IMAGINE, FOR A MOMENT, that you’re Jane Smiley. You’ve got a BA in literature from Vassar, and an MA, an MFA, and a PhD from the University of Iowa (home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, famously attended by Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, among many other, real-life literary lights). While researching your dissertation on archaic Icelandic languages (!), you got a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Iceland for a year.
That’s only the tip of the, um, iceberg. In 1980, at age 31, you published your first novel, Barn Blind. From 1981 to 1996, you were a Professor of English at Iowa State University, teaching creative writing workshops. In 1985 you published a short story in The Atlantic Monthly, and it won an O. Henry Award. Fast-forward past three more novels, including The Greenlanders, inspired by that Iceland year, and two short story collections, and a nonfiction paean to (of all things!) the artisans of the Catskill Mountains.
Now it’s 1992, and you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for A Thousand Acres, your modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Shakespeare! The Pulitzer! But wait, there’s more: Fifteen novels. Two volumes of novellas. Five works of nonfiction, including the 2005 instant classic Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Five young adult novels. A bunch of awards (besides that little ole Pulitzer), including the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, and chairing the judges’ panel for the Man Booker Prize in 2009. In case life wasn’t interesting enough, you also wrote a 1995 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street.
Now you’re 60-something, living with your third husband and your dogs and your horses on some idyllic Northern California acreage, and you’re thinking, what’s next? As a young writer, you’d promised yourself that you’d write a novel in every literary genre, and you’ve pretty much covered that. You’ve got your detective story, Duplicate Keys, your comedy, Moo, the epic The Greenlanders, a romance called The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, your Pulitzer-winning tragedy A Thousand Acres. So you take on a literary tradition you haven’t yet attempted: a trilogy.
You being you, you decide that not only will you write three Big Novels collectively known as The Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga, following a multigenerational family from 1920 to 2019, you will publish all three books within the space of approximately one year. You have this crazy idea, the latest in a series of seemingly crazy ideas, and, like so many of the others, it works. The first book in the trilogy, Some Luck — which introduces the Langdon family in 1920s Denby, Iowa — is a bestseller, and is long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award.
Smiley’s structure for the trilogy was meticulously conceived: one hundred years of the Langdon family divided into three books, each book with 33 or 34 chapters, each chapter detailing one year in the lives of the Langdon family: parents Walter and Rosanna, children Frank, Andy, Joe, Lois, and Mary Elizabeth, plus assorted spouses, in-laws, neighbors, and others.
As the decades pass, the family’s life-altering milestones accumulate along with the cast of characters. In Book One, World War I and then World War II erupt; the farm falls on hard times, the children grow up (or don’t, in one case) and scatter to cities, as American farm children are wont to do.
A writer as consistently prolific and perfectionist as Jane Smiley sets her own bar high, providing critics with endless opportunity for comparison, favorable and not. The publication of Some Luck provoked some of the grumblings that often accompany the launch of a master storyteller’s latest masterwork. The New York Times Book Review called Some Luck “… very skillfully conceived” but complained:
Rarely does [Smiley] pause to let a scene develop or allow a character to slip the harness of the trilogy with its carefully worked-out plan. Instead, she moves these people through stock situations or has them tread through events flattened by the steady press of the fictional machinery.
Most critics were far more favorable, as was I. “Smiley is that rare three-fer,” I wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “meticulous historian, intelligent humorist and seasoned literary novelist … she makes us see, in the kindest, gentlest way, that we’re a lot more wonderful and a lot more screwed up — as a nation, as a people, as families, as individuals — than we think we are.”
Six months post-Some Luck, Smiley brings us Book Two. Early Warning opens two weeks after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, familiar territory for Smiley, who was born in 1949. It’s also more challenging authorial territory, having to carry the characters, storylines, and historical timeline forward through the next 34 years without laying the weight of the challenge on the page.
Smiley succeeds not by following convention, but by creating conventions of her own. Ignoring the traditional novelistic template, which calls for exposition (introduction of characters and setting), then rising action (complications that advance the plot and character development), then climax (the most challenging moment for the protagonist/s), then resolution (you guessed it), Smiley replicates, in these novels, the less synchronized, plodding pace of nonfictional, unmappable, everyday real life.
As in real life, crises erupt in a disorderly fashion, and then recede, and then arise again. Characters are tested in small moments as well as during life-altering events. Problems, relationships, situations are resolved, only to present themselves again and again.
Early Warning unfolds during perhaps the most fascinating chunk of the century under this trilogy’s consideration: 1953–1986. Big things happen in the world; if you’re reading this, you can probably remember or name most or all of them. The triumphant post-World War II sentiment in the country fades to the black Cold War mood. The 1960s turn the country and the Langdon family upside down. The 1970s transition to the opulent 1980s, and, true to real life, the second-generation Langdons, children of Walter and Rosanna, are having the kinds of problems with their kids that Walter and Rosanna had with them. Smiley keeps God in the details and the details anchored in time, so the reader always hears the ticking clock that distinguishes one era from the next.
