Monday, June 26, 2000

At Paradise Gate by Jane Smiley

I want to talk to you this morning about one of the most important American novelists of the last two decades and probably of the century. Her name is Jane Smiley, and I want to talk in particular today about her novel At Paradise Gate. But what strikes me most about Smiley is her incredible range. Any writer sufficiently serious and talented to write A Thousand Acres would, it seems, have to have worked and worked and polished and refined a style of writing suited to such weighty material as that covered in that ambitious book. And yet, any of you have read her uproariously funny book, Moo, know that both the style and the content of that book are almost entirely different than A Thousand Acres. The only thing those two books have in common is the author’s intimate knowledge of farming, of agribusiness and the way that corporations have taken over and depersonalized farming. But Moo is certainly more than a book about the dangers of mixing money and agriculture; it is also a perceptive book about the sixties, about university life during the Viet Nam war, about university politics, and about the all encompassing influence of corporations on all of life. Marx tells us a lot about how modes of production affect everything else about how we live—tells us that in order to understand a culture, we have to study carefully the ways in which the wherewithal of life is gotten from the earth and the complex of relations that arise directly from that mode of expropriation. In Moo Smiley gives us a wonderful microcosm of just how such modes of expropriation shape and determine life itself. Though I would be willing to bet that most people who read the book will say that it is simply a comedy about the relationships of men and women and about a typical agricultural college.

No one would expect a serious novelist like Iris Murdoch to turn out a first rate comedy or to adopt a style of writing so unlike her other books that one would be hard-pressed to identify the author. But compare one of Smiley’s early, short masterpieces like Barn Blind with her mystery novel Duplicate Keys. Barn Blind is a deadly serious book about the perils of parents trying to live through their children—about the particular form of inauthenticity which leads some people who have failed to live their own dreams into ruthless attempts to bend and shape their children’s lives without ever seeing the children at all, seeing who they are or what they need. In comparison, Duplicate Keys is mere play—set in the city instead of Smiley’s usual rural setting, and containing most of the ingredients of a really good mystery. Though even in this book, very serious themes about the difficulties of women living their own lives while coupled are woven in with and inseparable from the mystery.

And perhaps after reading a couple of Smiley’s wonderful studies of farm life, her lively romp through academia and her fling into mystery novels, you might turn to her incredibly ambitious (and sometimes almost impenetrable) novel, The Greenlanders. Almost the only thing I find in common among these diverse works is the meticulous care in describing day to day living and the indubitable understanding of human psychology displayed by this wonderful author.

It should be obvious that I want to recommend to you Jane Smiley, all of the wonderful diversity of her works. If you are anything like I am, you may have avoided her masterpiece, A Thousand Acres, because of its immense popularity. I am so in the habit of bypassing the best sellers that I read almost all of Smiley’s short, early novels before reluctantly picking up A Thousand Acres. My mistake. But now to the book of the day, At Paradise Gate. So out of the mainstream of American action novels, this book covers exactly two days in the life of one family, a family who from the outside would be entirely unnoticed, unremarkable. And yet under the eye of Smiley, this family comes alive, their perhaps mundane concerns become symbolic of the huge and constant existential questions that face all of us (and that most of us manage most of the time to keep concealed).

This is a book that requires the reader to slow down, to adjust to Smiley’s sense of time, and to her understanding of how past, present, and future are there for us always—dancing, fusing, confusing. It is the story of one old woman in her seventies, caring for her even older husband who is, as the title suggests, at paradise gate, and of the couples three daughters and one granddaughter who congregate in crisis. Each of the women characters has a story to tell, about men, about the possibility of women living out who they really are while coupled to men. But mostly, it is the story of this one old women, ashamed of how bothered she is by her sick and demanding husband. It is a book about his illness and her sleeplessness and how that lack of sleep can confuse past and present. The granddaughter wants to leave her man, her husband, because she wants to live—because she cannot stand the order and predictability of life with this man, or maybe just of married life. Her mother and her aunts, all of whom have lost their men, counsel against this separation. After all, he is a good man, a good provider, and he is there! The grandmother, too, wants security for her granddaughter, wants more children to carry on the family. But unlike her own daughters, she finds it possible to listen to the granddaughter and to remember what it was like for her as she felt her life, her real self, dissipate and disappear over the many years of doing for, worrying over. How long has it been she locked the doors between their bedrooms? What would it have been like had she been able to remain in the mountains of her youth, to follow her own dreams? What would it have been like to have lived without the temper of her husband and his brother, without the verbal beatings and physical threats, without having to internalize his failures?

Her daughters are there, counseling, hovering, sometimes berating. Oughtn’t she to hire a nurse? Is she really looking after Daddy as she ought? Can she really look after him as he deserves? At times, she wants them all gone, all her children ... and him? Does she want him gone to?
It occurred to Anna {the grandmother} that now was the very moment she had been dreading for years, the moment when the voicing of a single word, although she did not know which word, would work like magic to open up everything.... All the compromises they had forged for the sake of companionship and daily friendship would shatter. Such passion would be expressed as could never be recanted ... the family would end, scatter, disappear as if none of them had ever tried as hard as possible to get along, stay in love, do the right thing, remember what it was that held them together. The unknown word could have come to anyone, and now it had come to Helen. Anna held her breath.
This is not an easy book to talk about; it is a finely woven tapestry, and the reader must slow down and help with the weaving. I think you will come away from reading it with a sense that you have learned and that the slowing down was worth it

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