"Some Luck" (2014), the first volume in Jane Smiley’s ambitious, assured, and slyly rebellious "Last Hundred Years" trilogy, opens with a weather report. It’s 1920 and winter on an Iowa farm. There’s a slight breeze in the afternoon, and a farmer notices that the snow has lasted longer than it did last year, the landscape an almost unbroken field of white and gray – “vast snow faded into vast cloud cover,” as Smiley writes.
Walter Langdon, the farmer taking all this in, spies an owl flying by with a rabbit in its talons. The experienced reader knows how to respond to this: Foreshadowing, we think. Presumably we’ll experience some kind of feral act of violence in the heartland down the line. But Smiley’s opening is a feat of indirection whose purpose isn’t obvious until 10 imaginary decades and about 1,300 real pages later, in the closing scenes of the third book, Golden Age. The foreshadowing wasn’t the poor abducted critter. The foreshadowing was the weather report.
It becomes clear in "Golden Age" that much of the "Last Hundred Years" is about climate change – or, to be more precise, about what one American family made of its nation’s bounty as the bounty dried up. But Smiley doesn’t press that point very hard until the very end, which imagine the years from 2015 to 2019. (We’re prepping for a Jeb Bush vs. Elizabeth Warren presidential race, apparently.) Indeed, before then, the books seem practically themeless. The narrative moves implacably, a chapter for every year, shifting from Langdon to Langdon but not heavily privileging any one character, and always on a forward march. Smiley’s more prominent characters play useful roles for an author addressing the American Century – soldier, politician, farmer, military contractor, scholar, trapped wife, feminist. But whatever symbolism they might provide is submerged by the plain realism of Smiley’s depiction of the ordinariness of everyday life – marriages, kids, arguments, suppers, vacations.
Smiley’s interest in the intimate and epic has drawn comparisons to John Updike’s "Rabbit Angstrom" tetralogy (“Every bit as ambitious as Updike’s magnum opus,” as USA Today had it.) But Rabbit was a singular character who observed the shifting American mood with a mix of bemusement and wonder; for all the pathos contained in those novels, Updike’s attitude toward the country was largely celebratory. Smiley’s story not only channel-surfs across characters, it looks at history with a more skeptical, unimpressed demeanor. Farmers are suckered by Monsanto; politicians are suckered by money; one naïve Langdon is suckered by Jim Jones; everyone gets suckered by credit default swaps. Updike’s saga intoned, “You are there.” Smiley’s asks, “What the hell just happened?” Walter’s grandson Richie, a congressman from New York, is struck in 2008 by the way today’s urgency turns into tomorrow’s ephemera. “He hadn’t thought of David Koresh or Janet Reno in years. When he was first elected to Congress, he had thought about them every hour of every day.”
And besides, Smiley’s taste in literary models tend to predate Updike’s oeuvre by centuries: 1991’s "A Thousand Acres" reworked "King Lear"in Iowa, and 2007’s "Ten Days in the Hills" transplanted "The Decameron" to Hollywood. A closer model for the "Last Thousand Years" might be Balzac’s "The Human Comedy," which Smiley herself described (in 2005’s "13 Ways of Looking at a Novel") as “a dense fictional kaleidoscope of materialism, envy, spite, worldliness, and occasional virtue.” Reading the "Last Hundred Years," that sounds close. But even then she’s not trying to be so dramatic, so pointedly producing a Social Novel. Langdons die in abundance in the trilogy, yet Smiley swings her scythe via restrained prose that’s determined to puncture any swelling melodrama death might present. Down they go, decade by decade: hand grenade, heart attack, AIDS, lightning strike, 9/11, rogue wave, hit-and-run, pre-apocalyptic wilding mob.
That’s the audacious thing about the "Last Hundred Years": The narrative’s central tension is how distant Smiley can position herself from her characters without removing emotion from the story entirely, without making her trilogy an act of plain reportage. Its consistent forward thrust is matched by a consistent flatness – there’s hardly a sentence you’d call artful in the whole saga. “I knew there was going to be complexity of theme and complexity of character and decided not to have complexity of language,” Smiley told the Paris Review. And yet, it’s a remarkably affecting book. So how does a trilogy so deliberately cool give off the heat it does?
For many readers, the sheer scope may do the trick; for others, it’ll be her grasp of everything from the evolving military industrial complex to medieval literature. For me, though, the key is in a character who owns the story’s stage for a brief moment in "Some Luck." Mary Elizabeth, Walter and Rosanna’s third child, is born in 1924; in 1925 she dies after she’s stunned during a rainstorm, an incident Smiley describes from her usual remove: “Mary Elizabeth went down, flat down, on her back, and she hit the back of her head on the corner of a wooden egg crate, and as the thunder clapped, she was utterly silent and still.”
History marches past her, but the saga never quite lets Mary Elizabeth go. She remains in the center of the genealogical chart included in each book. And in "Early Warning," her sister Lillian takes a moment in 1975 to contemplate her ghost:
"The ghost of a little girl, Lillian thought, even a toddler, would be completely formed and full of individuality. She would have a way of reaching upward and opening and closing her fist when she wanted something. She would have a rhyme that she asked for again and again – this little piggy went to market – and she would smile and not when you pronounce it…. The ghost of a little girl would stand by her baby sister’s cradle and stare at her, never touching her, but wondering about her, about how she came to be, whom she belonged to. The ghost of a little girl would not necessarily be wise – she might spend her ghostly existence lost in confusion."
The "Last Hundred Years" isn’t a morbid saga, but Mary Elizabeth underscores how much it’s about the brevity of time we’re given. Though some characters are cut short as toddlers and others push 100, every Langdon that survives into adulthood is contemplating their mortality. Old age creeps up on them, as it does us; the deaths of friends and family members creep up on them, as us. That’s reality, but to make it feel real in a novel, the story has to creep along too – it needs scope, length, breadth, and time, more than most novelists are capable of giving. The most effective characters in the books shift from adolescence to adulthood to middle age and onward must like we do, surprised at how the years go, so fast and so quickly as well. At a recent talk at Arizona State University, Smiley described reading proofs of "Golden Age," nearly 450 pages of dense text, this way: “What struck me is how short it is.”
Smiley’s determination to stay in a steady low orbit is a curious feat – I don’t know of any other tale that sustains itself that way without being a purposeful study in blandness. But she can’t quite sustain it: Even stories about the steady march of time need endings, a sense of climax, and she presses the fast-forward button in the closing chapters, imagining a troubling future that all those troubling farm reports and punting on Kyoto have been leading toward. That doesn’t make the "Last Hundred Years" a failure, but it’s a reminder that realist fiction has limits. If history is fair, it’ll remember how much Smiley pushed them.