Books

Jane Smiley’s latest novel project follows a family for 100 years

Jane Smiley is writing a trilogy that focuses on one family’s 100-year history, and with the release of “Early Warning” is two-thirds of the way done.
Jane Smiley is writing a trilogy that focuses on one family’s 100-year history, and with the release of “Early Warning” is two-thirds of the way done. Penguin/Random House

One of the websites often visited by Jane Smiley, Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist and noted horsewoman, is an addictive database called pedigreequery.com, where you can click on photos of your thoroughbred’s ancestors dating to the 1880s.

“Some horses, their relatives all look different,” Smiley said. “Some horses, they look like they were stamped from the same cookie cutter. Bing, bing, bing, bing. Families are like that, too. That’s how genetics works. I didn’t want to create a family where they were all alike. I did want to do a family where they are hybrids.”

What Smiley has created in her three-part “The Last 100 Years” fictional project – the second novel, “Early Warning” was recently released ($26.95; Alfred A. Knopf, 476 pages) – is a family saga both writ large and intimately. It follows the extended Langdon family as it makes its way in 20th-century America, branching out from the family farm in Iowa and scattering to both edges of the continent and locales in between, their experiences as different as their personalities, but all nonetheless tethered by familial obligations.

Along the way, events of the day make their mark on the family, some significantly, some obliquely, some simply from arm’s length. The first in the trilogy, “Some Luck.” dealt with two world wars, the Great Depression and concludes at the onset of the Cold War. “Early Warning,” as its title implies, begins amid the dark clouds of the Cold War’s mutually assured destruction, touches upon Vietnam and its concomitant antiwar protests, the Jonestown massacre, the AIDS plague and the rise of Reaganomics.

Yet, Smiley resists having her characters pop up, Zelig-like, in current events. But with a family numbering well into double figures by “Early Warning’s” denouement, with their pedigree considerably more hybrid than cookie-cutter, topical events will make an impact on the surviving children and brood of grandchildren of Walter and Rosanna Vogel Langdon.

20Novels and young adult novels by Jane Smiley

This novelist is not afraid of tackling sweeping subjects in what some may perceive as a limiting form. Each chapter, roughly the same length but with varying third-person points of view, covers a year in the life of the characters, and not a single voice dominates the narrative – though some, like first-born son Frank, try mightily by sheer force of personality.

A few early reviews of “Early Warning” warned that the work was too sprawling and diffuse, failing to flesh out characters’ motivations, yearnings and inner lives. Smiley, in a phone interview from her home near Carmel, said that any number of characters in “Early Warning” could merit a novel or her or his own, – say, Frank, a melding of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom and “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, or his youngest sister, Claire, stuck in a confining marriage at the dawn of feminism – but that was not her purpose.

“Every form is simultaneously limiting and enlightening, so those characters could be a book of their own,” she said. “… This time, I just wanted to write about how a group of people who are different from one another in many ways meet up with the world they live in and the history they pass through.”

Smiley, 65, has written about her fondness of Dickens, whose novels often were published in serial form and adhered to strict frameworks, and she’s written convincingly in many novelistic forms and genres.

“I never mind being stuck within parameters,” she said. “The first thing that came to me was this (trilogy) title, ‘The Last 100 Years.’ As soon as I thought about the title, the ideas of the form came to me. I thought it’d be just as interesting to work in that form and to get each of the years reasonably substantive but have them all go by equally, rather than make any year any more important than any other. I quite got into it once I was going.”

Smiley is more concerned with character and messy family dynamics than trying to document the social upheavals. Topical matters are filtered through the personal. But Smiley does treat readers to a cameo or two – Rosanna’s sister’s daughter, Rosa, has a date with Beat icon Neal Cassady; John F. Kennedy and his intelligence chief, McGeorge Bundy, interact with Arthur, the CIA agent married to a Langdon.

“They aren’t touched by everything,” Smiley said. “There are many events I left out. What I decided was to send them out into the world and the events they encountered would be plausible for them to encounter when and where they were.”

More interesting is how, 66 years and two books into the story, certain patterns develop, lives and even incidents repeat themselves, generation to generation. The evangelist Billy Sunday is featured in “Some Luck,” and Jones and the People’s Temple in “Early Warning.” The ebb and flow of crop prices recur. And, whereas in “Some Luck” Rosanna gives birth to a child by herself in a farmhouse, in “Early Warning,” the wife of Frank’s son, Michael, gives birth in a bathtub in a Manhattan walk-up.

“The things that happen in America, they just happen over and over again,” Smiley said.

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