Friday, September 7, 2012
PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley, reviewed by Su Zi
Chick Lit: The categorization of fiction does no favors to readers, at least. Thus, a work deemed literary may languish, because a faction of readers might be intimidated by the categorization: literature being perceived as difficult, as challenging to the mind; a crucial perception in an era when linguistic pabulum is the expectation. In addition, linguistic (or any artistic) works that take a particular point of view, and explore that view with some depth, will find factionalism as well as cultural prejudices that either shun or light the pathways toward inclusion in the classical cannon. Sometimes, works will experience periods of heyday or censorship, or authors will find celebration or re-probation (the historical example of Kate Chopin serves well). When a work is a current one, the title of literary may be seem as being part of the process of inclusion into the literary canon—a Catholic reference that is nonetheless accepted ecumenically but still equates classic, literary authors to that of the saints.
Classical considerations are always a viable rubric for analysis of any artistic work, and in the realm of literature can be an easy determiner as to whether or not a novel is as forgettable a read as franchise food is as a meal. Alas, these days, novels that exist as a delight to the gourmet reader do not seem to exist in plenitude; therefore, we have much to thank for Jane Smiley’s 2010 novel Private Life.
Smiley’s novel exists for the superficial reader as a historically set read of the chick-lit stripe, because the primary point of view is of that of the female protagonist, Margaret. Smiley’s fluid prose would not dissuade such a reader, and her level of detail is not nearly as onanistic as that of some millionaire horror writers. The novel’s allusions, however, are wry and imply much: In one scene, Margaret is being courted by one of the novel’s other primary characters, Captain Early, via the captain’s mother and a seductive perusal of the Early’s home library(60). Among the titles listed as congruent to the time period is Gaskell’s North and South (as well as the works of Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle), and this becomes both an allusion and a clue to the novel’s inner workings—there is much in Private Life that echoes the tone of not only the Gaskell work (two distinct geographical settings as a metaphor for not only the character’s life stages, but for the culture setting ), but of the Brontes as well. Toward the end of the novel, one character offers an explanation of her life by a direct literary reference in a conversation to Margaret:
“[…]You talk like a woman who never got married.” […]
‘ have you heard of The Well of Loneliness?’
‘Gertrude Stein?’” (243)
The reader gets the implication—or ought to—even if the character of Margaret does not, at least, for awhile. This creates a tacit relationship between the author and the reader, timed so as to not interrupt compassion for Margaret, and more subtle but of the same stripe as Bronte’s “Dear Reader, I married him” and also aligning rather concretely Smiley’s novel with that of its classical antecedents.
The novel’s allusions become rich symbols for Margaret’s maturation. The San Francisco earthquake on 1908 becomes an episode in the characters’ lives
105-115). Smiley creates in Margaret an appreciation for Japanese art that includes not only references to Utagawa Hiroshige (189) and Hokusai, but which become pivotal symbols in Margaret’s character: Margaret buys the Hokusai print—which is described as ‘ the moment just before the recipient of the gift realizes the evil intentions of the sender” (199)-- and it becomes a symbol that reaches its climax when Margaret finally abandons the passivity of her broken will and confronts her husband (294).
Although the allusions in this novel are abundant—Captain Early comes to loathe Einstein , and this becomes a symbol of his egomania—their purposeful use creates a depth that goes beyond cultural positioning or historical connection. Smiley’s swiftly moving prose does not create a shallow read, nor does the depth of her references create a dense snag for the more fast-food junkie type of reader. Smiley’s construction seems well-considered and respectful of a canon that includes Perkins-Gilman (at one point Margaret is held captive by her husband) and the aforementioned authors. The reader gets the strong sense that the novel is meant to exist in this classical lineage, while also being aware that those classics were meant to exist as stories not saints. The most overt flaw in this novel is that any violence becomes subtle, and thus there’s neither explicit sex nor explicit violence—a tactic that may prove to be less than satisfying for some—but for many a gentle reader, it’s a delicious experience.