Friday, December 28, 2012

A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley - King Lear Revisited

An ageing person decides to split his possessions among his 3 daughters. Two of them agree to it,  but one seems against it. Wait a second here. Does this sound familiar. Even those who haven't read the unabridged versions of the bard (like me) would have probably heard/read in some form the story of King Lear, the poor man who split his kingdom among his daughters and then suffered at their ungratefulness.  Jane Smiley takes the story of King Lear and provides us a revisionist version of the work from the perspective of the 2 daughters in 'A Thousand Acres'. 

In place of Lear we have 'Larry Cook'. He is not a king sure, but is a farmer who owns about 1000 acres. Two daughters Ginny, the eldest and Rose the middle one are married and live with their husbands on the farm helping their father. The third daughter Caroline is a lawyer working elsewhere. When Larry decides, seemingly on a whim to split his farm among his daughters at a family get together, Ginny and Rose agree but Caroline voices her concern at such a  move. This results in Larry cutting her off from the inheritance. What follows is a family tragedy as the lives of everyone involved, Larry, Ginny/Rose and their husbands unravels and the entire family spirals towards destruction. With the story told from the point of view of Ginny/Rose and narrated only by Ginny, Smiley brings about a paradigm shift in the way we look at the characters and their motivations. It's necessary to have read the original/abridged 'King Lear' to get the shifts she brings in, but even otherwise this could be read as an independent story. Telling anymore about what happens would be a spoiler and I will desist from it.

There is a sense of uneasiness pervading the entire novel right from the beginning, a feeling that there is being something left unsaid, a feeling that not everything is as normal/fine as it seems. It's not as if Smiley only implies that there is something huge secret hidden, yes there is that too, but what we get is a sense of claustrophobia among the characters which is ironical considering they story takes place in 1000 odd acres of huge space. For instance, early in the novel there is a scene where Ginny and her husband are having dinner, undressing and going to bed. They have a conversation during dinner, in their bed and Ginny's husband goes to sleep. It seems normal expect for the fact is that their conversation seems more like between 2 persons in an inn who have been put together by chance and are pleasant to each other, that's all. The conversations are perfunctory and there is no sign of intimacy that we expect from a couple married for more than 15 years. Here again, Smiley doesn't indicate that the couple hate each other or have problems but there is an implicit suggestion that their relationship has become one of routine more than anything else. When we come to know a bit later in the novel that Ginny has had many miscarriages, her husband deciding not to have kids after that (resulting in protected or no sex at all), Ginny still wants to have kids, then the earlier moments make sense. Similarly there is moment when another farm lady in their area sees Ginny and mentions in passing about something that Ginny's mother had said to her before she passed away. It's something that Ginny doesn't think about much and we as a reader too could miss it. But even that passing statement has an ominous ring to it. Smiley makes sure that these incidents are subtle enough to be glossed over in a quick reading (unlike in some other works where paradoxically, the novel/story cries out aloud that it being subtle, thus defeating the entire purpose of subtlety) . She perfectly sets up the atmosphere for the revelation that lies at the core of the novel. Smiley makes sure that there is no emotional manipulation of the readers based on it, but doesn't shy away from telling the bestiality that happened, succinctly in a few paragraphs sprinkled over several pages/chapters so there is a progression from when we get the initial sense of the issue, the doubt as to whether it actually happened, the impending realization that it could  have happened and the confirmation from Ginny that our worst fears have come true. 

Even after the revelation and the downward spiral of the characters, at the end of the novel we still feel that there is one more door to be opened, one more page to be turned in the lives of the characters. We feel that there is something left unsaid, maybe there are things that could be seen in a different light by us if they are told in someone else's perspective other than Ginny's (like Caroline's actions). Isn't that the whole idea of writing or any art, to show us there could be multiple perspectives to anything and that there is no ultimate single truth. This multiple perspective doesn't mean that one sits in the middle and says that every POV is correct and that we condone anything that anyone does. No, this is to take a definite steady stand on one side, while making sure that the other side is heard even though we may hate it. Like we do not know Larry's motivations and definitely do not agree with his actions, his arrogance, his need to dominate others always. But we never get to know what drives him and while it is not something that will absolve him of everything he did, it could at least make us understand why he did them. Smiley gives this leeway to all the characters in the novel, not offering a hope of redemption but one of understanding. And considering the family tragedy, an understanding could be helpful for the characters to live with, not reconcile to it.

I had some issues in the novel. The first one is purely subjective. Any opinion is always subjective, but this one is purely based what sort of writing style I tend to favor. Smiley's writing could be termed as detailed realism, with many introspective moments descriptive of the minute things. This is fine, but I always get the sense that the flow is stagnating and you want to say 'get on with it'. This is not just in this novel, but also in her 'Moo'. I have the same feeling with Updike too, I am fully invested in the story, the characters, the events but seem to get these moments where I just hope for some thing to move forward. This is my reaction to a certain narrative technique which is why I term as a completely subjective opinion. The second issue I had is with what lies at core of the novel. It's something that can be guessed at quite easily. But to be fair to Smiley, I think the reason why we could guess it is also due to the fact that we are now exposed to all sorts of things these days and even inured to it. Nothing really shocks us anymore as it probably would have done say 20-30 years ago and we tend to expect the worst imaginable possibility and not be surprised by it.  The relationship between Jess Clark and the 2 sisters was the only thing in the novel that seemed an explicit set piece, one that sticks out uncomfortably as a forced addition, in contrast to the rest of the novel which follows naturally. This again seems to have been done to get a parallel with King Lear.

None of the above issues make the novel a less engaging or inferior read. Smiley's control over her craft is total and she never lets things to run out of control, if anything she is in a bit too much control for my liking :). In fact the reason I mentioned them was that I liked the novel quite a bit. When you hate a work, you do not even mention about it, just carry on with the next reading. But in a perverse manner, when you read something that is good, very good then even small issues tend to get magnified because without them the work would have been much much greater.That's why for all the issues I have provided a justification, a la devil's advocate. It's like you can be critical and frank with only those people you love and care for, the other's you just leave them to their own devices. Purists may have problem with this retelling of King Lear, but taken as a stand alone novel this should allay your concerns. Even otherwise, isn't it great that we get to see a different perspective on a widely acclaimed work, indeed a holy cow among works. I would highly recommend this and also her  'Moo' a delightful campus novel.


  1. Interesting review. This book has been on my TBR pile for a while but because I know the story of King Lear I think it's affecting my enthusiasm for starting it. I like Jane Smiley and she tries different things with each of her novels.

    1. Give it a try Sarah, as it gives a different spin to the King Lear story. Would also recommend her Moo.