After finishing the final novel in her Last Hundred Years trilogy, you may wonder if perhaps Jane Smiley is a bit ... pessimistic. Golden Age, which takes place from 1987 to 2019, covers political, cultural and economic turmoil as well as climate change, the trend toward genetically modified food and the repercussions of the war on terror.
The book isn’t entirely bleak, but it ends on several grim notes. “How long have I been convinced this country is doomed?” one character asks. “I always thought it would be fossil fuels, corruption, and climate change . ... I thought racism was like a giant tapeworm, horrible and disgusting, that we just had to live with. ... After the people were murdered in that church in Charleston, I said to myself, That’s what’s going to destroy us after all.”
So does Smiley truly take a dim view of our future?
“I have to say, I’m pretty ambivalent,” she says, laughing. “Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Of course the point of view of the novelist is ‘Let’s go to the dark side.’ It’s a little bit of a cautionary tale. I think we’re at a point in our history where we really have to pause and think about what’s going on.”
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In Golden Age, Smiley, 66, who appears Monday at Miami Book Fair, concludes her ambitious project of covering 100 years in the life of an Iowa family (the first two novels in the trilogy are Some Luck and Early Warning). The story starts in 1920 on the Langdons’ farm and encompasses major and minor historic events throughout the century, from World War II to the counterculture revolution to 9/11 (“It took me a long time to figure out how to approach 9/11,” confesses Smiley, who fittingly is speaking from Iowa, where she lived for 24 years; now she lives in Carmel Valley, California).
“Jane Smiley has such a clear, strong, American voice, there is no mistaking her work for any other,” says local novelist Diana Abu-Jaber. “She's my favorite kind of writer, mingling vivid plots with ingenious characters with subtle, nuanced interiority. She writes with such generous heaps of humor and grief, you feel a little richer and keener for reading her books.”
Author of such novels as Horse Heaven, Moo, Good Faith and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres as well as two story collections, five young adult books and various works of nonfiction, Smiley says the Last Hundred Years trilogy had to start in farm country, because Iowa, like her, has “a lot of ambivalence about a lot of different things.”
“I really wanted to talk about what’s happened over the years in the world of food, because I’m interested in food,” she says. “I’m interested in nutrition and in the way we grow food, and I wanted my characters to wrestle with those issues. In some parts of the country, especially urban parts, people know what they like but don’t pay attention to where it comes from.
“Another thing is that if you live in Iowa, you’ve got to get out of town — not everybody can stay on the farm. And if your characters leave, you can go a lot of different places.”
The Langdon offspring travel across the country, across the world, even. Members of three different generations find themselves fighting in wars overseas. There are marriages that last and unions that fail. There are sublime moments of peace and contentment and sudden tragedies that knock the survivors (and readers) back a step. But death in a family is inevitable, especially over the lifetimes of many characters.
“I had to make it plausible over the course of 100 years,” Smiley says. “Some events are really important, like World War II. My characters had to get in there somehow. I had to figure out how to get them there. For a writer, that’s always an interesting thing to do, no matter what you’re doing to your character. It’s an interesting puzzle, how to get them on the scene. I did enjoy it but not for the reason people assume. You don’t love killing them off. You enjoy solving the puzzle.”
Over the course of three books, Smiley’s relationship with the Langdons evolved much like the relationships in any family: “Keeping track of them was like keeping track of your family. You forget the more distant relatives, but the memories of your family are defined in your mind. You don’t forget who they are.”
Family, of course, always presents fertile ground for a novelist. Smiley says she developed a great deal of affection for the Langdons, “even the ones that I would not be especially fond of if I knew them in real life.”
The power of memory and nostalgia also fuels the trilogy — and was part of Smiley’s interest in tackling the project in the first place.
“I’m pretty old at this point,” Smiley says. “I have a lot of memories of my own life, and it interests me, how they accumulate. My daughter was reminding me about an hour ago of something we already talked about. I told her, ‘I have so many memories the cataloging system breaks down!’ My husband remembers perfectly so many places we’ve been that I don’t remember, but I remember stories we’ve been told that he doesn’t remember. That fascinates me. It’s so idiosyncratic. That’s what moved me to get going on this book.”
Meet the author
What: “An Evening With Jane Smiley.”
When: 6 p.m. Monday.
Where: Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave.; $15, www.miamibookfair.com.