
"Louis," their mother said.
"Or is it N for No and P for ... Proceed? D for Desist?"
After this trauma Eileen could no longer retain information about where Louis was or what he was doing. She knew he went to school in Houston and was majoring in something like electrical engineering, but when her mother alluded to him on the telephone, perhaps to mention that he'd changed his major, the room Eileen was calling from suddenly got noisy. She couldn't remember what her mother had just said. She had to ask, "So he's majoring in - what now?" And the room got noisy again! She couldn't remember what her mother was saying even as she said it! And so she never did figure out what Louis was majoring in. When she saw him during Christmas vacation of her second year of graduate school - she was getting her MBA from Harvard - she had to make a wild guess about what he'd been doing since he graduated from Rice: "Mom tells me you're, like, designing microchips?"
He stared at her.
She shook her head no no no no, cancel that. "Tell me what you're doing," she said humbly.
"I'm staring at you in amazement."
Later her mother told her he was working for an FM radio station in Houston.
Eileen lived near Central Square in Cambridge. Her apartment was on the eighth floor of a modern high-rise, a tower of concrete that loomed above the ambient brick and clapboard like a thing that had failed to erode, with shops and a fish restaurant in the basement. She was at home making triple-fudge brownies one night at the end of March when Louis, whom she'd last seen reading a crime novel by the Christmas tree in Evanston, called her up and informed her that he'd moved from Houston to the town of Somerville, Cambridge's budget-class neighbor to the north. She asked what had brought him to Somerville. Microchips, he said.
The person who walked into her apartment a few days later, on a raw late-winter night, was effectively a stranger. At twenty-three, Louis was nearly bald on top, with just enough curls remaining to have captured sleet. His crude black oxfords squeaked on Eileen's linoleum as he walked around her kitchen in a star-shaped path, slowly ricocheting off the counters. His cheeks and nose were red and his glasses were white with fog.
"This is so contemporary," he said, meaning the apartment.
Eileen pressed her elbows to her sides and crossed her wrists on her chest. She had all four stove burners going full blast and a pot simmering on one of them. "Can't keep it warm enough," she said. She was wearing a bulky sweater, fluffy slippers, and a mini-skirt. "I think they turn the furnace off on April first."
Her doorbell rang. She buzzed. "It's Peter," she said.
Soon there was a knock on the door, and she led the boyfriend, Peter Stoorhuys, into the kitchen. Peter's lips were blue with cola, and his skin, which was suntanned, was a leaden gray. He hopped up and down, his hands in the pockets of his twills, while Eileen made introductions that he was evidently too frozen to pay attention to. "Shit," he said, crouching by the stove. "It's cold out there."
There was a tiredness to Peter's face that no suntan could conceal. It was one of those urban faces that had been reconceived so many times that the skin, like a piece of paper smudged and abraded by multiple erasures, had lost its capacity to hold a clear image. Beneath the shadings of his current neo-Angeleno look were visible traces of a yuppie, a punk, a preppie, and a head. Repeated changes of style, like too much combing, had sapped his long blond hair of its resilience. For weather protection he was wearing a houndstooth jacket and a collarless shirt.
"Peter and I were in St. Kitts last month," Eileen explained to Louis. "We still haven't readjusted."
Peter put his white-knuckled hands over two burners on the stove and toasted them, investing this warming process with such importance that there was little Eileen and Louis could do but look at him.
"He looks like a total sillybird in hats," Eileen said.
"I find coats useful in this regard," Louis said, dropping his fiberfill jacket in a corner. He was dressed in his uniform of the last eight years, a white shirt and black jeans.
"You see, that's the thing," Eileen said. "His favorite coat is at the cleaner's. Is that a silly place for it to be?"
It was another five minutes before Peter was thawed enough to allow them all to retire to the living room. Eileen curled up on the sofa, pulling the hem of her sweater down over her bare knees and draping one arm over the back of the sofa just in time to receive the glass of whiskey Peter had poured her. Louis paced around the room, stopping to bring his face myopically close to books and other consumer goods. All of the apartment's furnishings were new and most were combinations of white planes, black cylinders, and cherry-red plastic hardware.
"So, Louis," Peter said, joining Eileen with a whiskey. "Tell us a little about yourself."
Louis was examining the VCR's remote-control box. In the big steamed windows the distant lights of Harvard Square formed halos the color of mother-of-pearl.
"You're in communications," Peter prompted.
"I work for a radio station," Louis said in a very slow and very level voice. "It's called WSNE ...? News with a Twist ...?"
"Sure," Peter said. "I'm familiar with it. Not that I ever listen, but I've dealt with them a couple times. In fact I understand they're in some doo-doo, financially. Not to say that's not the norm for a thousand-watt station. One thing I'd suggest is try to get paid at the end of every week, and whatever you do don't let 'em involve you in any kind of ownership scheme -."
"Oh I won't," Louis said, so earnestly it would have made an observant person wary.
"I mean, go ahead if you want." Peter continued. "But, uh - a word to the wise."
"Peter sells ad space for Boston magazine," Eileen said.
"Among other things." Peter said.
"He's thinking of applying to the business school in the fall. Not that he hardly even needs to. He knows so much stuff, Louis. He knows tons more than I do."
"Do you know how to listen?" Louis said suddenly.
Excerpted from Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen Copyright © 1992 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI Default Gender,
II I [??] Life,
III Argilla Road,
IV In the Black,