Janes Smiley’s Excellent Prose and Sly Humor are Here in ‘Private Life’

In her latest novel, Private Life Jane Smiley has returned to old-fashioned fiction, where she excels. Then again, Smiley is unique among contemporary writers for her extraordinary ability to move smoothly between genres. It’s difficult to come up with another author who has penned a mystery (Duplicate Keys), a Norse Saga (The Greenlanders), too many horse books, both fiction and not (Horse Heaven, A Year at the Races, Barn Blind, and portions of Moo), a biography of Charles Dickens (part of the charming Penguin Lives series), an academic satire (Moo), and of course, A Thousand Acres, her modern take on King Lear, which deservedly won her a Pulitzer.

This incomplete compendium leaves out much, including her fine shorter works, and while one might argue that Joyce Carol Oates is comparable in facility, there is never any mistaking an Oates work; her elliptical, coolly worded descents into the worst recesses of the human condition are instantly recognizable as the character she herself calls “JCO”. Not so with Smiley, whose works vary in tone as much as theme.

Smiley’s recent output has been, admittedly, a bit bumpy — 2005’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, while comprehensive and thoughtful, as befits an Iowa PhD, was heavy going, while 2007’s Ten Days in the Hills wrought literary havoc in the United States for its copious, graphic sex. The book was ultimately published with the kind of warning label appearing on certain kinds of “offensive” music.

Frankly, the sex was less offensive than the silliness of the premise. Modeled after Boccacio’s Decameron, Days features a modern day group of people inhabiting a mansion in the Los Angeles Hills. With the Iraq war looming, this disparate group intersperses talk with lots and lots of sex. The endless dialogue becomes dull, the sex silly, and it remains the sole Smiley book I was unable to finish. So were a lot of other people, who longed for her to pen some of the nice straight fiction she does so beautifully.

Now we have our wish in Private Life, where Smiley revisits her uncanny ability to get into the minds of everyday people, specifically women.

Margaret Mayfield Early is Missouri born and bred. The Civil War is recent memory, with sentiment between Union and Confederate sympathizers still running high. Missourians, meanwhile, nurture a deep sense of pride in their state, the most advanced, intelligent, forward-looking state in the Union. Their Missouri is a place of Victorian mores and manners. When the Mayfield family loses two sons, then their doctor father, mother Lavinia presses her daughters into learning the genteel arts of music, cooking, baking, embroidery. Lavinia is no dummy, and understands she must create marriageable ladies. There are no other options.

Margaret, who is tall, plain, bookish, and intelligent, proves difficult to marry off. As talk of an old maid begins circling town, Lavinia is deeply relieved when Andrew Early, son of a prominent family, begins courting Margaret, albeit rather strangely. Andrew himself is strange, considered a genius by all, a man whose interest in the Universe is all-consuming. He has studied in Germany and in some of the East coast’s finer universities.

On his random visits he expounds on the possibilities of double stars, the beginnings of earth, the moon’s gravitational pull. Much of what he says, in his booming way, seems both outrageous yet plausible; he is the first person in town to speak of a thing called the telephone. Later he will understand the ramifications of the Spanish Flu long before it reaches epidemic status, yet he reviles Einstein, thinking his theories ridiculous and his actions covert.

Margaret and Andrew marry, then move to Mare Island, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Andrew has secured a position with the Navy, working in their observatory. Margaret, who has never left St. Louis, is entranced by Mare Island and its nearest ferry destination, the bustling navy town of Vallejo. (In 2008, Vallejo declared Chapter Nine bankruptcy, one of California’s first cities to collapse beneath countless foreclosures ). She befriends the local ladies, whose fondness for card playing, knitting, and, most of all, talk, puts her on a slow path to enlightenment.

The initial years of Margaret’s marriage to Andrew are disappointing. Andrew is indeed intelligent, but his scientific theories are a combination of prescience and misguidedness. What emerges from his (self-published) writings, letters, and rants to scientists is often ridiculous. Worse, Margaret gradually begins to realize that Andrew is unable to brook dissent of any kind. When confronted by his peers, he becomes aggressively paranoid. Margaret learns his multiple university jaunts, such a source of civic pride back home, have invariably ended badly, leaving a scattering of enemies in the scientific community. For every plausible idea he has — and he does have a few — there are multitudes of foolish theories he clings to even as they are disproved.

Andrew is no better on intimate matters. When the couple realize they are unable to bear children, they take up separate bedrooms, much to Margaret’s relief. But beneath that relief is a simmering rage, the kind the boils for years in so many relationships. Andrew is absently, thoughtlessly misogynistic, expanding to fill all available space, greedily demanding Margaret’s approbation, her solace, and her typing skills. He has no respect for her mind or her time: she is merely a woman, albeit, he admits, one slightly smarter than most. When he decides a car is essential for his lecture circuit, he insists Margaret learn to drive it, shepherding the great man everywhere. Her friend Mrs. Wareham, suggests lessons from the local midwife, Mrs. Kimura.

Mrs. Kimura lives with her husband, a painter, and her daughter, Naoko, in Vallejo’s “Japantown”. Margaret is initially afraid of this “rough” area, only to find the Kimura’s home is a quiet haven with a lovely Japanese garden. She grows closer to the family, even purchasing some of Mr. Kimura’s exquisite prints.

Smiley never writes a book without placing her characters amidst some kind of larger upheaval; here it’s war. Margaret’s life spans World Wars one and two, and Smiley’s choice of setting — a bustling naval area — is deliberate. As Margaret grows older, wiser, and more embittered, we watch with her as scientific advances posting the cosmos and technologies like the telephone run up against the 1906 earthquake and the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Men ship out for war and do not return, husbands and sons are killed. Andrew, meanwhile, grows seemingly more impervious, immersed in writing — and rewriting — his scientific treatises.

When Dora Bell, related to Margaret via marriage, moves out to San Francisco, Margaret is elated. Rebellious Dora refuses to marry, instead becoming a journalist, working her way from the society pages to covering the war in Europe. Margaret veers between awe and envy at Dora, but is mystified by her happy status as a single woman. Don’t all women need to be married, like it or not? (Mostly not.) She cannot understand why Dora doesn’t marry her dashing friend Pete.

Pete is one of those fellows who exists in every era — he has a few names, a few aliases, knows a language or two or a dozen, and speaks with an impossible-to-place accent. He’s very attractive without truly being handsome, and seems to know just about everyone. Both Margaret and Andrew are besotted, perhaps because Pete pays each genuine attention. It is Pete who gently nudges Margaret into finally admitting the truth to herself, not only about her husband, but her own refusal to acknowledge the truth of her life.

The books closes (this is not a spoiler: the scene appears in the prologue) with Margaret’s visit to Tanforan, a racetrack converted to a Japanese detention camp. I wrote in a recent review that the author (see Emily St. John Mandel’s The Singer’s Gun) had no way of knowing her work would appear just as Arizona passed bill 1070, which aims to identify and prosecute illegal (read: Mexican) immigrants. Precisely how these illegals are to be identified is still being hashed out.

Meanwhile, police have free reign to pull over whomever they wish and demand to see their papers. Horrifyingly, many Americans think this is just dandy. Meaning even after the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and the Japanese detention camps, history has taught us nothing. Smiley doubtless recognizes this.

Smiley’s prose facility and sly humor are here, as is her grasp of history, science, and astronomy. Margaret’s revelations are will not make her happier. Like her protagonist, Smiley is old enough, and wise enough, to understand this.

RATING 6 / 10
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