Jane Smiley’s timing couldn’t be better, coming to Minnesota to discuss her trilogy about 100 years of family in that month of holiday land mines between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
A hundred years. Of family.
She’s here Dec. 2 for the Talking Volumes series with “Golden Age,” the conclusion of her “Last Hundred Years” trilogy, which spans more than 1,300 pages and the years from 1920 to 2020.
The story follows the Langdons, an Iowa farm family, in an ambitious and captivating exploration of family dynamics and personal demons against a backdrop of historical events.
It’s also about so much less.
“I wanted to do it year by year, and the years to have equal weight,” said Smiley, who’s known for tackling a genre because she’s not yet written in it. “The reason for that is that things come and go.
“What a novel usually says is that things come, and come, and come — and then they end. But that’s not what life says. I was interested in the idea of very dramatic things happening, but then you live through them. You go on. It can’t be drama all the time.”
She paused, rethinking.
“It’s not that it can’t be drama all the time. But what is drama to you is not drama to me. Actually, an interesting thing about families is that they talk about things over the years. I love that about families, always gossiping, sometimes behind their backs, but also right to each other. And there can be different interpretations of what something meant.
“That was something I wanted to get at.”
“Golden Age” follows the earlier volumes, “Some Luck” (October 2014) and “Early Warning” (May 2015). Smiley covers many themes: agriculture, politics, climate change, Wall Street shenanigans, environmentalism, Communism, feminism. Characters include a CIA agent, a congressman, an investment banker, a caterer, a professor, a cowboy, an environmentalist, a mom, a soldier.
This range of pursuits doesn’t drive certain plots as much as it provides a range of sounding boards for history.
The Goliath of modern ag
Smiley’s politics are clear, and clearly liberal. But she saves her sharpest pencil for her outrage at how American agriculture has grown industrialized and, to a growing number of consumers, compromised.
Born in St. Louis, with a long stint teaching and writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, she is steeped in the Midwest’s farming heritage. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “A Thousand Acres,” recasts Shakespeare’s “King Lear” tragedy on tractors.
Her anger emerges slowly in the first two volumes, as subtle as the seasoning on a Cedar Rapids pot roast.
But she lets fly in “Golden Age,” drawing a broad bead on genetically modified foods, and a particular one on Monsanto, a leading producer of biotech seed.
In Smiley’s Iowa, a local farmer named Bill Gorman is sued for theft by Monsanto after pollen from a neighbor’s field planted with its seed drifted onto his field, potentially improving its yield.
The farmer can’t quite take this seriously. How can he control the drift of the wind?
But as Smiley writes: “The Monsanto lawyer made the case that Bill had benefited from property that Monsanto owned, and that he was, in effect, selling stolen goods.”
It seems far-fetched, but is in fact based on real-life incidents of Monsanto suing farmers whose crops were unknowingly contaminated — or, in Monsanto’s view, unwittingly improved.
So, has Smiley heard from the food giant?
“I haven’t heard from any lawyers,” she said with a wry laugh. “And an old friend from school is married to a Monsanto lawyer and she’s still my friend.”
Smiley says all this by phone while sitting in the shade at the Menlo Park train station in California, where she has lived for almost 20 years.
“You can’t believe what a nice train station this is, the beautiful iron work,” she said, then apologized for the ruckus of an arriving train. “Exactly two people got off,” she deadpanned. “Oh, here’s the third.”
The observation is enigmatic. Is Smiley making some point about car-crazed Californians’ use of mass transit? Or is she simply describing what happened?
It’s the sort of daily documentation that she does throughout the trilogy, the Langdons’ routine unfolding amid news of the AIDS epidemic, Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, the Cold War and more. But news is what happens while everyone is making their way in the world — or through their acres of oats and corn.
Smiley believes that genetically modified foods are dangerous. Yet it’s a tribute to her writing skills that she conveys her outrage without making your eyes glaze over; surely, herbicides have never received such literary treatment.
Here’s Jesse Langdon looking out at his soybean field, “clean, healthy, mostly weed-free.” A third-generation farmer, Jesse had embraced the potential of science.
“He always had been precise, and precision seemed to be paying off, but, to be honest, he didn’t know how long that would be true. … The longer he looked, the more the field looked as though something was about to happen, as if it were a blanket about to be sucked into the sky.”
A dose of humility, then hope
Smiley, 66, is prolific. She has published 16 novels; five works of nonfiction, including one about her idol, Charles Dickens, and five books for young adults.
As to what she’s working on now? “I’m not sayin’.”
Critics have heralded the “Last Hundred Years” trilogy as “staggering,” “a masterpiece,” “reminiscent of the work of Willa Cather and Alice Munro.”
Surely, it’s her most ambitious. In an earlier interview, Smiley told the Los Angeles Times that she was motivated by a desire to tamp down what she sees as jingoistic chest-beating in this country.
“It’s sort of the way you are if you’re an American: We’ve done so much for the world; we’ve invented so much,” she had said. “But the very things that we think we are proud of, such as commercial, conventional farming, can be the things that destroy us.”
“It’s not just about America,” she explained further, as a train rumbled into Menlo Park. “It’s about every empire. Every empire congratulates itself on the things that made it great, but then they go too far.”
This overreaching is a baby boomer trait, and she has a theory about why. “I think that growing up in the Cold War raised our fight-flight response. And so everything that we’ve done, we’ve done with a great deal of intensity.
“For some people, a raised flight response made them more nervous and fearful. For others, the fight response, the instant willingness to go to war, was established.”
The good news is that boomers had kids.
“I have five children, including stepchildren, and there’s a part of me that’s just screaming, ‘Omigod, what’s going to happen to them?’ and there’s a part of me that also says they will fix it.
“I try to address this a little in the end of Volume 3, that I see darkness ahead, but also hope in the next generation.”
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185