OCTOBER 16, 2014
JANE SMILEY’s novels begin as challenges the author sets herself, and her vision for what these challenges should accomplish is both sweeping in ambition and rigorously detailed. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres, she reprised King Lear on a family farm in 1980s Iowa; Moo, a satire set at an agricultural university, was to be a comic counterpart to A Thousand Acres before either book was even begun. Smiley has also composed a Nordic saga, The Greenlanders, in the manner of oral folklore, and embarked on a murder mystery to teach herself “how to make a plot.” Although her themes are classic, she may be our greatest secret experimentalist.
Her new novel Some Luck — recently longlisted for the National Book Award — is the first volume of a projected trilogy in which she has undertaken to tell the story of an American family over the span of 100 years. The trilogy’s title, The Last Hundred Years, reveals the overall concept, so Some Luck’s structural rigor will come as no surprise: each of its 34 years is given a chapter of roughly equal length, with the narration of each chapter passed among Langdon family members. These decisions give Some Luck the feel of an epic, but one in which the heroes have strangely little sway over the outcome.
Some Luck begins in 1920 on Walter and Rosanna Langdon’s farm in Denby, Iowa. They’re very young to have taken on the financial risk of their own farm, and Walter is disposed to worry. As he trudges out to check the fences, the glimpse of a luckless rabbit in the grip of an owl sets his thoughts into their chronic pattern: depression; then panic; then, prodded onward by the silhouette of his wife in the window of their home, exhilaration; and finally back to the queasy pragmatism where he began. The snow may be giving the fields “a rest and a promise,” but the creek is looking shallow; pride in the fineness and plenitude of the oat crop is mixed with dread of how low the price may go. The family farm has always been a risky enterprise, but throughout the novel Walter’s thoughts suggest that the real challenge is not risk management but fear management:
But it was no secret to Walter as he drove the tractor from one end of the twenty-acre cornfield to the other that a tractor was a pact with the devil. How could it be that when they woke up one morning they found dust caked on the west side of the house, and the air so thick you had to wear a wet bandanna outside, keep all the windows shut, and wipe the inside sills anyway? Iowa had prided itself on not being Oklahoma, but how much of a sign did they need?
Chapter by chapter, the characters carry the narrative forward: the Langdons meet their obligations, mull over their private philosophies, and seize their chances. Smiley gifts each of them with persuasive individuality; the intersection of historical progress with each character’s personal evolution is entirely believable. In the 1920s, Rosanna’s sister Eloise, the rebellious dreamer of the family, runs away to Chicago just in time to be wooed into the growing Communist Party. 30 years later, Eloise’s worldly daughter Rosa (named for Rosa Luxemburg, naturally) enthralls her bookish cousin Henry with her denouncement of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The seductive immediacy woven line by line through the plainness of the novel is startling and beautifully done.
Rosanna gives birth to six children and raises them with businesslike devotion. Her love for them, to her surprise, is not uniform. Her willful firstborn Frank is both a joy and a worry; oversensitive second son Joey is a constant irritant; for Mary Elizabeth she feels a cheerful affection: “Really, she was an agreeable child, and she would make a useful young woman, and wasn’t that the best kind?” Lillian, the daughter born after Mary Elizabeth’s early death, is Rosanna’s golden child; Henry, the fifth child, is an enigma to her; and Claire, the last, she is inclined to overlook.
In 1936 we follow Frank first to Chicago, where he spends his high school years under the none-too-watchful eye of his aunt Eloise, now a pensive Trotskyite; he goes on to have a dissatisfying experience of higher education at Iowa State University; and finally enters the world at large. Enlisting in the army the day after Pearl Harbor, he is quickly selected for sniper training, but returns unscathed in body and largely in spirit. Lovely Lillian elopes with a stranger she meets while working behind a soda counter in a nearby town, which in most of Smiley’s novels would portend dashed hopes and degradation, but Lillian, like Frank, always lands on her feet. Joey proves to have a facility for farming, something neither Walter nor Rosanna particularly appreciates — his sensitive personality wins almost no one over. Henry is planning a lofty career in academia, but trouble is brewing for the next novel in his strong attraction to his cousin Rosa. Claire, the child we know the least, narrates the novel’s end.
As in The Greenlanders, in which she tells the story of a lost people, Smiley brings great empathy to her characters’ self-portraits. She crafts each of the Langdons’ stories with a dedication to the physical and emotional details of their experiences that honors the commitment and patience and invention required to live out such lives at such a time, and perhaps required to live out any purposeful life. Her characters certainly follow through; there is no dead weight in this family. And yet, like Greenlanders, as a whole, Some Luck gives an impression of inevitability: the novel’s events settle into place rather than culminate. As it closes, in 1953, the farm has endured; the children have found their paths; the marriages are good and the grandchildren are healthy. Knitting a baby blanket for her first grandchild, Rosanna thinks, “At first you thought of people like Eloise and Frank and Lillian as runaways, and then, after a bit, you knew they were really scouts.”