“On a quite snowy day at the end of February,” Smiley writes in the chapter titled “1955” (each chapter is named for its year):
Lillian Manning found Lucy Roberts, only four, sitting on the couch in the playroom at seven-thirty in the morning, waiting for the cartoons to begin. […] By the time Bugs Bunny came on, there were twelve children cross-legged on the floor staring up at the TV.
Joe and his Uncle John kept arguing about what to plant, how much to plant, whether to leave some acreage fallow. Joe had seen a picture of stored corn reserves in a Time magazine, and the picture spooked him — hills and billows of grain just sitting there. The article said there were something like a billion bushels in storage, and no market — maybe no future market until 1980, not for seventeen years.
Smiley peppers the narrative with evocative historical icons: the Beat hero Neal Cassady, the Kennedy assassination, the My Lai massacre, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, the People’s Temple, Rupert Murdoch. She puts her characters through crises and situations — closeted gay life, psychoanalysis, difficult pregnancy decisions, cults, cross-class marriages, plain old bad marriages — that reinforce her thoroughgoing portrait of the times. But the real magic of this novel is that which makes every Jane Smiley book a work of art, recognizably hers: the writing, the writing, the writing.
“Texas and Arizona had not prepared him for California,” Smiley writes of Tim, on a stopover in Los Angeles before his fateful deployment to Vietnam:
The sunshine was brilliant but refreshing, and even when the ocean was invisible, Tim could sense that it was out there — not the flat, warm, green-blue ocean he knew from Maryland and New Jersey, but something colder, more beautiful, and more endless, lit by the sun to a burnished hyacinth color hour after hour for the whole long day.
Smiley takes us inside the head of Eloise, whose children have joined Jim Jones’s People’s Temple:
She worried because, one visit to the Temple and one look at “Reverend” Jones, and she knew what she was seeing — Joe Stalin from Indiana, the sort of fellow who sucked down a few ideas and then vomited them forth, now irreparably contaminated by the poisons of his very own body. And soul, for that matter, if you believed in souls, which, as a materialist, Eloise did not.
Evident in every chapter is the author’s attachment to, and abiding love for, the flat Midwestern landscape where her imagination first took shape. “Now he stared out over the empty landscape,” she writes of Joe, the lone offspring who stayed behind on the farm:
The fields still dark and frozen, the trees bare and shaking in the wind (a wind that was numbing the tip of his nose). The dogs had their noses to the ground — the ground was endlessly fascinating for a retriever, the tracks of deer, raccoons, mice, rabbits, birds, and even a turkey or two. Opa had raised them on stories of flocks of turkeys, flights of ducks, waves of prairie chickens, and even cougars slinking past the window in the night, heading for the sheep in the pen.
The first two books (and, one can assume, the third) of The Last Hundred Years trilogy explore topical issues personal and political, and the way in which history impacts the lives of individuals. It’s both intriguing and overwhelming, at first, to glance at the Langdon family tree in the front of the book, with no less than 60 members represented. But at its heart, Early Warning (and one can assume, the entire trilogy) wrestles with a single question of human existence, confounding and foundational in every era, and for every living person: What makes a family?
“Why did you love Tim for being bad and hate me for being good?” Debbie, Arthur’s adult daughter, asks her elderly father in the book’s closing pages. “We loved you because you made sure the gate to the swimming pool was latched,” Arthur replies.
“And we loved Tim because he jumped off the roof of the house into the deep end, and we loved Dean because he was daring enough to get that fourth foul in every game but careful enough not to get the fifth, and we loved Tina because she tie-dyed all the pillowcases when everyone was out one afternoon. Who you are shapes how you are loved.”
“You didn’t love us equally.”
“We loved you individually. How could we not?”
Smiley assigns Arthur the book’s closing thought.
The problem he had not solved, or even known existed, was how quickly it passed, every joke, every embrace, every babyhood and childhood, every minute of thinking that he had things figured out for good, and also every moment, just like this one, when his spirits lifted.
It’s a measure of Jane Smiley’s mastery that in meeting her self-imposed challenge to play with every genre, she has, in a sense, invented a new one. She’s not the first to publish a sweeping multigenerational saga — contemporary examples that spring to mind include Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and the Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. But there’s much that’s truly innovative about Smiley’s match-up between form and function, and it is part of the pleasure of the text to follow her near-perfect use of medium to deliver her message.
Will the final installment of The Last Hundred Years measure up to the first two? Smiley bestows on her readers this gift, too: we’ll have to wait less than one year to find out.
Meredith Maran is the author, most recently, of Why We Write and the novel A Theory Of Small Earthquakes. Her next book, Why We Write About Ourselves, will be out from Plume in 2016. She lives in Silver Lake and on Twitter @meredithmaran.