My book club met last night to discuss Jane Smiley’s Some Luck. We didn’t choose it with this in mind, but it ended up feeling like a good choice to talk about the night before the American election, because it is pretty clearly meant not so much as a story about a particular American family as a story about America told through a particular family. You can’t quite tell this at first (though the structure of the novel, a chapter a year, is a hint), but by the time this novel — the first in her ‘Last 100 Years’ trilogy — ends in 1953, it’s the march of time and the sense of a changing nation that predominate, not the details of individual lives.
How much the different readers in the group enjoyed the novel turned to a large extent on how they felt about this concept, which along with the relentless year-at-a-time pace, necessarily meant a degree of superficiality in Smiley’s treatment of any particular story line. Most of us felt that she had struck a good balance between getting us interested in her character through judicious details with moments of greater depth and the rapid movement across time necessitated by her chosen form. We were interested enough in her people that we wanted to know what turns their lives took. For one of us this had already meant reading on into the next book, Early Warning, though she said she had begun to tire a bit of the trilogy’s concept, which began to seem too much like a gimmick as, Forrest-Gump-like, her people managed to keep turning up, one way or another, at every landmark event in 20th-century America. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read more of the series; that’s where my hesitation would come from, that the concept might overwhelm the humanity, but I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged I was with the Langdon clan and their extended family by the end of Some Luck, so that gives me some confidence that Smiley can pull it off.
I think it is in part because the election was on all of our minds that our discussion turned quite a bit on what kind of story Smiley had chosen to tell about America. One conspicuous feature of Some Luck, for instance, is that it’s very much a story of white rural America: if Smiley intends the trilogy to be something of a national biography or a broader chronicle of the country, that seemed to us like a strategic error, one that replicates a certain vision of America’s “heartland” as the “real” America. That said, as some people argued last night, Smiley’s focus on an Iowa farming family and how it is affected by social changes that often seem to come upon them from elsewhere is itself certainly a very American story, even if it is not the story of America as a whole, and there’s not in principle anything wrong with her choice of a starting point. One reason I’d like to read on is that I’m curious about whether Smiley finds a way to complicate her origin story — to highlight its partiality as a story about America. Clearly, even in Some Luck, she is taking us well beyond Iowa as the family members spiral outwards into places and lives very different from those of our first couple, Walter and Rosanna.
Another possibility that came up is that the specific story she’s telling might illuminate the causes of what is now such a prominent divide in American life and politics as the Langdons disperse and bring new differences with them when they return home (as has already happened to some extent), but also as the Langdons still rooted to the land find their way of life harder to sustain. We talked about the way that technology has already transformed life on the farm: Smiley is good about not idealizing the ‘old’ ways even as she shows how unsettling it is to adapt to new ones. We all had found the shift from horses to tractors, for example, particularly effective in confronting us with the inexorability of change and the possibility it brings of both pathos and liberation.
One particular challenge for me with Some Luck is that the stories Smiley focused on the most were not the ones I wanted most to read a novel about. I would love, I expect, the whole book that took Eloise — writer, agitator, city dweller — as its protagonist, but though she’s a recurrent presence in Some Luck she’s peripheral, never well understood by the rest of her family, impossible to completely integrate into their way of being in the world. Smiley spends a lot more time on Frank, whom I felt, in my turn, I did not understand very well. I think the next generations will become increasingly congenial to me, but that in a way is a testament to the value of Smiley’s chosen focus: for me, there is something quite foreign about the Langdons’ America so far, so by taking such a prototypical American story as her beginning she has reminded me that my own norms are partial too.