Jane Smiley’s gift for making the unthinkable compulsively readable is most apparent in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, a transposition of King Lear to contemporary Iowa. Larry Cook is an ageing farmer who, by dint of hard work, canny management and lack of aversion to profiting from the misfortunes of others, has built up his farm to 1000 acres. ‘The seemingly stationary fields are always flowing toward one farmer and away from another. The lesson my father might say they prove is that a man gets what he deserves by creating his own good luck,’ says the narrator, his daughter Ginny. In Zebulon County there are rifts over land and money between and within families, historic disputes which ‘bum so hot’ that they ‘engulf every other subject’. If land cannot be won back in one lifetime the imperative to reclaim it is the legacy one generation leaves to the next.
No one expects Larry Cook to retire: he had spoken ‘with respect, even envy’ of another farmer who keeled over and died in the hog pen. Nevertheless, at a family barbecue, he suddenly announces his intention to divide the farm among his three daughters. The eldest, Ginny and Rose, accept, but Caroline demurs and is immediately cut out. A Thousand Acres shows how things might have been if Goneril and Regan had had hearts and King Lear had been not only an old fool, but a wicked old fool. Smiley picks up on Cordelia’s hint of prissiness and makes Caroline, the youngest, prettiest, favourite child, a chilly madam ‘proud of her perfect doll-like behaviour’. She is a lawyer who at a moment of crisis says it might be ‘healthy’ to discuss the past some day, ‘but right now, this is a personal call, and I have a meeting.’
The land is transferred and things start to unravel. Early on Ginny wonders: ‘Had I faced all the facts? It seemed like I had, but actually, you never know, just by remembering, how many facts there were to have faced. Your own endurance might be a pleasant fiction allowed you by others who’ve really faced the facts.’ It turns out, of course, that Ginny’s grasp of the facts is quite lamentable. As the revelations pile up and even she is shocked into a reappraisal of her once flat and orderly world, A Thousand Acres goes round for round with King Lear in the matter of awful truths and gruesome events. At one stage there is a discussion about the murder of a local girl by her ex-boyfriend. As they consider why the girl went out to meet her killer so willingly, someone says: ‘I’m sure she thought he couldn’t really want to hurt her.’ Smiley’s point is that no one loves you so much that they would never hurt you.
Barn Blind, one of her early novels, is a kind of teenage horse story gone wrong. The Karlson family are good-looking, clean-cut and clean-living. ‘Who, at this moment, did not want to be them?’ an observer thinks, watching the whole handsome family on horseback trotting round the ring. But Kate Karlson is barn blind: all her feelings about her children depend on their treatment of, and performance on, horses.
In addition, her conversion to Catholicism and her severance of conjugal relations have estranged her from her husband. Kate’s God is horse-mad too: the ‘miracle’ which was responsible for her conversion was the death of a lame mare struck by lightning during a storm. ‘God spoke to me about the proper kindness to animals,’ she explains battily. Her children and husband fumble for closeness with each other and try in their various ways either to distinguish themselves under her equine regime, or to escape from it. Kate never seems less than crazy, but her family seem fully human and their fate is what pulls you along.
Unlike Larry Cook and Kate Karlson, the parents in Smiley’s novella. The Age of Grief, are well-intentioned and loving. Nothing much happens in this book: one spouse suspects the other of having fallen in love with someone else and fails to confront them. Everyone gets the flu. But in the accumulation of excruciating domestic detail Smiley addresses everything you’ve ever worried about at 4 a.m.: the smallness and shortness of a single life, the inevitability of pain, the deals you cut and the nature of love – ‘a dear thing’ but ‘as common as sand, as common as flesh’.
In these books Jane Smiley writes about people who live circumscribed lives and have limited expectations. They put meats on the table at the dot of the hour. But the accretion of banal physical detail can suddenly expand into lyricism. ‘Teeth outlast everything,’ the dentist husband in The Age of Grief says. ‘Death is nothing to a tooth. Hundreds of years in acidic soil just keeps a tooth clean. A fire that burns away hair and flesh and even bone leaves teeth dazzling like daisies in the ashes. Life is what destroys teeth. Undiluted apple juice in a baby bottle, sourballs, the Ph balance of drinking water, tetracycline, sand in your bread if you were in the Roman army.’ Ginny’s description of a rainstorm in A Thousand Acres could double as a description of Smiley’s writing: ‘thick with odour and colour and usefulness and timing ... omens of prosperity or ruin to come are sought in every change ... any of the world’s details may contain the one thing that above all else you will regret not knowing.’
