14 October 2014

Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is an interesting figure in the contemporary literary landscape. She is increasingly perceived as an important author, but she is perhaps a little bit too prolific to be comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of greats. A Thousand Acres is a masterpiece -- really an absolutely phenomenal novel. None of her other books quite achieves its heights, though most of them are warm, wonderful, and highly pleasant reads (I quite liked both Horse Heaven and Moo). She puts them out at a surprisingly reliable pace, about one every three years (with some young adult novels, which I am unfamiliar with, in between). Although one wonders if a better editor and maybe a little more time wouldn't help these texts ripen a bit, it must also be admitted that there is something wonderful about her energetic willingness to explore all kinds of different ideas and settings (clearly gravitating, however, towards the rural, particularly the Iowan).

Some Luck is a chronicle of the life of an Iowa family, year by year. We are told it is the first in a trilogy, one that will take us into 2020; an idea that gives me pause (I try to be open-minded about sci-fi, but I tend to find it dull and transparently ideological. I'm sorry.). In a lesser writer's hands, this format of jumping between characters and gathering up stories big and small as well as sundry bits of fluff could easily have resulted in a disconnected, dull, and overly cliche narrative. But Jane Smiley is such a masterful creator of characters that I was completely engrossed, and found myself deeply caring about the different people in the story. It's an interesting thing, one that makes me want to ponder the relationship between readers and characters and the reality effects at work, in that I was tempted to say that the characters are realistic, but that's not quite right. It's not that I form a relationship to them the way I do to actual people. It's also not that I come to feel like I know them as well as I know my closest friends -- though Smiley really is brilliant at "showing" you her characters rather than telling you about then, and also once again deploys her trademark move of getting into the mind of a being (in this case, a baby) that we generally see as unknowable. But I develop a certain intimacy and familiarity with them, and a sense of them 'coming to life,' that I don't often get elsewhere.

It is not a perfect book -- Smiley occasionally tends towards corn-fed folksiness, and some of the plot turns feel more contrived than others. But it is a very enjoyable read. You can certainly wait for it to come out in paperback, at which point, perhaps, the next installment won't be too far off.

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