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.

Book cover

The most recurrent complaint about American novelists is one that Somerset Maugham leveled at Henry James in 1930. A character in Maugham's Cakes and Ale complains that James "turned his back on one of the great events of the world's history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses."

The complaint has taken different forms over time. For the past 15 years, Tom Wolfe has agitated for more detail, more thingy-ness. He has denounced John Irving and John Updike, among others, for having "wasted their careers by not engaging the life around them, by turning their backs on the rich material of an amazing country at a fabulous moment in history." In 1996, Jonathan Franzen gave vent in Harper's to his belief "that putting a novel's characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context." Social relations—even if attenuated by television and urban sprawl—were a sine qua non of the novel.

This polemic is persistent, but is there a point to it? Ideally, Wolfe's method leads us to expertise and to Zola; Franzen's to power relations and to Balzac. But those who promote the social novel run risks, too: They can wind up glorifying sterile fact-gathering, as Le Figaro does when it applauds Julian Barnes' work for its "wealth of information" (which, as the critic James Wood has argued, is no advance for the novel).

Jane Smiley may have thought more about these trade-offs than any other contemporary novelist. Her novels, varied though they are, are dense with well-informed witness-bearing. Her farm epic A Thousand Acres is erudite on the stages of groundwater poisoning, the structure of debt foreclosures, the psychology of incest, the chemistry of crop rotation, and so on. Smiley set her academic novel Moo at an agricultural school, the better to strut her mastery not just of university hiring and grant-making (which most novelists, alas, know inside-out), but also of agronomic experimentation and the way it intersects with the corporate interests of multinational agricultural firms. And unlike many ostentatiously well-informed novelists—one thinks of Wolfe himself—Smiley gives the impression of having undergone the daily grind of American life as well as merely having boned up on it.

But Smiley also once wrote—and is still capable of writing—not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house tales of what modern critics like to call "interiority" and what more retrograde ones would call character. A "character" in this sense is a person who is drawn plausibly enough to serve as a vehicle for turbulent, credible, interesting, and varied emotion. Such a character is the narrator of The Age of Grief, a once-dashing biker who has now become a middle-aged dentist watching his wife fall slowly out of love with him. (Although, while this happens, Smiley never stints on the operational detail of a dental business.)

Over the past weeks, in reviews of her new novel Good Faith, many people have called Smiley "Dickensian." Smiley has a famous affection for Dickens, and this is her first novel to be published since her short biography of Dickens appeared last year. Like Dickens, she has the rare ability to split the difference between emotional "interiority" and social "expertise." So it's curious that Good Faith itself attempts no such compromise: If Smiley's two preoccupations are waging an ongoing battle in her head, then social context has won the latest round in a rout. What results is a solid, smart, keen-eyed novel that nonetheless lacks some of the strengths readers associate most closely with Jane Smiley.

Never has a 400-page novel had a simpler plot. Rebounding from his divorce, 40ish Joe Stratford, a lovable lunk of a Rust Belt real-estate agent, meets an inspired bullshit artist named Marcus Burns. It is 1982, and Burns has fled his job at the IRS, where he learned that, thanks to Reagan's transformation of the tax code, "everything in the world all of a sudden turned into money." The pair set about turning a 580-acre horse farm into a housing development-cum-golf resort. Throw in Joe's love affair with an old (married) friend, and you have the plot.

In many ways, 1982 is the subject of this book rather than its backdrop. The real action takes place at the level of modes and manners. People begin to eat "saffron risotto with truffles and slivers of fennel" ("I eat Italian all the time," Joe remarks, "and I've never heard of half those things") or cranberry-orange muffins ("another something I had never tasted that tasted good"). Such superficial changes accompany more profound ones—changes in the way prestige and political clout are divvied up. When Joe tells the town commission that the Thorpe property, which he wishes to develop, "always has been an asset belonging to the whole community," he catches himself: "How was that again? I thought to myself; the only people around here that Mrs. Thorpe knew were her house servants and her stable hands." Joe is at the cutting edge of a cultural revolution, a revolution so sweeping that Smiley need perform no particular feats of characterization to convey its power to transform.

And—to an extent that is surprising at first—she does without such feats. Aside from the monomaniacal Marcus Burns, Good Faith has no fully drawn people in it at all. Joe has the depth of dime-novel gumshoe. The two affairs he falls into are sexually and emotionally identical.

But this flatness of Good Faith is most likely intended—a price Smiley is willing to pay for accomplishing something else. What is that something else? At a strategic level, she is taking the measure of that revolution we just mentioned. At a tactical level, she is showing that the operative link between her characters in this real-estate world is not the relationship but the transaction. Where Smiley feels the need to delineate character, she does it through a Balzacian technique: the déformation professionnelle. People view life through the window not of their passions but of their jobs. Thus, Joe describes the house he grew up in not as pregnant with memories but as "three bedrooms and one bath upstairs, with a sleeping porch off the back, living room, dining room, kitchen, and entry hall downstairs ..."

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.

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.