Book Review : Some Luck by Jane Smiley

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Some Luck is Pulitzer Prize winning Jane Smiley’s latest novel. It is the first part in a trilogy following the Langdon/Vogel family for a century beginning in 1921 with parts 2 and 3 to be published in the UK in May and October 2015 respectively.

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy via Pan Macmillan and Netgalley and also to attend the ‘ Meet The Author’ event at the London Review Bookshop on 4th November.

As Some Luck opens we meet Walter Langdon and his young wife Rosanna. Walter has not long since returned from Europe and WW1 and has bought his farm with the help of a large bank loan.Rosanna is a local girl but of German Catholic stock and their first child Frank is just a few months old.

The book spans the years 1921-1953 with each year being given an individual chapter. During this time we get to know not just Walter and Rosanna but their 6 children born at various points and the wider family, in particular Rosanna’s younger inter Eloise.

We learn a lot about farming. The novel takes us through the dust bowl years during which time Frank sees his harvests dwindle and his loan looms large.

But it was no secret to Walter as he drove the tractor from one end of the twenty-acre cornfield to the other that a tractor was a pact with the devil. How could it be that when they woke up one morning they found dust caked on the west side of the house, and the air so thick you had to wear a wet bandana outside, keep all the windows shut, and wipe the inside sills ant yaw? Iowa prided itself on no being Oklahoma, but how much of a sign did they need?

Towards the end of the book new methods are being introduced into farming with chemical fertilisers and pesticides which perhaps foreshadow the events to come in the next volume.

World events impact as well, most notably WW2. Frank enlists and becomes a sniper. At the end of Some Luck McCarthyism is beginning to cast a shadow perhaps with consequences for Eloise, who has married a left-wing English Jew.

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On 4th November Jane Smiley was skilfully interviewed by journalist Alex Clark who opened the evening by announcing that Some Luck was being hailed at the new ‘Great American Novel’. Smiley rather wryly remarked that this was not the case back home. America was reserving its judgement at this point.

After giving a short reading, Smiley was asked about the structure of this novel. She would categorise it as mainly history and gossip.The novel is centred in Iowa but the family necessarily spread out from there. They engage with historical events . Frank in particular wants to escape and he is always looking for ways to get out. He finds a way to get to High School and to College, before enlisting.

As a novelist though, she was surely in control of her characters and must have planned in which events they would engage and how these would impact on their lives? Smiley laughed. Any novelist who thinks they are in control of their characters has a dead novel.She finds that characters seize and shift a novel by their own energy. She frequently sets to to do one thing then the characters take it their own way. For example in this book it was clear that Frank would go to WW2 but the character took that in his own direction. She didn’t go back and fix stuff later.

Smiley has always been interested in he social and political possibilities of the novel. She grew up reading Dickens, The Scarlet Letter and Giants of The Earth. She is fascinated by the idea of art as a revealer or even as an agent for change. In a novel we share the experiences so we can better understand them.

A novel doesn’t have to be overtly political, this can be done in other ways. The example she would give is Nancy Mitford whose work she greatly admires. She is of the view that Mitford’s work has stood the test of time better than many of her peers as her beliefs are expressed through her characters who voice hilariously funny opinions.

The novel is inherently political because  the relationship between the protaganist and his world must be developed or the reader will abandon it. Her view is that the novel as a form  is born not with Don Quixote but with Madame de La Fayatte’s Princess of Cleves. The princess has an inner life which we share. By the time we get to Pamela, even the servant girl has an inner life.

She was asked about her research for this trilogy and the conclusions she had reached about the state of society by the end of it. She had read the New York Times archive fairly extensively. The conclusion she had reached was that we were in deep shit. She had a pretty good idea of when the shit  had hit the fan………but we would have to read the books and draw our own conclusions.

