Smiley’s ambitions for her writing are vast, even when she enacts them on a small canvas. She wants to document, in the familiar mode of literary realists, the vagaries and turmoil of the contemporary middle class, particularly as evidenced in the crucible of the family. Yet she also shares her generation’s belief in the social responsibility of the writer and has increasingly used her fiction to challenge the political, economic, and cultural presumptions of American capitalism and its deformations of individual aspiration. Even her entry into the world of horse racing in Horse Heaven and A Year at the Races explores her characteristic concern with the mysteries of personality—equine as well as human—caught in the uncompromising grip of the profit motive.
Smiley’s fascination with the interplay of small-scale and large-scale stories of human endeavor has taken various forms over the course of her career, including a determination to produce fiction in the four primary literary modes of epic, tragedy, comedy, and romance. Each offers a different enactment of the struggle between individual and societal agendas grounded in the domestic spaces that promise a fragile refuge from the chaos of existence. Yet the coherence sought in those spaces rarely holds up under the pressure of personal desire and its disruptive impact on those around them.
In this regard, Smiley’s medieval studies, given fictional expression in The Greenlanders, illuminate her distinctive perspective on the human condition. In that novel, characters pursue their lives within a tragic and incomprehensible universe. The steady turn of the wheel of fortune exposes the transitory nature of earthly pursuits—prosperity, power, fame, and pleasure all prove ephemeral under the yoke of human mortality. The violence, sexual betrayal, greed, and envy that human beings inflict upon themselves and others through weaknesses that they cannot conquer upend the most strenuous efforts to create social harmony, and even love proves as likely to destroy as to create.
In confronting such a world, Smiley’s most admirable characters are those who, despite their limitations and failures, stumble toward a personal vision of moral responsibility and communal obligation that both enables their survival and dignifies their self-awareness. The medieval and the existential merge within characters who stoically confront their griefs—a trait that one discovers among Smiley’s modern midwesterners as well, people whom she finds equally equipped to absorb disaster, commit themselves to the burdens of daily labor, and engage in serious moral examination of their lives even as they go about the epic task of building or sustaining new outposts of civilization. Not surprisingly, her signal foray into American historical fiction—The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998)—unfolds in “Bloody Kansas” at a critical national turning point: the eve of the Civil War, when the first armed skirmishes over the future of slavery set the terms not only for the catastrophe to come but also for the renewed democratic purpose of the nation to which it would give birth.
Yet it is also somewhat misleading to identify that work strictly in the epic vein, since Smiley herself regards it as her foray into the popular nineteenth century romance, with its picaresque expansiveness of plot and character. What one discovers in Smiley’s work, in fact, is a consistent hybridity of forms where tonal complexities underscore the writer’s mixed ambitions for any given narrative. The tragic underpinnings of so many of her family dramas crescendoed in A Thousand Acres, whose self-evident updating of William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605) in the heartland starkly distilled her well-established midwestern theme of “taking responsibility for what is going on around you.” Much of her early fiction had already explored the tragic power of parents over children and the lifelong contortions that such influence can assume: The matriarchal rigidities of Kate Karlson in Barn Blind forecast the more terrible patriarchal violations of Larry Cook in A Thousand Acres, whose presumed ownership of his offspring feeds a will to power that underpins the primal transgression in Smiley’s world. By linking the subordination of children and the conquest of nature quite openly in this novel, Smiley details the ecological as well as the human costs of overweening egotism and the tragic lust for dominance that it promotes. Perhaps this also clarifies her later—and far different—writings about horses, whose mysterious impenetrability defies possession of their inner lives by any “owner” and thereby puts the lie to the superiority of the human species altogether.
Moving in the mid-1990’s from the grim mission of tragedy in A Thousand Acres to the carnivalesque tableau characterizing subsequent works such as Moo and Good Faith may seem a dramatic break from Smiley’s earlier vision, but in fact it derives from that same medieval wheel of fortune, with its droll reminder of the vanity of all human wishes and the inevitability of the mighty’s demise. In Moo, Smiley’s highly popular burlesque of higher education, she sketches what reviewer Pico Iyer calls “a riotous assemblage of types as various as the Deadly Sins,” language evoking medieval morality plays. In it, she set herself comedy’s challenge to forge “a dagger so sharp the victim doesn’t feel it going in at first, but also [remain both] acerbic and loving, [delivering] a criticism so kindly meant that the victim smiles and says,’You’re right. I must certainly change my ways.’”
Although Smiley’s protagonists belong to both genders, range broadly in age (from the adolescent boys in Barn Blind to the Vietnam War veteran in Good Will to the septuagenarian grandmother in At Paradise Gate), and even occasionally cross the species barrier (as in Moo and Horse Heaven), the sensibility that most consistently colors her fiction is the middle-aged voice of adult experience ruefully taking stock of its shattered illusions and discovering its potential for compromise and negotiation. It is the absolutist who comes in for the harshest treatment in Smiley’s work for refusing to admit that maturity demands a willingness to settle for less than one once imagined as one’s due. As Rachel Kinsella, the fifty-two-year-old Iowan narrator of Ordinary Love, concedes, “I have learned over the last twenty years to embrace the possible and not mourn the rest.”
Smiley’s feminism explains her attention to the nature of power and the hierarchical valuations that it encourages within social structures ranging from the family to the state. Her novels are especially astute at capturing the inner lives of women whose subjectivity has often been assumed nonexistent simply because it has been hidden or obscured. In giving these women voice, Smiley dissects the platitudes about women’s nature that obstruct their ability to see themselves clearly and live authentically. She also challenges sentimental equations of sexual desire and romantic love, creating decent women who learn, to their dismay, how easily the two may be separated.
