Early Warning by Jane Smiley

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Reviewed by Victoria

There’s a strong tradition of episodic narrative in the books that clamour for the title of Great American Novel – Faulkner, Kerouac, Salinger, Twain, Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few, have all written books in which the structure of an overarching plot line is replaced by a series of snapshot episodes, each vivid and adding to our knowledge of the characters; each focusing on different situations, with the effect of creating a patchwork quilt of stories stitched together. Reading Jane Smiley’s middle novel in her Last Hundred Years trilogy, I realised that essentially her technique of a chapter per year is a contemporary variation on the episodic form. But whereas a lot of old school episodic fiction gives the impression that history and its characters exist in a steady continuum despite the picaresque nature of their experiences, Smiley’s novels are all about the steady march of time and its inevitable acts of change by attrition.

The first thing to say about this novel is that it can’t really be read as a standalone. You have to read Some Luck first, or this won’t make any sense at all. Early Warning opens in 1953 at the funeral of Langdon family patriarch, Walter. Gathered there are his five children and his widow, Rosanna. Frank Langdon more or less carried the previous volume, a man of great charisma and intellect, but oddly damaged in his morality, his fearlessness almost a danger signal. Over the next thirty years his marriage to the cool and distant Andy will atrophy, the emotions they never express to one another played out in the angsty dramas of his daughter, Janet, and twin sons, Richie and Michael. In comparison, Lilian’s marriage to Arthur and the lives of their four children are set to flourish out of the richness of their family love. But other terrors await the Mannings, as Arthur’s involvement in the fraught political climate brings him to the brink of his sanity, and when their eldest son, Tim, is sent to Vietnam, their lives are altered forever.

Joe and Lois continue to run the family farm through years of boom and excess, a notable contrast to the fortunes of farmers in Some Luck which took us through the Depression. But it turns out that even plenty brings its own sorts of trouble. Academic Henry explores his homosexuality at last, but then finds himself entangled in the chaos of AIDS. And little Clare, always a confused daddy’s girl, marries a control freak and lives to regret – and then overcome – her circumstances.

Really, this is the novel in which the grandchildren take over the reins of the narrative and the family gets to reap what it sows in a metaphorical way that takes us far beyond the fields of Iowa. It’s also a fascinating period in American history, in which the battle for civil rights and the war in Vietnam share the headlines with assassinations of presidents, the Cuban missile crisis, hostages in Iran and the congregation of the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana. What’s particularly impressive about Jane Smiley’s storytelling is that you never feel like world events are shoehorned into the lives of her characters. Instead, they follow their own completely plausible trajectories, concerned with the eternal questions of love and purpose, and interacting with history only in the inevitable and yet random clashes that structure and derail our lives.

If there’s a weakness in this novel, it’s probably the enormous cast that Smiley has built up; unavoidable when the forebears have five children and the time frame allows for several generations. Although she does an excellent job of making all her characters distinct and vivid, there are moments when a check of the useful family tree at the start of the book is necessary. Also, some stories become truncated, squashed into the spaces left after more dramatic plotlines have run their course. The marriage of Joe and Lois remains a mystery and his son, Jesse, never quite comes to life. Claire’s development and her slow awakening to her own needs and desires is also something that happens more or less off-stage, although it speaks to a significant change in her self-awareness as well as the liberation of women.

But these are very minor quibbles. Jane Smiley’s project is an extremely ambitious one, and few writers could hope to get near her goal of evoking an entire century in a vast and varied country. That she is managing to do so with swift, piercing economy and creating a gripping and insightful narrative is pretty damn impressive. I’m eagerly awaiting the third and final volume.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Jane Smiley, Early Warning (Mantle: London, 2015) 978-1447275640, 480pp., hardback.

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