A book about the ordinary nothings that, in the end, are everything

A review of Some Luck, by Jane Smiley. The Pulitzer-prize winner captures the strange beauty of mortal life

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Some Luck Jane Smiley

Mantle, pp.395, £18.99, ISBN: 9781447275596

We live in a world in which nuance is trampled on and cannot survive. Is that true? I don’t know. But the further point is, must authors now preface their novels with introductory letters, in which they carefully explain the central themes of their work? Epistolary prefaces in general are not remotely new: you often find editors and publicists addressing readers with disinterested solicitude. (‘We care about you dear reader and only want the best for you, Buy this book’).

Of course, Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of such novels as A Thousand Acres and The Greenlanders, is entitled to communicate with the reader in any way she likes. Yet, in turn, the reader might baulk just slightly at being told that ‘writing this novel and the two that will follow has been a pleasure and a revelation,’ or that ‘it thrills me to give them to you’.

Smiley also explains that Some Luck is the first volume in a trilogy called ‘The Last Hundred Years’, following a family from 1920 to 2020. She was inspired, she adds, by the question of ‘who becomes a legend and who becomes a monster?’ and ‘who disappears entirely?’

Despite such prompts, I was drawn instead to ideas of consciousness and time. Smiley’s characters live in days, as we all must. They also live in Iowa, but that isn’t as important; external descriptions are subjugated to the ebb and flow of inner thought. Time conveys the characters onwards, remorselessly, and so does the structure of the book, which proceeds in an orderly fashion, a year per chapter, in this volume from 1920 to 1953.

With such ritual chronology Smiley flouts a few once-avant-garde-now-mainstream modernist conventions. And that’s fine, of course. Though we may encompass millennia in a single thought, we also exist, ineluctably within linear time. We amass years; we grow old. ‘Successive nights, like rolling waves/ Convey them quickly, who are bound for death,’ as George Herbert wrote, like an Elizabethan goth.

Smiley explores the fortunes of the Langdon family, living on their farm in the prairies, surrounded by wind-lashed locals of German and Scandinavian descent. The narrator is omniscient and vaguely agitated, fluttering constantly from one mind to another — from inchoate children to jaded adults. Rosanna, a young mother at the start, thinks in fluent logistics:

If anyone remembered that rearing a child on a farm was dangerous, it was Rosanna. Always her eye was out the window. Always she was stepping to one side to look through a doorway. Always she was making sure the gate across the steps leading down from the front porch to the wide, wide world (and particularly the road) was closed. Always she was putting shoes and boots outside and washing hands, not to mention handkerchiefs and bandannas.

Walter, the father, is equally assailed by compulsory minutiae:

Walter never minded a drive once you got him off the farm —he liked to see that he was further along in his work, or at least that it was done more properly, than at the farms along the way.

Meanwhile their children consider ‘the quotidian miracle of the flung spoon’. As the years pass the characters adopt shifting guises. The children progress to parenthood and one son, Frank, goes to fight in the second world war. Rosanna wastes into gauntness, her body ravaged by hard labour: ‘The turning point had been the birth of Lilian; everything that Rosanna had, seemed to flow out of her into the little girl.’

Steadily, the book accumulates, as Smiley relays the ordinary nothings that are everything in the end: how we embark, each one of us, clutching the hands of our parents, how they guide us onwards, and then we guide our own children, in the daylight of the fleeting present and yet with darkness on all sides, the shadowy past and future. To capture this experience — finitude, love, sorrow, the rise and fall of generations — is insanely difficult. To foster the illusion of realism in a novelistic fantasy, to convey the passage of time.

There are clunky phrases in this book, a sense, occasionally, of genuine strain, and yet it is moving and alert and alive, and really this might be all Smiley was trying to say in her letter, as in her novel: I am human, dear reader, and this is what I see. I am awake to the strange beauty of mortal life and how we try to capture it, to hold it, and must always fail.

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