Stephanie Jones: Book Review - Golden Age by Jane Smiley

Publish Date
Friday, 9 October 2015, 11:07AM
By Stephanie Jones

It’s a bit exhausting, not to say intimidating, to consider that when the first installment of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, Some Luck, was released in late 2014, the second and third volumes had already been completed. The author, a Pulitzer Prize winner for the Shakespeare-inspired A Thousand Acres, has maintained an unflagging pace of production of her elevated yet wholly accessible literature, and in her mid-60s the time would seem to be right for a series that will stand as her masterwork.

As in the first two volumes, each chapter of Golden Age covers a single year, beginning with a 1987 family reunion in which Charlie Wickett, raised by adoptive parents, meets his sprawling biological clan. The trilogy, which began in 1920, closes at the end of the present decade, as the long and messy business of tying up the family’s financial affairs, a crisis in part precipitated by the 2008 global meltdown, is finally concluded.

Smiley’s motives in producing the trilogy were laid out by the author upon the publication of the first book: “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 remains true to this vision, laying out the fading years of the last century and the dawning of the new like a card-dealer, punctuating them with the high drama of 9/11, the Lewinsky scandal and the debate over the Iraq Resolution – every Big Event linked to the family in some way – and layering the story with the intimate banalities of unions and disunions, burgeoning careers, the raising of children.

The vast family tree has the late Walter and Rosanna Langdon, subjects of the earlier volumes, at its centre. Golden Age follows the lives of the Langdon offspring and their children and grandchildren, most centrally the handsome and charismatic Charlie, twin brothers Richie and Michael Langdon, a congressman and high-finance pinball wizard respectively, and Jesse, the grandson who remains on the family farm in Iowa. The tussle of past, present and future is most alive in Jesse, who applies science to farming with the rigour and fervour of Edison, but cannot stem the tsunami of Monsanto and market forces. His cousins are oblivious, Richie consumed by the corridors of power and real mystification as to what his brother might be capable of.

Jesse’s son Guthrie returns from war in Iraq an emblem of the failure of an empire to admit its own limitations. The women surrounding them all – wives, mothers, sisters, lovers – are as distinctively and carefully drawn as the men. As a collective they illuminate the writer’s point: “Families that had scattered, like the Langdons, could end up looking and acting like alien species of a single genus.”

Some critics have questioned the value of Smiley’s celebration of the ordinary: how many words need to be spent on vacuuming, that most mundane of household tasks? But her evocation of the everyday is as vivid and compelling as the moments of great consequence: through a simple description of a cocoon-like marital bed she expresses the history of the union itself and the significance of its newly revived state.

Human connection is Smiley’s preoccupation, and the contrast between the nature-driven rhythms of farm life and round-the-clock urban endeavour is evident in the marriage of Richie and Ivy, a senior publishing executive: “The geography of their success seemed to be stretching the threads that connected them to spiderweb thinness.”

Golden Age’s flowing river of words wends through farmhouses and congressional chambers and New York apartments, slowing at times but never ceasing, forming a world now mostly gone. If this is Tolstoy meeting the crumbling American Dream, there is still reason for nostalgia, and Smiley captures lost decades with elegance and clarity in a finale for the ages.

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