Late in this final novel in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, when we’ve nearly reached the end of that century that runs from 1920 to 2020, a middle-aged character asks her aunt, “Do you think that we’ve lived through a golden age?” After some back-and-forth the aunt has the last, unspoken, word: “She did think right then that all golden ages, perhaps, were discovered within.”
The conversation casts a shimmer of irony over the novel, if not the whole trilogy, because no one going through a golden age knows it; it can only be seen in the rearview mirror. And by the time we’ve come to this reflection, in 2018, things back in the distant past of, say, 2011 are starting to look pretty good. It was at that point, I think, that I paused and said, “Wow, I still have nine years to go?”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s been interesting, sometimes powerfully so, following the Langdon clan as they branched out from their beginnings, Northern European stock on an Iowa farm, and married (or didn’t) and produced offspring and became some of the more recognizable character types of the 20th century: the beleaguered farmer, the rapacious investment banker, the spineless if well-meaning congressman (in her acknowledgments, Smiley thanks “the members of the U.S. Congress for being so easy to satirize”), the strident environmentalist, the distinguished professor, the horsey woman, the traumatized veteran.
That all of these characters seem so true — from what they eat and wear and drive to how they act and think and feel — is a testament to Smiley’s extraordinary talent (and extraordinary application).
But for all vastness and fineness of detail, the novel doesn’t let you get close enough to any of its characters to care particularly.
Year by year, they take their turns on stage, and the big things happen — world events like 9/11, the mortgage crisis, the Iraq war, drought, racial strife (viewed through a liberal lens in a very white world); and private ones, like falling in and out of love, raising children, losing jobs and fortunes (lots of money in this world as well), sickness and, especially this late in the Langdons’ story, death. Where these trends, the public and private, intersect — a rich and abiding theme for this prodigious author — is where the real story takes place and where what has been more learned than felt deepens into a sort of worldly sadness.
Nowhere is this truer than on the farm where the family started and a scion remained, to be buffeted by the forces of high (which is to say, low) finance, corporate greed and environmental depredation.
A venal uncle is involved in the undoing of the last Langdon farmer, but what we’re left with is much bigger and bleaker than one family’s loss — which may be the most significant and disturbing point of “Golden Age”: The heart of the country may be hopelessly broken.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. On the Web at ellenakins.com.