The Crisis of the Social Realist Novel in the United States: The "Tragic" Case of Jonathan Franzen's Strong Motion


  • Simona Porro Università degli Studi di Bergamo



Jonathan Franzen, Socialist Realist Novel


Jonathan Franzen’s production is characterized by a body of non-fiction writing that has greatly contributed to the heated debate about the declining relevance of the novel in contemporary America. In his controversial essay “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” published in 1996, Franzen acknowledged the diminished cultural role of highbrow novels in a nation dominated by consumerism, mass culture, new media and instant entertainment. In this light, the author made a public call for ambitious fiction to rise to the challenges of the late twentieth century. Interestingly, Franzen equated such novels with the “tragic” mode: by “tragic” he meant “just about any fiction that raises more questions than it answers: anything in which conflict doesn’t resolve into cant.” Much of Franzen’s fiction participates in the same discourse that is developed in his essayistic production, especially his early work, which is infused with large-scale social and cultural critique. His second novel in particular, Strong Motion, having been completed in the early 1990s, at the height of his frustration with the coeval American novel, appears of particular interest. Strong Motion exposes what Franzen aptly calls “the dirt” behind the American “dream of Chosenness.” The novel decries the failure of a nation that, far from being a shining “City upon a Hill,” has fallen prey to an unstoppable process of cultural and moral entropy that coincided with the inception of a “predatory” capitalistic system of power, which has influenced gender and social roles, the notion of progress, and the general attitude to the natural world, with the environment in particular being brutally degraded to mere infrastructure. In so doing, the book stands as an example of the author’s “tragic” mode.


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