Monday, May 16, 2011

A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley

At the end of my last post, I wondered how well Jane Smiley could adapt Shakespeare's King Lear to the prairie farms of Iowa. Brilliantly, as it turns out. Lear was a king by birth. Lawrence Cook, the patriarch of A Thousand Acres, is a king by dint of having successfully farmed the title acreage throughout his life, buying additional lots from neighbouring farms when their owners failed and went under. Ms. Smiley's farm kingdom has its own grandeur, and its ruling family does not want for pride.  This is a monumental novel.  It won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Lawrence Cook's three daughters are also named to alliterate with Lear's:  Ginny, who narrates, Rose and Caroline.  The plot roughly follows that of the play:  the aging father decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. The youngest, Caroline, now a Des Moines lawyer, expresses doubt about the idea, while the two older daughters, both married to men who are working the farm alongside Lawrence, agree to it.  Having handed over his power, Lawrence almost immediately regrets it -- not because his daughters and sons-in-law proceed to mismanage the farm, but because he has relinquished control, and with it, his will to live. The Cook family follows the Shakespearean path to destruction, and the farm is lost as surely as Lear's kingdom.  

For readers who wonder how they will ever muster enthusiasm for Iowa farmland, they have only to give themselves up to Jane Smiley's prose:
A thousand acres of land my father owned, six hundred forty acres, a whole section, paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth.
She paints the Iowan farmers with equal attention to detail, and they are very detailed people, especially when it involves finance. Neighbourly, yes of course, but always aware of who owes how much to the bank:
Acreage and financing were facts as basic as name and gender in Zebulon County. Harold Clark and my father used to argue at our kitchen table about who should get the Ericson land when they finally lost their mortgage. I was aware of this whenever I played with Ruthie Ericson, whenever my mother, my sister Rose, and I went over to help can garden produce, whenever Mrs. Ericson brought over some pies or doughnuts, whenever my father loaned Mr. Ericson a tool, whenever we ate Sunday dinner in the Ericsons' kitchen.  

Ginny and her sisters grew up knowing the family's history on the land, beginning with her English great-grandfather, who had been conned into buying a large plot of Iowa swamp.  Undeterred, he set out to drain it, laying lines of tile and digging cisterns.  Three generations later, she was living on the largest and most prosperous farm in Zebulon County, her father ensuring that the girls never forget how it came about:
I in my Sunday dress and hat, driving in the Buick to church, was a beneficiary of this grand effort, someone who would always have a floor to walk on. However much these acres looked like a gift of nature, or of God, they were not. We went to church to pay our respects, not to give thanks....
We might as well have had a catechism: What is a farmer? A farmer is a man who feeds the world. What is a farmer's first duty? To grow more food. What is a farmer's second duty? To buy more land. What are the signs of a good farm? Clean fields, neatly painted buildings, breakfast at six, no debts, no standing water. How will you know a good farmer when you meet him? He will not ask you for any favors. 

Then comes the day when Larry Cook decides to divide the farm, and the tragedy commences. Although she feels "an inner clang", Ginny goes along with the idea.  Rose is enthusiastic. Caroline, the lawyer, simply expresses uncertainty, and Lawrence/Lear banishes Caroline/Cordelia from his sight.  Ginny reflects later:
I saw that maybe Caroline had mistaken what we were talking about, and spoken as a lawyer when she should have spoken as a daughter. On the other hand, perhaps she hadn't mistaken anything at all, and had simply spoken as a woman rather than as a daughter. That was something, I realized in a flash, that Rose and I were pretty careful never to do.  

When reading King Lear, I felt some sympathy for Cordelia, little for Goneril and Regan, and almost none for Lear.  Yes, he'd given up his power, but he was old and mad and tyrannical.  It's all but impossible to feel sympathy for Larry Cook. His tyranny wrought years of abuse on his daughters, all unseen to the neighbours who respect his farming acumen.  Smiley's sympathies are clearly with Ginny and Rose. Caroline is the outsider, the one who turned her back on the farm, returning only to assist Larry -- completely mad at this point -- in an abortive attempt to take it back.

Holding A Thousand Acres up for comparison to King Lear accentuates the sense of tragedy:  The tragedy of family, when toxic secrets finally boil over, when trust evaporates, when years of cruelty and repression come home to roost.  The tragedy of farming, when financial peril is around every corner, when natural disasters loom, when chemical fertilizers and pesticides and mono-culture practice robs the soil of its fertility, when family farms give way to conglomerates.  The tragedy of being human, whether in Lear's Britain or Larry's Iowa.

I was startled to read that Jane Smiley grew up in Los Angeles, because I'd assumed that she was as much a product of the mid-eastern farmland as Ginny and Rose.  I figured she had Iowa in her blood.  She did live and teach there from 1981 to 1996, and the place obviously affected her profoundly; she must have absorbed it through her very pores to have written about it with such intimacy. At times, this book also reminded me of John Steinbeck's East of Eden.  Steinbeck was writing about his own home territory in the hills of California, though.  It makes Jane Smiley's feat even more impressive.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

Oh, forsooth!  A few months ago, I hoisted myself up and admitted to reading Jane Eyre for the first time, but this...  Oh, the shame.  When I look back at my primary and secondary schools, located in the northern woods, I wager that the bears were more literate than most of the faculty.  How I managed to weasel through Wellesley College without reading King Lear is more perplexing.  But never mind.  I've read it now, although in a more cursory fashion than it deserves.