Smiley’s most significant feminist insight lies in her insistence that women take themselves seriously as moral beings responsible for their own self-definition. She exposes the attitudes and social structures that encourage women toward economic, emotional, and societal dependency and critiques the wider consequences of patriarchal assumptions: “Women, just like nature or the land, have been seen as something to be used. . . . Feminists insist that women have intrinsic value, just as environmentalists believe that nature has its own worth, independent of its use to man.” Yet she does not create idealized feminist saints; her women characters include shrews, tyrants, obsessives, intellectuals, wallflowers, apologists, and airheads along with solid, matriarchal earth mothers. Moreover, she insists on the reality of women’s lifelong polymorphous sexual appetites in contradiction to still-powerful models of asexualized bourgeois femininity. The result is that Smiley’s work boasts as rich a collection of female personalities as exists in modern fiction.
Like her acknowledged literary model Charles Dickens, Smiley has devoted considerable ink in mapping the intricate social, economic, and political vectors shaping (and deforming) the culture around her. What unites her varied body of work is a sustained interest in the centripetal pull of the American Dream and its endlessly seductive and elusive promises: perhaps the only “good faith” (in keeping with the title of her 2003 novel) that holds the diffuse American fabric together, both in its most venal and its most transformational modes.
The Age of Grief
First published: 1987
Type of work: Short stories
Young adults, confronting the impossible expectations surrounding love, marriage, and family, discover the compromises necessary to sustain those relationships.
The collection of short fiction entitled The Age of Grief presents a wide array of adults battling for and against emotional commitment. These five stories examine family life through characters on the periphery of domesticity. Because the women protagonists in “Lily” and “The Pleasure of Her Company” admire a marital realm they observe only from a distance, both prove unprepared for the disappointments that ensue. Their limited insight into human relationships results, in part, from the absence of such entanglements in their own lives. Lily’s emotional “virginity” permits her the freedom to write but also leads her to meddle unwittingly in a marriage whose compromises she has overlooked. In “The Pleasure of Her Company,” Florence witnesses the dissolution of an “ideal” marriage but also rejects the cynic’s dismissal of love as a delusion, pursuing her own blossoming love affair with the realist’s admonition that “it’s worth finding out for yourself.”
Smiley also caricatures those who orchestrate their emotional lives with the same professional calculation they apply to their stock portfolios, as with the female letter-writer of “Jeffrey, Believe Me.” Here the protagonist remains so intent on bearing a child before she is too old that she willfully seduces a gay male friend and callously rejects any personal responsibility for the other human beings she is exploiting. The male protagonist of “Long Distance” offers an alternative response to such narcissism: His Christmas odyssey to join his brothers for the holidays prompts a reassessment of his callousness toward a Japanese woman with whom he has had an affair. Never having acknowledged the continual negotiations at the heart of family life, he now sees the moral bankruptcy in his self-serving behavior.
In “Dynamite,” a woman in early middle age juggles conflicting impulses about integrating her past lives. A radical political activist in the 1960’s, Sandy has lived underground for the past twenty years. Even as she yearns to recover ties with a mother she has never truly known, she restlessly yearns “to do the most unthought-of thing, the itch to destroy what is made—the firm shape of life, whether unhappy, as it was, or happy, as it is now.” Memory and fantasy weave an elaborate web of longing in her that prompts wild behavior swings and punctures the bourgeois stability that she seems, superficially, to covet. Sandy’s paradoxes defy taming and make her representative of the struggle against self that is typical of Smiley’s protagonists.
The volume’s title novella depicts a family crisis in which a laboriously constructed normality gives way from within. The story is told in the first person by David Hurst, guardian of that normality. Father of three young daughters and a successful dentist, he sees his carefully balanced world collapse when his wife and professional partner, Dana, falls suddenly in love with another man. David struggles with how to handle his knowledge of the affair and chooses to remain silent even as it intrudes into every facet of his life. The family moves to the edge of dissolution as Dana’s obsession keeps her away from home for twenty-four hours. When she finally reappears, she and David agree not to discuss what has led her to relinquish her lover and cautiously resume their marriage. With a generosity of spirit—or failure of will—steeped in profound sadness, David describes his midlife experiences as “the same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from.”
“Ordinary Love” and “Good Will”
First published: 1989
Type of work: Novellas
The loss of parental illusions about one’s control over the family circle sparks the dubious consolation of witnessing one’s children fall from innocence—and into humanity.
By placing a mother’s story alongside a father’s story in this volume, Smiley experiments with the differing narrative rhythms she associates with each gender. The first-person voice of Ordinary Love belongs to a fifty-two-year-old Iowan, a divorced mother of five grown children who typifies Smiley’s clear-eyed defiance of sentimental pieties about the heartland matriarch. Rachel Kinsella’s story, matter-of-factly told in a tone at once stoic and unrepentant, involves the jarring incompatibility of having proudly borne five babies in five years while married to a doting, ambitious doctor, then initiating an adulterous love affair that ruptured the family idyll so completely that even her identical twin sons were separated in ensuing custody battles. Rachel’s history, an arc of emotional devastation and recovery, leads her in middle age to a maturity brought into being out of wildness, grief,...
(The entire section is 5738 words.)