A Thousand Acres.

I’ve got a new post up today on the Young-Bell-Pennington trade.

Jane Smiley won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel with A Thousand Acres, her adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, hewing fairly close to the original storyline aside from the typical Shakespeare tragic ending where everyone dies, often in a single pile on a battlefield or in a great hall. A Thousand Acres takes us to an Iowa farm near the end of the boom in land values in the 1970s, where a domineering, impetuous farmer named Larry Cook decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, a process that also begins to divide the family and presages his mental breakdown, much as Lear himself went mad after dividing his kingdom among his daughters.

Following Big Willie’s original plot, Smiley has Cook’s youngest daughter, Caroline (Cordelia in King Lear) lose her inheritance, here for the most innocuous of comments, spurring a severe estrangement between her and her father as well as between her and her two sisters, the narrator Ginny (Goneril) and the more devious middle child Rose (Regan). Ginny points to the tiff between Larry and Caroline as the beginning of the end of their family, perhaps ignoring larger environmental factors like the impending bust in land values and changes in American agriculture, as well as the lack of any male heirs to Larry’s estate who would run and work the farm. Those factors along with Larry’s decline into madness – at first merely bouts of anger and irrational behavior, but later near-complete dementia – increase the strain on Ginny, her husband Ty, Rose, and her wayward husband Pete, with Rose and Pete’s two daughters mostly inured from the family strife until Pete’s demons resurface closer to the story’s end.

Smiley’s characterizations are by far the greatest strength of the novel, since the plot is not original nor was she likely to improve on our language’s greatest storyteller. Ginny and Rose are richly described and presented with great complexity, enough that the mid-story revelation that both were sexually abused by their father doesn’t add as much to their characters as such a background detail might ordinarily contribute. Jess Clark, paralleling Edmund, is recast as the sensitve, brooding stranger whose sexual magnetism draws in both women (and, one presumes, others unseen) despite his clear emotional unavailability. Caroline even earns her share of depth despite spending so much of the novel off-screen; Smiley even hints that she might be Rose’s daughter by Larry, a fascinating (if replusive) plot detail that could explain some of Caroline’s and Rose’s actions towards their father. Only Larry comes up short in Smiley’s character development; he’s an ass from the start, a cranky, misogynistic old fool who is later revealed to be depraved, manipulative, and evil, and from whom none of his daughters can completely break free, even after his death.

Smiley’s adherence to Shakespeare’s plot led her severely astray, however, when she mimicked Goneril’s attempt to poison her sister Regan; Goneril was successul, but Ginny, as she is presented to us, seems totally incapable of such a bold act of violence or jealousy. She is broken, emotionally, and bears some anger toward her sister, but her ultimate target is her father, by that point unreachable by vengeance. An attempt to kill her father, even as a means of closure for herself without the element of revenge, would have fit her character more completely. The idea that she hates Rose enough to kill her for stealing Jess is not adequately supported by her thoughts or actions, and the very sudden shift in her character to someone capable of premeditated murder is not dramatic, but sloppy.

That selective paralleling of King Lear pushes Smiley into a corner where the book, readable and compelling for about two-thirds of its length, starts to come apart, because she’s rewriting someone else’s story with her own characters and has to force them (when she wants) to act in ways not entirely in keeping with their given natures. By the time Ginny wants to kill her sister, she has been presented to us as someone incapable of such an act. When we learn that Larry raped his daughters (an original element not in Shakespeare), he becomes so odious that we are unable to muster sympathy for him in later scenes where his broken mental and physical conditions might otherwise make him sympathetic, or even pathetic, instead of vile and sickening. The lack of balance pushes the reader to Ginny’s side (and Rose’s, to a lesser degree), only to have Ginny revealed as a sociopath who’d murder her own sister. Had the binding come apart in my hands, the book wouldn’t have fallen apart any more completely than it did in its content.

Next up: I read Allison Hoover Bartlett’s quirky non-fiction story The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (on sale for $6 through that link) and have begin Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011.