Chalk up yet another writerly reaction to the trauma of 9/11. Four years on, we’re almost able to chart on a graph how some writers regurgitated bits of the smoke they ingested as super-realistic horror, while others about-faced into fantasy. What Jane Smiley did, as “an antidote to history,” was to take to her bedroom with a pile of chocolate, draw the shades and read 45,000 pages of world literature. Did it work to plunge into Boccaccio’s 1352 account of the plague? It did: Eventually “the World Trade Center got smaller … than the Black Death.” Score a small but significant point for the good guys.
Ms. Smiley’s reading list was never meant be the definitive top 100. She skips Hemingway altogether and chooses Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying over Absalom, Absalom! She bitch-slaps Nabokov as “a tireless self-promoter.” She calls Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier a “masterpiece, almost a perfect novel.” She includes Garrison Keillor. Yup, it’s a personal thing. And to judge from the author photo, she enjoyed herself: She’s beaming as though beaming were a broad-jump event, with just a touch of careworn to remind you of her serious-lit cred. (Hey—she’s a Pulitzer Prize winner!)
But who’s she writing for besides herself? Knopf considers it a triple threat—“an anatomy of the art of fiction, a guide for readers and writers, and a memoir of literary life”—but the sum is less successful than the individual parts. A few of the survey-course early chapters are rambling and repetitive, neither as pungent nor as scissor-sharp as they might have been in the hands of, say, Camille Paglia. The astronautic overview reminded me of those satellite-picture books that seem to be on coffee tables these days—Africa from 20 miles up. Suffice it to say that if you have a pretty good handle on such questions as “What is a novel?” or “Who is a novelist?”—or if you’re not in the mood for a lecture—go ahead and skim the first half to get to the best part, her exegesis of those 100 novels, which turns out to be original, fearless, fascinating.
And hoo-boy eccentric. After supplying her bona fides as a bibliophile (she relishes the “languor” of reading, “the quiet sounds of one’s hands against the paper”), she unburdens herself of prejudices that would make a Maoist grad student blanch. Not even her well-deserved reputation for idiosyncratic taste (remember the 1996 Harper’s article in which she declared that Huckleberry Finn was boring?) prepares us for the full extent of her heresy. To wit: She prefers Daniel Defoe (“I liked everything about him”) to Henry James (“prissy, domineering”), Nathaniel Hawthorne (“silly and shallow”) and Thackeray (“sour”). She considers Uncle Tom’s Cabin “essential reading” (“no one interested in American history, or in the history of the novel … should miss [it]”), yet dismisses Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as “a bad work of art” (that beats Chinua Achebe, who complained 30 years ago of its casual racism).
Even more scandalously, she confesses that Moby-Dick “didn’t make much of an impression on me,” finds The House of Seven Gables “mysterious but not entertaining” and calls Ulysses “forbidding” (“the stylistic fireworks come to seem like an elaborate surface distraction from what is missing at the core of the plot”). But the cherry on top is her takedown of The Great Gatsby. Not only does it shortchange us by 100 pages, in her opinion, but its tone is bittersweet “before the action has earned the right to be bittersweet”—which, I suppose, is another way of saying it’s sentimental. (But isn’t Fitzgerald supposed to be sentimental? And Joyce forbidding?)
Wait—there’s more: The emperor has no clothes. Or, in this case, one of the cherished last lines in American literature—“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”—makes no sense. “The image is lyrical and paradoxical but it doesn’t really make sense,” she argues. It’s true—seeing it naked like that, ripped from its context, the final drumbeat of Gatsby does seem sort of shipwrecked. Could the novel really be overrated? Ms. Smiley doesn’t think “it is careful enough, wise enough, or well enough thought through to be a masterpiece.”
Her own prose (witness that last sentence) is a little more flat-footed than we might wish, more like teacher’s notes than deathless whatever. Yet this doesn’t keep her from tossing out any number of challenging lines (“Frankenstein was the first ‘high concept’ idea of the modern era”); raising rigorous philosophical questions (“Do we expect the novel to reconfirm our beliefs about the world or to challenge them?”); or stuffing the work with tasty literary gossip (Al Gore’s favorite book is Stendahl’s The Red and the Black, while George W.’s is The Very Hungry Caterpillar). She even has the grace to reveal second thoughts about her own oeuvre, confiding that she doesn’t find her much-beloved novel A Thousand Acres “very relate-to-able.” Added bonus: She’s good at winking literary cross-reference. Who needs 13 blackbirds when Jane Smiley’s on the case?
Any writer so comfortable out on a limb (Sinclair Lewis, she predicts, is ripe for a revival, despite his calling himself a “scold” for being satiric without being funny) should be commended for the courage of her convictions. Nor is she without wit: Moby-Dick “is an excellent example of how a novelist can excel at what he perhaps should not have tried in the first place.” She’s capable of noble reflections (“the joy of meeting up with the author’s mind is so intense that it hardly seems possible that it must be private”) and even manages to give a name to one of life’s enduring mysteries, the “French paradox”: “How can a world as beautiful and delightful as France produce a literature universally peopled by vipers and fools?” She’s incisive about D.H. Lawrence (“brutal” as well as subversive); Nicholson Baker (he’s not only tricky but “austere,” too); and the peerless Francine Prose, whose satire tends toward the “dry and ambivalent” rather than the “angry and overt.” She’s by turns wise (“Nothing is so seductive in a narrator as self-knowledge”), illuminating (especially in comparing apples and oranges, like Faulkner and Kafka), and merciless in deflating bloated reputations (about Oscar Wilde she writes, “epigram piled upon epigram seems more like a … form of neurosis than art”). She consistently offers much to mull (is Anna Karenina individuated enough? Is John Gardner’s Grendel profound or merely smart? Can John Updike not only be John Updike but Philip Roth, too, “in his spare time”?) If she’s occasionally overimpressed (or is it tactically generous?), she mostly manages to strike a provocative balance, pronouncing Anne Tyler “clear-eyed but benign”—a phrase that could be justly applied to Jane Smiley, too.
So what’s the upshot? What’s she bringing back from her exhaustively personal pilgrimage through the smoky thickets of literature? “It’s worth knowing that serious thoughts are being thought, and also that serious fun is being made of fools everywhere. It’s also worth knowing, in dangerous times, that dangers have come and gone and we still have these books.”
Four years on, and counting ….
Daniel Asa Rose, author of Hiding Places : A Father and His Sons Retrace Their Family’s Escape from the Holocaust (Three Rivers), reviews books regularly for The Observer.