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Saturday, May 19, 2012

 

First sentences: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road.

Plain-spoken and placed, A Thousand Acres begins. A story explicitly based on King Lear, down to the initials of many characters, but told from the viewpoint of Ginny (Goneril), A Thousand Acres is not a story of filial betrayal but of parental betrayal, cultural betrayal, a patriarchal society that makes life impossible for women, a male-farmed, polluted land that literally kills women - the gynaecological curses of Lear transformed into breast cancer and miscarriages - and the darker implications of Lear are brought forth into a graphic portrait of a parent still abusing his adult children. The novel functions both as a critical response to Lear and as a work in its own right, and is full of concrete detail: the land and customs of this part of Iowa are entirely self-contained, excluding other viewpoints in the novel and eclipsing the English background of the original play.

It's a bold thing to do: taking on Shakespeare is courting odious comparisons, and it's easy for a counter-reading of his play to come across as simplistic and didactic. The fact that Smiley succeeds is a remarkable accomplishment, and the fact that the novel can be read without needing to compare it to Lear is likewise impressive. A Thousand Acres is a gripping, eloquent and perceptive tale of a disintegrating family, and despite the long shadow of Shakespeare, it stands on its own substantial merits.

A novelist making such a bold move has limited space in which to set out her stall: if she doesn't look like she's going to do something intelligent with it in the first few pages, many readers will roll their eyes and cast the book aside. How does Smiley rise to this challenge?

The first thing that stands out about this sentence is its specificity: it speaks of locations ('County Road 686', 'Cabot Street Road') with an air of deep familiarity. Ginny knows these places - has known them all her life; they are the landmarks of her universe - and the lack of explanation with which she identifies them, simply saying her names, establishes her tone: she may describe the nature of her world when reflection upon it is important to her personal understanding, but she's not exactly speaking to an outsider. Or rather, she's not entirely speaking to us: we hear her, but the intimacy of place names gives us the sense of a voice that's almost speaking to itself, explaining herself to herself as an attempt to manage the enormity of events that will overtake her. She doesn't turn to address us; she thinks aloud, and we listen.

The place names themselves are also interesting - or rather, they're interestingly uninteresting. For a writer challenging Shakespeare, it's a gesture of immense confidence to give us a first sentence so full of boring phrases, almost an assertion of authority: Smiley is going to take her time establishing what she needs to establish and will not beg the reader's indulgence with linguistic bribes. The magnitude of Shakespeare doesn't cow her: this book will do what it needs to do for its own sake.

And what these names begin to establish straight away is the character of Ginny's culture. 'County Road 686' and the tautologous 'Street Road' are solidly literal-minded: whatever the beauties of the countryside, whoever named it - which is to say, whoever claimed and owned it, whoever had power over it - saw it as land to use, not to gaze upon. Names are functional, not evocative. Imagination will have little room to breathe here ... and with the disregard of imagination comes the disregard of doubt, of the right to question convention, of the emotional needs of those not powerful enough to impose their feelings on subordinates. Imagination is in short supply, and so, consequently, is empathy.

From a European perspective, at least, there's another layer to these names: they are comparatively modern. Roads have been built in an organised enough way to name them by number, for instance, rather than built and adapted and maintained higgledy-piggledy down the ages. Ginny will soon begin telling her family history, the dynasty that goes back a few generations to the purchase of land by great-grandparents. In other words, this literal-minded naming has been done by people still recent enough to exert a fairly direct line of influence, undiffused by the passage of centuries ... and it also gives us a family that's as limited in time as Ginny's world is in space. Three generations on record have preceded Ginny and her sisters: that is the family tree. With so few patriarchs to carry the load of history, each of them is proportionally magnified, ordinary men raised to the status of kings in their tiny realms. This world is temporally as well as geographically parochial, and force of personality will ring all the louder for it.

At the same time, Ginny's voice has a workmanlike ease with this use of language; note, for instance, the rural traveller's 'due north', a phrase for a land short on landmarks. She knows her way around, knows speeds and distances - and crucially, she speaks as part of the land. 'You could pass our farm': there us an us and a them, and she is firmly located as a member of this farm: for good and for ill, she is deep within her family.

What can we learn of this farm in the first sentence? We have a pretty good idea from the title that the farm is a thousand acres in total; when contrasted with the helpfully simple arithmetic of the first sentence - from the road, the farm looks only a mile wide - we have a sentence freighted with implication. A thousand acres can be mistaken, from the outside, for a mere mile of landone. In other words, an outsider who does not stop to look in more depth is going to underestimate the situation here: there is, literally, a thousand times vastly more than meets the eye. The farm is physically isolated - the main thoroughfare shows little of it - and that little is not enough to understand. The contrast between respectable appearance and the exploitation it covers, exploitation that the neighbours don't want to hear about because they prefer the respectable exterior, will be a driving force in the plot, and we are warned from the beginning. Removed from each other, people can put on conventional faces and do terrible things in the privacy of their far-flung homes, and nobody wants to hear about it.

