Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Golden Age," by Jane Smiley

Reading the wonderful first two novels of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy made me eager to read the third one, and now that I have read it, it more than lives up to the anticipation. “Some Luck,” about which I posted on 11/4/14), and “Early Warning” (see my post of 5/23/15), described the ever-growing Langdon family. The third novel, “Golden Age” (Knopf, 2015), brings the story up to the year 2019. As in the other two novels, Smiley organizes the novel through providing one chapter for each year. The Langdon family has proliferated, and further spread out across the country, so less and less of the story takes place in the original Iowa farm setting, but still the family farm is the historical and emotional center and core of the family’s experience, its reference point. The original six siblings (children of the founding family, Walter and Rosanna Langdon) and their spouses are now elderly or have died. The six siblings’ children and grandchildren are the focus of this latest novel. When I started reading it, even though I had just read the second novel a few months before, I felt plunged into the storylines helter-skelter, and it took some pages to find my footing again. But I soon remembered the connections, and then the story swept me along. I can’t say what it would be like to read this third novel without having read the first two; I think it would be fine, after the first 50 pages or so, but I highly recommend reading all three novels, and of course in order. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, the number of characters caused me to look frequently at the family tree diagram at the front of the book to remind myself who a certain character was, or how a certain character was related to another. The novel, like the other two, is longish (443 pages) and stuffed with story. As with the other novels, Smiley interweaves the stories of the family and the specific characters with the events going on around them in the United States. There is a particular focus on climate change and the environment, and even more particularly on how climate change affects farmland and farming. Another focus is the financial misdeeds leading up to the crises of 2006-2008. These two focuses are intertwined, as financial crimes affect farm owners in terrible ways; together, the two forces are harmful beyond measure. As mentioned above, the author takes her story up to 2019, and the events of the last few years edge into the apocalyptic. Clearly the author strongly believes that the U.S. is on an incredibly self-destructive path. There are many ironies along the way, or perhaps baleful views of humanity; for example, one of the characters in the world of finance is directly and maliciously responsible for dreadful harm done to other characters and to the family farming tradition. But I don’t want to leave the impression that this novel is mostly an issue-driven one, or mostly an apocalyptic one; it is those things, but our interest is always drawn back again and again to those stalwart qualities of good fiction: plot and character. And what characters Smiley creates! Various, fascinating, and oh so human. What an amazing accomplishment this trilogy is! I believe that it will be a longlasting one, one that is truly a great American novel capturing the sweep of time in 100 years of American history and culture. Although it is a real commitment to read these three long novels, I can say with great confidence that readers will find the time investment more than worthwhile, and will enjoy themselves along the way.
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