Each chapter is titled by year, and within it, several characters contribute a reflective account, not of the year itself, but of their doings and preoccupations over a day or two. Each account makes way for the next without hesitation and without haste. Unfortunately, Smiley’s use of this structure limits the dramatic effect of these accounts on the larger narrative. Each character takes risks, endures loss, and comes to a convincing and specific appreciation of life’s rewards, but this rich content at times feels reduced to an inventory that calls to mind the “begat” chapters of the Bible, or its genealogies. Some Luck is not a story, but a history, and a disinterested one: Smiley’s evenhanded curation gives seven-year-old Frank’s victory over the schoolhouse bullies the same emotional weight as 30-year-old Frank’s nervous commitment to marriage.
In creating a list rather than a reckoning, Smiley undermines the power of her central themes. Though her characters’ struggles are not inconsequential, their concerns have little cumulative effect on the novel’s trajectory. Unlike most Biblical figures, the characters in Some Luck have the agency to tell their own stories, but even their voices share a uniformity of tone and cadence that, given Smiley’s ear for language, can only be intentional. Despite the dramatic strength many of these accounts contain, I was never unaware of the unruffled advancement of the larger family chronicle. For the people involved, of course it matters whether the third child dies, whether the farm is saved. But history inexorably assembles itself, regardless of the details, for as long as any of its principals remain alive.
On a few occasions, a character’s voice refuses to subside into the chorus. In 1925, two-year-old Mary Elizabeth dies in a freak household accident. For the next six months Rosanna asks herself, “Whose fault had it been? Well, obviously hers, but also the fault of the weather, and, beyond that, the heavens.” In 1926, she finds relief in a religious revival held 90 miles from home:
Next to her on the seat, Joey started crying again, but Rosanna felt she was stuck with her eyes open and her hand on her mouth. The next thing she knew, she was standing up and she had Joey by the hand. As she left the pew, two people reached out for Joey and took him, and a voice said (a kindly voice), “He’s too young, ma’am, but you go ahead,” and so she did, up the aisle, toward the stage. […] The crush was suffocating, but reassuring rather than frightening. Men at the end of every row of seats gently guided them and encouraged them, and if someone was stumbling or weeping too much to see where he or she was going, one of those men took the elbow and steadied the person. Up by the stage, there were places to kneel, and then the choir started singing a song Rosanna did not know, but a beautiful one, four-part harmony, and some of the people around her opened their mouths and sang along, knowing the words. What Rosanna said was “Mary Elizabeth, I know you have gone to Heaven now, just now in this last minute, I know you have left my side and gone to Heaven, and that is your home.” And for years after that, she remembered that moment when Mary Elizabeth took her arms from around her neck and flew away.
It’s a scene with enough power to divert Rosanna, and, more importantly, the novel’s psychological stakes, onto an entirely new course. Instead, although the chapter concludes with pitch-perfect emotional force, the novel grinds on, and it doesn’t look back.
Smiley’s characters take their lives seriously. As Frank works undercover for the CIA, he struggles with his patriotic and personal obligations; as Joey fights to save an ancient horse from being sold, he resolves to take greater control over his own destiny. Through the sincerity with which she portrays their concerns, we know that Smiley, too, takes their lives seriously. But somehow, the novel doesn’t take their lives seriously. The marriage of large and small contexts to create an irresistibly immersive experience is one of Smiley’s greatest talents. This is precisely why I found Some Luck somewhat disappointing: the immersion is an unqualified success, but what purpose does its success serve? Smiley’s commitment to the narrative structure overrides what she owes to the fear that informs Walter’s days, to the courage of Rosanna’s faith, to Frank’s restlessness and Joey’s brooding inertia. Some Luck achieves a great deal as an imagined history, but less as a novel.
Does that mean Smiley’s experiment has failed? No, not on its own terms. The construction of this first volume of the Langdon family history invites the reader into a wholly realized experience, and that experience, page by page, is compelling. But early on a character asks the question, “But what would we do without some luck after all?” It’s unanswerable, but the novel perhaps inadvertently suggests an answer: luck or no luck, little would change. Our histories advance regardless.
The Langdons are lucky. Would we find the pile up of their success stories as believable if the novel more plainly acknowledged that these stories add up to an unusually cheerful record? At the conclusion of Some Luck, Walter and Rosanna’s grandchildren are young. In the second volume we’ll see these grandchildren grow up and begin their own families, and the final volume will introduce the fifth generation. I have no doubt that Smiley can sustain her commitment to the terms of her experiment in the forthcoming volumes. In considering these terms — to articulate a century, year by year, through the stories of a single family — I wonder whether she has deliberately exploited the project’s structural rigor to deflect attention from her characters’ unwavering good fortune. The chronicles can’t continue unless the Langdons are at least lucky enough to survive, but history’s unremarkably consistent progression, not the family’s remarkably consistent luck, is the point. If they are to remain credible characters, their luck must mean something, or it must come to an end.
Does the second book’s title, Early Warning, suggest that the family’s luck will indeed run out? If the title Some Luck underscores the Langdon family’s good fortune, then perhaps Early Warning threatens disaster. Perhaps Korea, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the nuclear arms race, and Reaganomics will not pass lightly over the next generations. The third volume of The Last Hundred Years will close in 2020; perhaps the family’s luck, or the family itself, or even the civilized world, will perish at the project’s end. This isn’t what I hope for — the Langdons are characters to root for — but I do hope that Smiley permits their voices to rise above the sound of time marching on, to leave us with the knowledge that their stories matter.