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!

 

Happy National Novel Writing Month!

Today, I’m going to celebrate the opening of a new month by writing about a cultural phenomenon that takes place within it: National Novel Writing Month, or, as the shortened form is known to cognoscenti, NaNoWrMo.

National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write 50,000 words on a novel either by yourself, in concert with the Web site dedicated to it, or in tandem with writing buddies. Hundreds of people worldwide participate in it. While the statement on the Web site talks about 50,000 words, you can really set any goal for yourself. The point is to generate words every day for the entire month.  Chinese lantern pictures

And then pat yourself on the back at the end! And publish, revise, or whatever your heart desires.

I’m going to link this to elements in my graduate study, as I love to do. One of the first courses I took talked about the distinction between modern clock time and the festivalization of time that preceded modernity. Modernity is (among other things) about the institution of clock time: a standardized, regimented span of days, continually beginning and ending at designated times. Older eras were defined by feast days, festivals, and so forth. One of my professors argued that, in the contemporary world, widely celebrated holidays (think Thanksgiving, also coming up this month) were one of the few retentions of festival time (a continually replenishing, continually consumed table over the years, containing ritual elements).

Interestingly enough, it can be argued that the academic year also contains elements in common with festival time (very broadly defined, of course). Why? Well, rather than being a series of standardized days of roughly equal length, semesters have periods of waxing and waning, bookended with time that is celebrated as (first) a beginning (think welcomes and invocations) and (second) as ends (think holiday parties and breaks, which are unregimented time).

You can see the components of “festivalization” most clearly, I think, by comparing the waxing, waning, and punctuation of beginning and ends with corporate life. In the latter, one may have a vacation or holiday time off, but it is not celebrated as a beginning or end (certainly not in common), and while there may be busy periods or slow, it is not felt as a waxing in the way that the semester goes uphill, uphill, and then down (final grading!).

Well, I’m going to add NaNoWrMo to contemporary iterations of festival time. First, it has a specific time dedicated to it in which a huge community out there celebrates. It is kicked off with a celebration (there are write-ins that begin on October 31 and kick off as the chimes of midnight herald the month of November). There are numerous mini-celebrations within it (you can get badges and prizes for writing a certain number of words). There are communal write-ins throughout the month, including all-night events. (Talk about unregimented!)

And I think it is no accident that this custom happens during the bleakest month of the year. (I know many people would nominate December for this honor. Not me. Whereas the daylight in December increases after the 21st, the daylight in November only goes downhill.) It’s a shared ritual of harboring the light within, I think, and making sure that you are producing a kind of internal, creative warmth. I find it very encouraging to be part of such a team on these cold and dark mornings. So, all hail, NaNoWrMo!