I haven’t been keeping you up on my 100 novels reading list: Last week I finished Good Faith by Jane Smiley. I had difficulty getting into this novel, perhaps because I knew so much about its composition. Smiley discusses its composition in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. It was a difficult novel for her to write. She was in the midst of its compostion during 9/11 and after that harrowing day, had a true bout of writer’s block. But its subject matter was just as hard to take on: The novel is set in the 1980s and deals with the beginnings of that era’s excesses. I’ll let her summarize it:
Joe, about forty, is a small-town real eastate agent in a scenic region; he is newly divorced but not generally happy and not filled with high aspiriations. At the beginning of the novel, two things happen, apparently independently of one another– a stranger (Marcus) comes to town full of big plans; and an old friend of Joe’s (Felicity), the daughter of his partner and married, entices him into having a clandestine affair….Joe allows himself to be seduced by both of them, with consequences that are, to say the least, surprising to him ….
I think what made the read difficult for me, at first, was Smiley’s choice of using Joe as the first-person narrator, because Joe becomes a pigeon in Marcus’ real estate scam and it takes a while, or did for me, to sort out what’s going on. Most of that was because of unfamiliarity with the territory of real estate.
But once I caught on, and also realized that Joe hadn’t (for irony’s sake) I could see Joe’s fall. And he falls hard, and takes a lot of his town with him. But Smiley gives Joe a reprieve. He loses a lot of things, loses friends, money, possessions, but gains grace.
To some extent the grace is offered in the same way that it’s finally offered to Job in the Old Testament–in an almost Zen-like moment of acceptance, with no real explanation. Joe just takes his lumps and sees that things could’ve been much worse. Perhaps more people could’ve gotten hurt, or lost. What’s left becomes what’s important.
I suspect Joe will go on trying to maintain this equilibrium. It’s a subtle comedy of justice that Smiley’s written.
My 10th novel on the list is also by Smiley–her campus comedy Moo! It was the first of Smiley’s books I’ve read and I’m enjoying the second read so far as well.
The more I read Smiley, the more I like her. She’s truly talentted with the comic novel, as Good Faith demonstrates. Eventually, I’ll have to give her tragedy A Thousand Acres another try.