I assigned myself this classic tragedy as a prerequisite to reading a novel, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, which is, I believe, a modern telling of Lear set in Iowa.  I figured I would miss a lot of references if I'd never read the Shakespeare.

A number of things struck me about this play.  No, I'd not read it before nor seen it performed, yet I knew the basic plot and recognised some of the lines.  It makes me very aware of the pervasive influence that Shakespeare has had upon our Anglophone culture.  He shows up in 20th-century novels, on the cinema screen, in advertisements, and in Loony Tunes, with Elmer Fudd calling Bugs Bunny a "lily-livered rascal" (or a wiwy-wivered wascaw, to quote him directly).  Lily-livered is only one of the thousands of words and phrases that Shakespeare coined, and because it has become so famous, thanks to Elmer, et al., we tend to overlook its brilliance.  Who would think to pair a delicately scented flower with a large internal organ for an alliterative description of cowardice?  A very, very creative writer.

I must say, it was the language of this play that absorbed me most.  To read Shakespeare well, you really need access to the complete Oxford English Dictionary.  The big one, with all the etymologies.  Some words had different connotations or even different meanings when the Bard used them than they have today.  Varlet is one such -- today it refers to a male servant.  In the early 17th century,  a varlet was a scoundrel or a villain. Other words have simply dropped out of use, and most lexicographers have given up their spots in dictionaries to newer words.  The Kindle has the Oxford American Dictionary built-in, and it's blissfully easy to look up an unfamiliar word at the moment you encounter it in the text.  It doesn't have the depth of etymology nor the word-count of the enormous OED, but I was impressed at the number of words I did find.  As for cullionly and carbonado, I can get a pretty fair idea from the context:  "Draw, you whoreson cullionly barbermonger! ... Draw, you rogue, or I'll so carbonado your shanks!"   Honestly, compare that to the dialogue in the last Hollywood action film you saw.   The deterioration of our vocabulary is a tragedy it itself.

So now let's see how well Lear, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia assimilate into Jane Smiley's Iowa.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

This will go down in my reading history as the Year of the Nordic Thriller.  Never mind that I'm a year or two behind the craze for Larsson's trilogy.

It was uncanny. When I finish one book, I usually reach for something very different for the next one.  While still glowing from the subtle elegance of The Housekeeper and the Professor, I ambled off for some depraved Swedish crime. It seemed unlikely, to put it mildly, that one of the characters from the former book would show up in the latter one. Fermat! Yes, the amateur French mathematician whose last theorem (1637) drove subsequent mathematicians bats until a British scholar, Wiles, published his proof in 1995. The Japanese professor in Ogawa's novel rhapsodized about Fermat, and as The Girl Who Played with Fire opens, the title character is on a Caribbean beach reading Dimensions in Mathematics. She, too, is taken with the wily Frenchman and his theorem.

A young woman dabbling with mathematical formulas for entertainment whilst on holiday in Guadaloupe?  But that's absurd. No, it's Lisbeth Salander.  The men who spend the rest of the novel in a fruitless search for her either know or come to realise that there's very little about her that is congruous or predictable.  They can at least agree that she is highly anti-social and can be violent when provoked.

In the trilogy's first volume, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander helped journalist Mikael Blomkvist solve murders connected to corporate corruption.  This time, the corpses all appear connected in some way to the sex trade.  Here in southeast Asia, trafficking is ubiquitous and well-documented.  Western Europe, however, is not free from it, and the police there are inclined to ignore it.  One of Blomkvist's fellow journalists remarks upon the apathy:
The criminal justice system simply does not want to deal with it. Attacks on teenage girls from Tallinn and Riga are not a priority. A whore is a whore. It's part of the system.  
Larsson gives us another tour of Sweden's seamy side, far from the trademark images of Saabs and smoked herring.  When Lisbeth Salander is named as the prime suspect in three murders, the police are only one of the parties searching for her.  Blomkvist and the staff at his magazine are also looking, as are her former employer, and the actual killers.  The chase ends only on the last page of the book.

Lisbeth Salander has become one of my favorite literary companions. She is a mistrustful loner, a hacker, a woman with a fierce sense of justice.  Highly elusive, intellectually curious, and secretive.  And all that verbiage notwithstanding, Lisbeth Salander defies classification.  I feel for her great affection (which she would disdain) and empathy (which she doesn't need).

And with whom does Salander empathise?  As she is stalking a vicious killer, moving toward his house through a field at night, she stops dead in her tracks, immobilised by a flash of insight, linked as if by broadband to the mind and spirit of Pierre Fermat:
And all of a sudden she understood. The answer was so disarmingly simple. A game with numbers that lined up and then fell into place in a simple formula that was most similar to a rebus. Fermat had no computer, of course, and Wiles' solution was based on mathematics that had not been invented when Fermat formulated his theorem. Fermat would never have been able to produce the proof that Wiles had presented. Fermat's solution was quite different.
She was so stunned that she had to sit down on a tree stump. She gazed straight ahead as she checked the equation.
So that's what he meant. No wonder mathematicians were tearing out their hair. Then she giggled. A philosopher would have had a better chance of solving this riddle. She wished she could have known Fermat.  He was a cocky devil.