Book Review: Early Warning by Jane Smiley

May 19th, 2015  |  Published in May 2015

The admirable Jane Smiley has returned with the second of three novels of a trilogy, about a family from Iowa; the triology follows three generations of this family from the twenties to the present (I assume). Somehow she’s managed to get the second novel out in just over a year from the first, and these novels are long, and they are riveting.  She’s attempting a family saga , and the generations will reflect the massive changes in American life and culture over a roughly hundred year period. Smiley is not only a superb storyteller, a real driver of narrative, but she makes us readers oddly sympathetic to an entire range of characters, reminding us that the less attractive or appealing also have their strengths, and that the person who may annoy at family gatherings may not be the ‘heavy’. Smiley also chooses that the six Langdon children, now far along in their careers and marriages, will continue to maintain some level of closeness to one another; it’s an excellent plot device, as Smiley thus weaves social changes within and through the children and their own children as well, and lets us see the impact of social change on various lifestyles and characters.

So although we can pretty much guess that someone will divorce, someone will become gay, someone will get a terminal disease, someone will get into leftist politics and/or some kind of cult situation, and someone will be in psychiatric care, we don’t know who and why, and Smiley superbly sails us through the fifties and sixties (this novel takes us through the eighties) without any plot device ever seeming a cliche or created just for effect. The trilogy, to date, is nearly as riveting as a long narrative as Donna Tartt’s magnificent The Goldfinch is/was. Two of the children, Frank and Lillian, marry and end up living in Greater Washington and/or New York City; we are privy to the founding of the CIA after WWII, and Lillian’s husband Arthur is one of its early ‘spies’, and lures Frank, his brother-in-law with the nearly photographic memory, into delivering money to Iran on a private jet owned by –whom?–a multinational corporation?–to help stage the coup that will bring the Shah to power. Frank’s vague wife, Andy, beautiful but without any psychological affect, spends decades with various analysts, generally inventing fake dreams for their delectation. Frank and Andy and Lillian and Arthur will become American landed gentry, private schools, horses and all, reminding us of the speed of social mobility in America in the forties and fifties. Brother Joe never leaves the Iowa farm, marries a neighbor whose sister lives with them, and that sister was one of the two great loves of Frank’s life……I know that all this sounds soap-opera-y, but so does much of life itself. Frank and Andy have a daughter who loathes them, and later will end up as an early member of Rev. Jones’ California -based cult, missing going to Guyana by the thinnest of threads.   Handsome, brilliant, scholarly brother Frank is the one who becomes gay, frightened by this ‘abnormality’ and fearful of being caught; Smiley handles these issues gently and realistically, given the era and the background in Christian based rural Iowa. All six children will take different paths, but each is consistent with the ways Smiley has portrayed them in the first book, Some Luck, and each very much reflects his or her relationship with one or both of their parents: these are complex novels, and Smiley knows her psychology and her sociology, and her deep respect for farm life in rural Iowa continues to shine through admirably in this second novel.

The grandchildren can become confusing to the reader, as there are so many of them, and I found myself repeatedly needing to refer to the family tree which Smiley provides in each novel. And, with so many, the grandchildrens’ characters are somewhat less well delineated; I assume that the ones whom Smiley wants to develop furthest will appear as the dominant characters in the third leg of the trilogy.

Early Warning is a sweeping, epic of  a book, more so when paired with Some Luck, and no doubt completed when the third novel appears. These family sagas are no easy task to write: the finest two I’ve read are John Galsworthy’s The Forsythe Saga, and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, to date. Both of those novelists have one thing in common with Smiley: they are all ambivalent about the declining ambitions of people as affluence begins to become the norm in a family (though the Buddenbrooks family are on the decline financially). What we learn from sagas like Smiley’s is a whole lot about ourselves, our country and how rapid social and technological changes affect real people, and that’ s Smiley’s great strength, selecting socio-political issues, from The Great Depression itself, which the original characters, Walter and Rosanna Langdon survive, to the almost hidden fifties and the bursting forth of the sixties; Smiley assumes the existence of the infamous military-industrial complex, which fascinates her; she spends a lot of time on those characters whose lives and careers interface with government and the corporate worlds. And the Langdon children vary in their abilities to love, to nurture; although some have mediocre or bad marriages, none is unable to love, given the right person (often not the spouse) and circumstances. Her ‘take’ on psychiatry is almost wicked, and, as such, often hilarious: she sees psychiatry as a failed and flawed profession. We the readers must remember that all these characters and issues are those Smiley has chosen to write about, and Early Warning continues what’s becoming a contemporary family masterpiece; we await Book III most eagerly. Smiley’s a confident and smart writer, sensitive and articulate, as she most lovingly offers us Book II of the comings and goings of the Langdons, almost all of whom we care about very deeply: that’s quite a feat on Smiley’s part.

–Daniel Brown


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