Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Some Luck

Some Luck Some Luck by Jane Smiley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I like to think of narrative as a technology, or a series of technologies. Part of what makes something like The Iliad so compelling is that, in addition to the power (and strangeness) of the story, we get it in so formal and archaic a way. Something like that is true as we move through the early novels, whether it’s Sterne (whose sometimes brilliant ‘technologies’ of inverted chronology get left behind for more than a century) or Scott and Austen, who set much of the pattern that others will follow. Then we start to get psychological novels, Realistic ones, and Naturalistic ones, before we move into stream-of-consciousness and other Modern technologies.

Anyway, that unintelligible prologue aside, what strikes me about Some Luck is that it’s a novel written in a now long-discarded technology. The gimmick here is that each chapter of the novel tells a different year in the life of a large (and ever-growing) family from Iowa. They grow through the different economic times, waxing and waning in fortune along with the country at large.

It’s a hugely ambitious project, an attempt to tell more or less the history of the last century from a distinct what-became-of-the-farm-family perspective. I admire that ambition, and – after a long while – come to enjoy some of what it relates. Smiley is a strong historical fiction writer, and she weaves in all sorts of arcane information, whether the nature of commodity prices in the middle 1930s or the advances in the manufacture of gun powder on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1940s.

Such ambition is hard-wired into this narrative technology, though, and we know this because an entire generation of writers attempted experiments in it. John Dos Passos was doing something that I find more successful and compelling (read Manhattan Transfer if you aren’t familiar with it) but a host of people in his wake wrote more mainstream, less experimental work. I think in particular of James Farrell, Meyer Levin, and the later Theodore Dreiser, but I’m sure there were others in what I think of as a kind of “Soviet Realism” school of American literature.

One consequence of the form is that we never quite get central characters. The “hero” instead is “the people” in one form or another. It’s an interesting effect, but I find it limited and, in the end, fairly spent. Smiley has some good anecdotes here, and she has the outlines of characters who might be interesting if they were developed, but she never dwells on anyone or anything long enough for it to take on the substance I look for in literature. This is a theory of quantity over quality, and the result is a kind of layering; the novel works by accretion, by adding new characters all the time and by relying on the course of history to move action forward.

By the end, there are elements to admire, but I don’t see how this could ever have been taken seriously for the National Book Award. I’d have abandoned it after 50 pages (and likely would have if I weren’t listening to it as an audiobook) except for the fact that I know Smiley to be one of our serious writers and because it was so tedious in the early going that I figured I had to be missing something of her project.

What I was missing, I think, is precisely this idea of her experimenting with narrative technology. But I say as well that it’s been done before – just as well, if not better, in the 1920s and 1930s – and I’m much more interested in seeing how other people have moved forward with the narrative technological potential that Dos Passos showed: with the decentered but deeply drawn characters of contemporary novelists like Colum McCann, Jennifer Egan, Eleanor Catton, and Richard Flanagan. Those writers are doing some of the best work I know, exploring the way deeply developed characters comprise larger communities of people, become collective heroes in complicated contexts; this, instead, feels like nostalgia, like a kind of dead end.

Some of the sequences here are solid – and there’s something to be said for the way the entire apparatus keeps moving forward. I like a lot of the farm-centered narrative, and I like the World War II sequences, but the Cold War subplot seems amateurish at best, and there are long stretches interrupting some of the experiences of characters we were made to care about earlier. In the end, I’m afraid, this seems more notable for its effort than for either its craft or its insight.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment