The low-level hum of a mushroom cloud
At the conclusion of my review of Some Luck, the first volume of Jane Smiley’s trilogy of 100 years of America, as seen through a single farming family from Iowa , I wrote the following :
It was when I finished Some Luck, and sat down to think about what Smiley had done, and the manner of her doing it, that I realised how brilliantly the novel had been crafted. She is not a writer who stuns with her showy brilliance, but one who, when you stop and look at the piece, has crafted beautifully, properly, harmoniously. There is integrity to her work. And I can’t wait for volume 2, which will cover the 50’s to the 80’s, and where, I suspect, the sense of timelessness which still clung to the early part of Some Luck, will be wrenched asunder
And now, having concluded Early Morning, the second volume, I see no reason to change my earlier opinion about Smiley’s qualities as a writer, nor the difference I thought there would be between the world of Some Luck and the world of Early Morning.
Though Joe, the second son of the initial patriarch and matriarch, Walter and Rosanna Langdon, by continuing to be the one who connects to place, whose prevailing love is the land itself, does seem to try to hold to roots and to history, farming itself is completely different from the scratched out, un-mechanised work his father did.
The focus in Early Warning is the second generation and beyond, that generation affected by the Second World War, the Cold War, whose children would feel the effects of Vietnam, the sexual revolution, gay rights, feminism, the civil rights movement, enormous social and cultural changes.
Smiley continues to allocate a year per chapter, and in that year will snapshot various members of the family, their wider families, friends and work relationships.
I have stayed utterly absorbed. She looks at her individuals in close-up, their lives, loves, and place in society, but at the same time, each of them stands for more. This is both a marvellous narrative, and at the same time a snapshot of society.
There is of course a challenge for the reader who has not read the first volume, as some of the references won’t quite make the same emotional impact, stir the same memories as they will for those who experienced the characters now at centre stage as babies, toddlers, adolescents, young men and women whose natures were forming.
And there are also some challenges simply because you are following several stories, several lives, across thirty years, so it’s harder work for the reader to hold all these stories which are simultaneously going on.
But the tapestry is, to my mind, a gorgeous and richly patterned one, and what makes it work is Smiley’s integrity, her interest in her characters, and her resistance to going for the easy option of just bombarding the reader with high drama on every page. She is as interested in the small detail of small lives as in the actions happening on a world stage – in fact, more so, as it is the effect of the world stage on the daily lives of ordinary people that form the fabric of this.
I do have one small criticism, to do with the way Smiley, or her editors, have chosen to help the reader keep track of the expanding characters across the generations, as marriages, partnerships, the families of the partners and new births happen. This is done at the start of the book via a family tree which takes the reader from book 1 to the end of this book. This takes an element of surprise from the story, as it might give clues as to who for example lives and who might die, early, simply because they leave no heirs, and we might, given knowledge of the first book, and the time of the second, be able to work out why. As the children of Frank, Joe, Lillian and the others reach maturity we might also be able to predict immediately that someone who appears on the scene as a partner for one of the children is not going to be ‘significant’ simply because the format of the family tree tells you who is going to be the partner who fathers the next generation.
I would have liked to see something along the lines of a tree which gave birthdates, and where applicable, deathdates of all the family in 1953 when this book starts, but no indication of any later births, partnerships etc. And perhaps a ‘mini-tree’ at the end of each year which might record only any changes which happened that year – deaths and births – and which could then be a chapter conclusion, easily found in the book, or in an e-reader, which would be a useful way for the reader to keep track of the ages of the appearing (or departing) characters, and their relationships in the tree at large.
‘Relationships’ being of course a major thread of this book. The land itself, however changed by fashion and global economy, and the lives of family members, however changed by global scattering far from that Iowan beginning, exert tendrils and roots which bind them together.
The title of this book nods to that fear which formed a low-level background, and some-times a right-up-close-and-personal stuff of nightmares, from the Bay of Pigs onwards.
Smiley does that shivering thing, where the characters (and the reader) are deep in the minutiae of day-to-day, skating on the thin-ice surface, and suddenly, some film gets whisked aside, and you are face to face with ‘here be monsters’:
What he remembered….was standing near one of the windows and being revisited by a feeling from that trip he took for Arthur to Iran; at the sight of buzzards feasting in the moonlight on some carcass, say a goat, he had known all of a sudden how little intervened between the hot breeze on that runway and death itself. Death had shimmered in the air – as close as his next breath – and in that satin-draped consulate, looking out on Sixty-ninth street, he had felt that once again. Now, he thought, right now, at the Russian Tea Room, it was even closer, if still beyond the boundary. The thought made his hand resting on the table look vivid, still, pale like marble
And no doubt, the times and the changes will run even faster, not to mention the scatterings, despite global communications, become even more dizzying, when the third volume takes on the age of the world-wide-web, social media and all the rest.
I received this as an ARC from the Amazon Vine programme UK. Publication date is the 28th April USA/7th May in the UK