The sentence, in other words, has complex layers of tone. As an authorial statement, it is a direct announcement to the reader: I'm writing this book the way I think it ought to be written, trust me or take your leave. As an establishment of Ginny's voice, however, it's full of ambivalence. She speaks to an outside 'you' while maintaining the lack of explanation one would expect of a voice speaking to itself, leaving us to wonder whether 'you' means us or a generic 'you' imagined by a woman trying to get some perspective on her microcosm. She notes the literal view of her farm with the quiet implication that an outside view will be wrong, both literally and metaphorically. And when we contrast this subdued insistence on looking deeper with the clanking simplicity of the place names, we begin to see a portrait of a culture that cannot speak for itself, cannot identify itself, cannot be trusted in any externals: a culture heading for disaster because those who own it overlook the vital, quiet truths that cannot be summed up in a number or a name.

A Thousand Acres is eloquent but simple, its language rooted and particular, its complexity lying in its implications rather than its sentence structure. And even in its first sentence we see those implications begin to shift and whisper, in the voice of a woman struggling to explain to herself complexities too deep and dark to ever fully understand, equipped only with the language her deep, dark, incomprehensible beginnings have given her.


Comments:
A quibble, having not read the book. Google's helpful calculator indicates 640 acres=1 square mile, so this farm is only half again as long east-west as it is north-south. Hardly unreasonable proportions, for a midwestern piece of land. Otherwise the book sounds fascinating, though.
 
Fizzchick, I'm afraid you're about to cop it for the actions of others besides yourself, but I'm reaching a limit here.

What is it with people who jump in first to complain about the maths or the translation or the technical details and with nothing else to say? Including, in this case, apparently actually taking the trouble to go to Google calculator like a teacher marking my maths homework? Doesn't anyone want to talk about books?

Seriously, people: this keeps happening, and it's getting wearing. Put yourself in my position for a minute: I put thought into selecting the sentences, time, effort and training into analysing them. I'm trying to kick off non-fannish conversations about literature, which are in short supply on the Internet. It feels as if people are simply fine-combing what I write in search of something, anything, to nitpick.

Nitpicking is not discussion.

Literature is an art form. Art exists to open the mind, to widen our vistas. Nitpicking is the act of closing down, of finding ways to say 'no' instead of 'yes', of narrowing our vistas down to the pinpoint of what we can reject. It is hostile to the spirit that art exists to serve.

I don't mind someone pointing out a serious mistake that's led to some genuinely wrong analysis, such as Amaryllis pointing out my mistaken reading of the names in Frost in May, because that actually was a discussion of the books - she had plenty to say about the implications of her observation - and it led to some new insights. But I would appreciate it if people with nitpicks either thought of something interesting to say about how they relate to the actual point, or else knocked it off.
 
Um.

Not actually got that much to say here, but I was pleased to see this post. Because, no lie, only a few days ago I noticed this book on my shelf, and thought, "I wonder what Kit would have to say about that one?". It is such an American book, and sentence, isn't it? Distance is measured in how long it takes to drive somewhere, preferably at the standard speed of a mile a minute, and at that speed, you're not going to see much of what you're passing.

Three generations on record have preceded Ginny and her sisters: that is the family tree. With so few patriarchs to carry the load of history, each of them is proportionally magnified, ordinary men raised to the status of kings in their tiny realms.

I couldn't go back more than a few generations in family tree, either. But I grew up in the crowded and comparatively aged, by American standards, East Coast states. My personal ancestors may not have been around for it, but there's enough history here that we don't get that feeling of "before my people, there was nothing." It's not so much that Ginny doesn't know her great-great-grandfather's name or live where her great-great-grandmother did; it's that the history of the whole area is so truncated (leaving out the original inhabitants, of course), and the population still so sparse. The suburban fathers of my childhood might have liked to think they were kings in their own tract-home castles, but I don't think they were under any illusions about their importance in the crowded world.

whoever claimed and owned it, whoever had power over it - saw it as land to use, not to gaze upon.
You know what else is interesting? I just went back and re-read that chapter, and I'd forgotten that a lot that land wasn't useable, not for farming, when Ginny's great-grandparents first acquired it. It was marshy land, underwater for half the year. It had to be drained, and kept drained in wet years, and watered in dry years, in order to produce crops. It was land not to be loved for what it was, but made to be what was useful. As Ginny says, "However much these acres looked like a gift of nature, or of God, they were not. We went to church to pay our respects, not to give thanks."

By coincidence, I've just started reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead-- do you know it? Another book set in 20th-century Iowa, another book about several generations of an American family. But this family lives in the much more poetically named town of Gilead, and imagination and reflection seem to have plenty of "room to breathe."

