Friday, September 24, 2010

The Reading List: A Thousand Acres

Six different covers, each in its own way unfaithful to the content
A Thousand Acres

by Jane Smiley

After taking on powerhouses like the Homeric epics and James Joyce’s quintessential Big Hard Book, it’s almost hard to know where to begin with a book that operates in every sense at a more conventional human scale. So I’ll start with the obvious: A Thousand Acres is a retelling of King Lear played out in Iowa farm country, told from the point of view of one of the "bad" daughters. It is, to a limited extent, a celebration of the disciplined work ethic and deep occupational knowledge possessed by American agriculturalists. But to a greater extent it is an unflattering, or at least unflinching, expose of the dark underbelly of what Sarah Palin liked to call “The Real America” during our last election cycle – the small towns of farm country that we as a culture are often silly enough to assume possess some sort of virtue that the rest of us lack.

Those nominating A Thousand Acres to The Reading List were a bit vague on reasoning, but one commenter described it as “beautifully written.” I’ll second that without too much difficulty. The prose style is precise and restrained, in keeping with the personality of the first-person narrator. The characterization is strong too, and Smiley manages a nice balancing act between forging believable Iowans and creating structural parallels to the characters and action of her Shakespearian point of departure. I must say that her characters often speak with a vocabulary and a frank insight into the emotional lives of others that don’t seem consistent with their background, but this was never especially jarring.

In short, this is a good book! It is engrossing and insightful and interesting, and I have no trouble recommending it as a fine piece of mainstream American fiction. I note, though, that it won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and, for crying out loud, the Pulitzer Prize, and this it seems to me is pushing things a bit too far. It’s a very good book, not a great book. But hell, maybe 1991 was a weak year for fiction. (This may actually be true; at a glance down the Wiki’s list of 1991 novels, no obvious alternative candidates leap from the page).

This sets the stage for my inevitable crabby griping, and this will inevitably involve spoilers! So here we go. I had two specific moments of disappointment when reading A Thousand Acres. First, at roughly a third of the way in we had a strangely attractive man from outside developing a relationship with the narrator. I thought it would be a stronger and more distinctive unfolding of the plot if they did NOT become sexually entangled, and so was disappointed when they entangled sexually according to the usual timetable. As a mitigating factor, this later turned out to be plot-significant.

We also had an abusive father who was creepy and menacing, but not sexually abusive, and I felt that his creepiness and the social-critical aspects of the book would be far stronger if he was kept from being a thorough-going monster – to wit, if it didn’t turn out that he had raped his daughters. Again, I was disappointed, and this time there were no mitigating factors. King Lear doesn’t work as well if you can’t have sympathy for the King. But then, A Thousand Acres was written during a weird time when everybody and their dog was discovering through recovered memory therapy that they’d been abused in satanic rituals and what-not when they were infants – one of the more bizarre and damaging fads to have taken place in my lifetime, even taking into consideration the great lo-carb fiasco of ’06 – so in a sense Smiley was just rolling with the times.

There is a literary device that professor types probably have a name for, where the narrative is going along in a calm way about fairly routine and predictable events and then suddenly, pow! something shocking or awful happens without warning, and it is especially wrenching because it came without any buildup or a chapter break or anything. Smiley uses this device effectively in A Thousand Acres, but perhaps once too many times. There is a basic structural principle that, say, the terrible agricultural accident belongs in the chapter about the terrible agricultural accident and not at the end of the chapter about, whatever, cleaning house. Breaking the principle can mimic the way that the terrible agricultural accident comes out of nowhere and shatters the expected routine, but overuse dulls the effect.

And now I am done crabbing, and will reassert that this is a good book! It is the best I can recall, off the top of my head, to deal with modern rural Midwest. It is, like I said up yonder, engrossing and insightful and interesting. I have no trouble recommending it as a fine piece of mainstream American fiction.

Next on The Reading List: DeWitt, The Last Samurai
(Reading List Amicus): Musashi
On Deck: Ball, Bright Earth
In the Hole: Camus, The Stranger

Reading List Note: By Executive Decision, Tolstoy's War and Peace has been added to The Reading List. It will be placed in the fifth-to-last position, between the final Rabbit book and The Earthsea Trilogy.


Cartophiliac said...

Winnie the Pooh: The Ten Percent Solution.

Elizabeth said...

I read the one with the bale of hay in the field. I remember liking the book, disturbing as it was, but then not being able to get into any of Smiley's other works.

FYI: The "Earthsea Trilogy" is now a series of five books, plus a short story; Le Guin added more about 30 years after the original trilogy. However, the first three stand quite well on their own, and I actually liked them a lot better than the later works.

Elaine said...

I actually like most of Smiley's other books much more than this one. You used to teach at a college, right? Do read MOO.

Unknown said...

Smiley's 1000 acres seemed slower and less full of dramatic tragic energy than the origianl Lear. I remember feeling a bit down as I read it, which was not my Lear experience.

Aviatrix said...

The only reason that I might open this book would be to leaf through it trying to determine if the reference in your review to a terrible agricultural accident is a spoiler or not.

Jenners said...

I read this ages and ages ago and barely remember it.

Michael5000 said...

Eliz: Same concept, other direction: the only other Smiley I've read was "Moo," which is pretty banal and made "A Thousand Acres" a pleasant surprise by comparison.

It's still a few years before I'll need to worry about how many books are in the Earthsea Trilogy, so I'll defer the decision for the time being.

@Elaine: Oops, a "Moo" fan. I did used to teach at a college; the book that best characterizes that period of my life -- with eerie precision, really -- is Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim."

@Aviatrix: Oh, it's a realist drama set in farm country! There are any number of terrible agricultural accidents at a narrative distance, and at least one with immediate plot impact.

Michael5000 said...

@Carto: Hmm... Hmm... What?

Cartophiliac said...

For some reason, the first thing I thought of was WtP's "hundred acre wood"