As Luck Would Have It: Jane Smiley & the Unexpected Extraordinary

Editor's Note: Lori Walsh visited with Jane Smiley about her trilogy, which starts with Some Luck, at the South Dakota Festival Books in Brookings on Friday, Sept. 23. South Dakota Public Broadcasting recorded the conversation in front of a live audience. View the broadcast online

Written by Lori Walsh, journalist, veteran and avid reader & critic

What are we to make of a book such as Some Luck, that begins with a farmer watching owls emerge from a dead elm tree and ends with a death we are given scant time to mourn?

In between – Jane Smiley’s book covers 34 consecutive years, one year per chapter – there is birth and death, sex and suffering, politics and perseverance.

Smiley plants no flashbacks for the reader to stumble upon. Some Luck marches forward in linear lockstep, though without rigidity. We have only to circle back to chapter headings to mark our place in American history as the characters age, year by year. A boy we first see grasping a spoon and pondering the nature of chucking it across the room, we later see gripping a sniper rifle, then still later clutching an envelope stuffed with money as he balances risk and reward.

If we find Smiley’s vision of Denby, Iowa, comforting in one moment – we recognize the height of the corn, the names of small towns, the food laid out on the breakfast table – we find it unsettling in the next. A child dies with startling randomness. A man allows himself to consider his own death with fondness and relief. A woman questions the requisite adorations of motherhood:

“… as much as she tried to hide it, her own services for Claire were tinted more with obligation than with adoration. What she told herself was not that she did not like Claire – Claire was a very good child. It was that adoration had not paid off – look at Frankie. And as soon as she looked at Frankie, she wondered what motherhood was for.”

SomeLuckCOVER.jpg And so, Smiley’s novel (Some Luck is first in a trilogy) becomes more than we expected when we picked it up.

If we wanted a lush, agrarian nostalgia, packed with thoughtful Midwestern characters, we are not disappointed, but we quickly find ourselves grappling with more, spreading out further, folding our minds around a deeper narrative, wider geography, and richer history than first blush reveals.

This is what it means to pause in the capable hands of a great novelist. It could be argued that Some Luck is most appreciated by writers rather than those who identify only as readers. Admiration and bewilderment blossom from recognizing Smiley’s mastery of character and structure.

It’s the would-be writers who will turn her narrative over in their hands and study the facets of it, scratch their heads at it, be inspired and intimidated by its brilliance.

The author, for example, bestows full attention on certain scenes, coaxes others into vignettes, and provides still others only the briefest of nods. How does she make her choices?

In one chapter, the child Joey, whose compassion encourages him to name his 4-H animals, cares for a litter of stray puppies, with just enough fog clearing for an impression of the boy and the farmer he will grow to become. In another scene, a bull locks his horn into the side of the barn, causing his own gruesome death, and the author declines to walk us closer than the edge of the field. This death is mentioned, never developed. We note the tragedy, glance off it, move on.

This reflects, of course, what we already know of life.

Certain events turn dirt in our back yard – we get our hands filthy with grief and hope and regret. Other days are too full to accept anything outside our immediate reach. We allow everything from encroaching thistles to news reports of refugees to swish through our fingers, silk-like, as we focus on the tasks providence has placed in our path, insignificant as they may be.

Someday, we tell ourselves, we will study our history, our politics, our humanity. Someday we will clean out the closets. For now, we simply need to get the laundry done.  Smiley stands with us in these moments as well, recognizing the expanse of current events alongside the pathos of piles of laundry.

Characters in Some Luck age, and we, as readers, witness this aging with disturbing swiftness.

As Walter, the patriarch of the Langdons turns 47, he gives to his children his cherished possessions. He has broached the year when he believes he should be bestowing blessings rather than receiving them. These gifts illuminate the stuff of detail: a feather, a handkerchief, a photograph, a sprig of lavender (we are in Smiley’s world, after all).

The author is telling us something about the characters, what they chose and what they value. She is also inviting us to consider our own mortality, our own legacy.

We become immersed in the journey of the Langdon children – their travels, their longings – but we also fixate upon the journey of their parents, regardless of our own age at the time of discovering their lives.

Matriarch Rosanna, determined to avoid vanity, challenged by years of childbirth and child-rearing, eschews her own beauty, idealizing the effervescence of daughter Lillian instead.

Walter watches his children leave the farm, kicking dust from their heels, or stay and surpass him in farming intellect and modernity. He fades, and tells no one of his own fading. Even as a reader, you have to look closely to notice it. Blink and Walter is an older man. Now, no one asks his opinion.

Though we do not want more from Smiley’s characters, we often want more for them. We want grace for Rosanna, adoration returned, the flowing elegance of her youth. We want respect for Walter. We want him to be right about plow horses and traditional fertilization, even though we know better. We hope he can somehow hold on to tradition for all of us, even as we watch him slip behind the times as if slipping into the depths of a well.

Here he tells his eldest sons about his farming philosophy:

“I prefer horses. This is what horses do. You boys listening?”

Joey and Frankie nodded.

“Every spring horses pull the plow and then the planter, and so they plant their own oats. In the summer, they pull the thresher … when the oats are threshed, the horses are fixing their own supper, and when the oats and hay are hauled to the barn, the horses are putting their supper away. Then what happens?”

The boys’ mouths opened a bit.

Walter said, “In the winter, the horses take their own manure and spread it on the oat field. What does that do?”

“Fertilize!” shouted Frankie.

“So where do the horses go to get food?”

“Out to the barn,” said Joey.

“Right where they put it,” said Walter. “Where does Mr. Frederick go to get gas for the tractor?

That was a stumper.

Neither boy knew the answer.

Walter ate a bite of meatloaf and some potato, and said, “Texas. And boys, if you have to go to Texas for something, you don’t need it.”

These are the gifts we want for ourselves, for our own parents, our own farms, our own novels. As we watch Rosanna and Walter age, we hold on a bit too tightly to a tidy ending, something Smiley might not allow us.

But an untidy ending doesn’t mean a sad one. In fact, for Smiley, it might not mean an ending at all.

Smiley is both writer and scholar – a rare find of a novelist whom we know takes craft and criticism seriously over the span of decades. We trust and we revel in her experimentation.If she wants to attempt a novel told one year at a time, if she suggests the story of a family can span three novels and a century, if she promises we will care enough to turn all the pages, one after another, then we believe her.

If she tells us the Midwest is a place for sprouting, launching, and maybe even returning, we believe her as well. She gives us permission to shake our roots and expectations, but never lets us forget what might be lost and what might be gained in doing so.

She also reminds us that if we return to our own personal Denby, wherever that might be, things will not have remained, frozen in tableau, ceasing to progress through the act of our turning away.

In this way, Jane Smiley is graciously unsentimental as a writer.

13 ways novel smiley.jpgSmiley writes in 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel:

“If to live is to progress, if you are lucky, from foolishness to wisdom, then to write novels is to broadcast the various stages of your foolishness.”

She notices us and describes us, all of us, in the fullness of our foolishness and wisdom. Babies sit on blankets. A child weeps over the dogs his father has loaded with bullets. A young man thrives in war, embraces prostitutes, watches Panzers rolling over American soldiers, burying the living. Middle-aged women respond, not unkindly, to the familiar advances of husbands, the rejection and judgement of adult children, the casual and determined loss of faith.

This, perhaps, is Jane Smiley’s greatest gift to us – she takes the novel seriously. She takes our lives seriously. She inspires us, requires us, to do the same.