Can Jane Smiley make Tom Wolfe happy?

Reading between the lines.
May 6 2003 1:47 PM

Operation Smiley

Jane Smiley's struggle to write a great American novel.

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Smiley has always been much more at ease than, say, Jonathan Franzen is with the knowledge that lots of people in really existing modern America are hollowed out and have no sort of emotional life to speak of. ("Talk to me. Let's have some news of your inner life," a terrorist's boyfriend says in the interesting early short story "Dynamite." And the narrator replies, "I've told you that I don't have an inner life. There is no inner life. ... I may look pretty, but it's just natural chemical engineering.")

So it's not that Smiley gets too lazy or forgetful to do the work of characterization and relationship-building. There are, after all, deep friendships and enmities, big passions and broken hearts, throughout her fiction. It's just that, as a social novelist, she feels the need to play the social hand she's been dealt, even if the deck is full of people who bore other novelists, and (a greater risk) some readers, too.

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Good Faith is that way. Smiley's gifts have always been as much intellectual as emotional. At her best she has a Zenlike understanding of human motivation and its paradoxes. (As the hours run out on a fun weekend tryst, Joe thinks, "It was like the last hundred dollars in your bank account—enlarged by its contrast to the nothing that would follow, and so almost reassuring in a way.") And she does not flinch when the dramatic situation she has written herself into calls for a socio-economic exegesis—even political exegesis—rather than empathy. This is the way a good journalist's intelligence works, or a good historian's, and it is the kind of intelligence that forms the backbone of Good Faith. It is a social novel that succeeds in spite of, rather than in light of, the case made so loudly on the social novel's behalf.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West will be published in the United States in July.