In Moo Smiley moves from the claustrophobic confines of family life to the wide open spaces of a Midwestern agricultural college, trading dark drama for four hundred pages of proficient comedy. It is cleverly plotted, minutely observed, wittily written and curiously un-compelling. It’s not simply that the characters are one-dimensional; the characters in David Lodge’s campus novels may be one-dimensional but they are invested with buoyancy and a sense of inner propulsion. Moo, on the other hand, reads as though it had been plotted on a chart. The oddity is that one feels that Smiley could, if she wanted to, take any one of its myriad plot-lines and bring it to life as the plots are brought to life in her previous novels.
Part of the problem may be the sheer number of characters; in the first 37 pages 26 people are introduced, from the dean of the university, through academic and non-academic staff and students, to an enormous white boar named Earl. The characters are carefully differentiated: so carefully indeed that they feel rather like elements in one novelist’s personal affirmative action programme. For any one character there is likely to be another who is his or her polar opposite. There is the rampant capitalist Dr Lionel Gift, Distinguished Professor of Economics, who believes that all men have an insatiable desire for consumer goods, and that it is no coincidence that they are called ‘goods’. He is a blithe believer in the marketplace whose report for a private corporation advocates mining gold from under the hemisphere’s last virgin cloud forest. As a counterpoint to him there is Chairman X, head of the horticulture department, ageing hippie, maker of bean-loaf. He is a passionate defender of the environment for whom the loss of a species of tree or macaw is far more poignant and devastating than anything that can happen in his personal life. His mistress, Cecelia Sanchez, is a teacher of Spanish who spins tales about the glorious fruit trees her Uncle Carlos used to grow in an attempt to detain the chairman in her bed when he should be going home to his family. Her sometime lover is Timothy Monahan, a charming, opportunistic English professor and novelist, for whom other people’s dinner-table reminiscences are details to be appropriated for his next novel. The dean of the college, Ivar Harstad, and his brother Nils are known as ‘the albino nordic twins’. One has a sybaritic French professor lover, the other is trying to marry a virgin from his congregation.
The girls in the dorm room are as carefully diverse as the academics. There is a black girl trying to escape from her bad Chicago neighbourhood, a dreamy blonde Barbie doll trying to escape from her past as the Warren County Pork Queen. There is the ambitious Diane who understands that success in corporate life starts at undergraduate level and wants to join a sorority, where ‘techniques for pleasing men without giving in to them were part of a traditional wisdom that your skin drank up like Oil of Olay’, and her opposite Sherri, who can’t see beyond the next party, cigarette or raid on the snack machine. And so it goes on; lots of smart, believable sketches which occasionally threaten to spring into life before the machinery of the plot takes over again.
The novel is set in the late Eighties, and the commodification of higher education is in full swing. Students are referred to as ‘customers’ and in an effort to attract business the university has ‘shamelessly promised everything to everyone and charged so much that prospective students tended to believe the promises’. The governor of the state, O.T. Early, slashes budgets, claiming that the state has been on a binge, and now he’s cutting out the hot fudge sundaes. A caricature philistine, anti-spending politician, Governor Early hands over the franchise for university food to Mcdonald’s and then wonders if they would like to franchise every state-run dining establishment. ‘Capitol-watchers were well aware that “wondering aloud” about ludicrous ideas was Governor Early’s method of trying out new policies.’
Politics on this campus is less about the revolution, feminism or race than the environment. In A Thousand Acres willingness to use up the land and poison the wells with fertiliser is evidence not only of short-sightedness but of darker and deeper flaws. In Moo the millionaire who wants to mine the cloud forest would also like to feed cattle on ground offal if only he could get a university study to say that there was no harm in it. Dean Jellinek’s plan artificially to induce false pregnancy in cows in order to achieve unending lactation is driving his girlfriend round the bend. In addition, there are campus staples such as struggles for promotion, sex in various permutations and Machiavellian manoeuvres by all-powerful secretaries. Perhaps Jane Smiley, who teaches on a campus in Iowa herself, just had too much material.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.