Jane Smiley and Her Trilogy

Hello, readers! Today, I want to write on books.

I would say “a book,” but in fact I’m writing about three. They are the three books that make up Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. The century trilogy follows one family from the 1920s to 2020. (Yes, according to Smiley’s web page, she is prognosticating into the future!)

I think Jane Smiley is one of the best of contemporary novelists, and today I want to talk about one reason why.

She excels at making metaphor out of everyday life. In one section of Early Warning, which focuses on the 1960s, a soldier is going through basic training. Around him, other soldiers sing/chant the rhymed marching songs known as “Jody’s,” for the Other Man who appears in all of them. An example from the book: Jody saw your girl today/ How’s he gonna stay away / She turned your picture to the wall/ Left his boots out in the hall. Another: Ain’t no use in feelin’ down/ Jody’s got your girl in town. early warning

There are others: “Ain’t no use to sit and moan/ Jody’s got your girl back home” is one I can quote from memory, although it isn’t quoted in the book.

Although quoting a Jody could be seen as part of verisimilitude – it’s just a realistic picture of what a soldier’s life is like, along with learning alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta, foxtrot – it acquires a different resonance once we know what happens to the soldier, a grandchild of the original family. He dies in Vietnam.

Reading the book, it suddenly became apparently to me that the Jody’s are about dying. Though they are ostensibly rueful humor, they are also inextricably about another man replacing you. Because you’re not there. The soldier is always not there in the scene described by a Jody: his absence is a precondition of a Jody. The girl is with another man – pursued, courted – because the solider singing is no longer there.

How did this become apparent to me in the book? Well, for one thing, Jody’s are always doubled. They are a call and response form. As such, they are also, more overtly, about joining a group and being part of it, as a solider does in the army.

The call and response is the way Smiley actually represents them in the book, not in the quotes I’ve done above. Like this: “Jody saw your girl today! (Jody saw your girl today!) How’s he gonna stay away! (How’s he gonna stay away!)” (pp. 175-176).

Perhaps it’s the presence of English professors in the book, but it caused me to think about the literary purpose of the doubling. The singing/chanting soldier, there, marching, is always doubled by a soldier who has been taken away from his haunts and is no longer there.

The Jody’s are about being erased from the land you once knew. In that, they remind me of A.E. Housman’s “Is My Team Ploughing,”  from A Shropshire Lad. In that one, a Jody conducts a colloquy with the dead soldier.

More on Jane Smiley and her trilogy soon!

 

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