She was asked about her views on publishing today. Earlier in the evening, Smiley had explained that she regarded her first 2 or 3 books as practice novels, but that they had appeared in the 1980s when that had been possible. She thinks that publishing is in a state of flux. There are perhaps more ways to get your work out there, and she gave the example of self-publishing, but not necessarily more ways up. Publishing has always been idiosyncratic in her view.

Her daily writing routine is one of interruptions and chaos. She has 4 horses and 3 dogs.Her day begins with reading the paper, eating granola and looking at the internet.She will then go to her barn and ride. She enjoys eating and cooking so starts looking forward to dinner at an early stage in the day.

She always commits to a certain number of words per day. She finds getting out with the horses prevents her from getting stuck. Her study has 2 doors and a telephone and the dogs are constantly in and out. She is not a writer who needs solitude.

She was asked by a member of the audience for her views on the ‘great’ American authors like Roth, Mailer and Bellow.Apart from Updike , she has not read much of their work and is not a huge fan of what she would call the WW2 generation. She tells her students that in fact your best readers and critics are your peers and not the generation that preceded you. She certainly found this to be the case herself.

I then asked which books she felt had influenced her the most. She thinks that the books you read as a teenager have the greatest impact and so would say David Copperfield and The Giants Of The Earth. Later, when she was researching  13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel ( her readers’ and writers’ handbook) she came to admire Zola and Trollope.

The most important thing to remember when writing is that no novel is perfect. Even The Good Soldier is not perfect as the protagonist does not even sound American! She always has in her mind a sign a friend keeps above her desk ” No-one asked you to write this novel’

Novels are inherently imperfect but each novelist thinks they can do better.

Some Luck was published by Mantle on 6th November.

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Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

photo‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show’

So reads the first line of David Copperfield which resonates with Danny Kelly when he reads it ,as it is also the question he is grappling with in Chris Tsiolkas’ latest novel, Barracuda.

Tsiolkas is the Australian author of worldwide best-seller The Slap, subsequently made into a TV series. A book that controversially de-constructed Australian middle class life and, be warned, Barracuda is no less confrontational.

Danny Kelly’s dream is to be a swimming star, specifically to compete in the Sydney Olympics  and win gold for Australia. Swimming and success obsess him.

The novel is split into two parts : Breathing In as Danny goes into his stroke; and Breathing Out as he is propelled by it’s consequences  – but swimming is just a metaphor for what Danny must deal with to reach the finishing line.

On his journey Danny must confront the complexities and contradictions of Australian life. As Clyde, Danny’s Scottish boyfriend, puts it :

‘You all think you’re so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve met.You call yourselves laid back but you’re angry and resentful all the time.You say there is no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you are anti-authoritarian but all there is here are rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don’t climb there , don’t go here, don’t smoke and don’t drink here and don’t play there and don’t drink and drive and don’t go over the speed limit and don’t do anything fucken human.’

Tsiolkas also deals with an institution I have long found bewildering. Danny wins a scholarship to the so called ‘ Cunts College’ a private school which in every way imitates all that is divisive and negative about the British public school system. Such schools exist all over the ‘ ex-colonies’ and are, I think, increasingly hard to explain or understand. There Danny meets his Steerforth….but, be careful, Danny is not always a reliable narrator.

Tsiolkas writes with a blistering honesty that some may, perhaps, find offensive. I never felt anything was gratuitous or unnecessary. He describes love, loss, longing and the depths to which we can all sink given extenuating circumstances with a simplicity and humanity that will bring a lump to your throat.

Make no mistake, this is an author at the height of his powers. Dickens, Tolstoy and Graham Greene, amongst others, are frequently referenced in the book. Like Dickens and Tolstoy, Tsiolkas examines hypocrisy in society, and Danny searches to explain the reason for his existence just as Greene’s heroes do. Like Dickens and Tolstoy, Tsiolkas is also a master storyteller. I was gripped from the start of this 500pp plus book and read it inside of two days, despite the demands of ‘real’ life.

And, is Danny the hero of his own life? Well, you will just have to read Barracuda to find out.