Interestingly, though, it seems to be mostly about the relationships between men. I'm reserving judgment on what it's saying about the women who appear, glancingly, between the lines, as the narrator describes his own life, and the lives of his father and his grandfather, and his hopes for his son.

And now I want to go back and re-read A Thousand Acres in the light of Gilead.

(OT, or previous T: I recently came across a copy of Waiting for the Barbarians, which I'd never read before either. I guess I'm glad to have read it once, but I doubt I'll want to look at it again: that was a hard hard read.)
 
It's not so much that Ginny doesn't know her great-great-grandfather's name or live where her great-great-grandmother did; it's that the history of the whole area is so truncated (leaving out the original inhabitants, of course), and the population still so sparse.

Mm, yes, it's isolated in lots of different ways. Family history can be powerful at the best of times - I speak as someone with some, um, forceful people a couple of generations up, and we lived in cities - so the absence of alternatives is all the stronger for the communities being small.

And the story of the land being reclaimed is almost a Creation story: it's such a powerful legend in the family that it effectively eclipses any previous past, and establishes the earlier generations as almost god-like in their literal creation of the land farmed, the houses inhabited and the generations bred. Rather threateningly, though, as you point out, the nature of this Creation myth is to reject the natural and bend things to your will.


Haven't read Gilead, in fact. But you're right about Waiting for the Barbarians; it's unforgettable, but like a traumatic experience is unforgettable. I can think of very few books equally powerful, and it's worth reading - rather readable, in fact, or at least I found it so - but my goodness, it's harrowing.
 
Blee... the first thing I did was look up the size of an acre :-(

The thing is, I don't have anything else to say. I love reading these but I'm not good at analyses. I don't have the training, for a start: haven't written an actual essay (as opposed to a group of scientific facts in coherent order) since 1985.

One thing I *am* good at is spotting minor errors. So that's the only thing I am able to contribute. I clicked into comments hoping that a thoughtful and intelligent discussion would have happened first... but I would probably have posted anyway if I'd found nothing. Because that's the kind of mind I have, that likes everything to be CORRECT, damnit.

(Of course, it could be argued that this isn't quite so much a minor nitpick as it might seem. A significant section of your insightful piece would have been entirely different if you'd been more familiar with an acre.)

- julie paradox
 
Are we seriously going to have an argument about this?

First, please don't presume to tell me how I would or wouldn't have written something. That is rude and patronising. It is also incorrect. No, the paragraph would not have been 'entirely different' if I'd calculated acres by US. customary systems. I would have phrased two sentences slightly differently. If you doubt me, read over my correction and see how little difference it makes.

This is because, yes, it's a minor nitpick. If it were not a minor nitpick, then there would be things to say about it beyond 'I just did a sum.' But there aren't. The difference between 'literally a thousand times more' and 'a great deal more' is one of phraseology, not of import. Phraseology matters a lot in literature, but in analysis and criticism, import is the point. So it's a minor nitpick, and there's a reason why there's nothing to add to it: it's a nitpick for the sake of nitpicking.

That is not what the study of literature is about.

The internet is full of places where you can pick nits. If that's the kind of conversation you want to have, go have it with people who enjoy it. I won't mind. Go set up a blog called kitwhitfieldcan'tdomathstosaveherlife.com if it amuses you, and I'll just shrug. I am no mathematician. I am a writer and a reader. I have one speciality, and that's what I write about.

And there is a reason why I'm trying to do an approachable version of the discipline I've spent my life studying, and it matters to me.

I've had to stop talking about art on the Slacktiverse because every time I said what I thought I got savaged for elitism. If I want to talk about what matters to me, the only place I can do it is on my own blog. And I'm not having that taken over by people who want to pick the same nits they can pick in a thousand other places.

If you don't have anything particular to contribute, that's fine; there's no law that says you have to comment. You can either go elsewhere or, if you feel it's of benefit to you, read the pieces in peace and privacy and see if you can improve your feel for this different way of approaching reading.

But I've said that nitpicks with nothing interesting to add are not going to be part of the discussion here, and I would like you to respect that. I co-run, in my finite free time, a large blog for the benefit of other people where I do not get to set the terms of the discussion, and I work hard to do a good job there. This is my own blog, built by my own work and paid for by my own money, and I reserve the right to set some terms.

No means no. It's not a negotiation, it's a ground rule.
 
the kind of mind I have, that likes everything to be CORRECT, damnit.

Not only does this sometimes derail things and lead one down rather useless sidepaths but it is often illusory.

If you start nitpicking there is always another nit to pick. So Kit may have made a minor error in math that a few readers "caught" but we all miss other minor errors all the time. If they have no substantive importance to the analysis why bother to bring them up.

So, to give an example of different "qualities" of error. The British/Canadian/imperial gallon is not the same size as the American gallon. Which means that almost every discussion of the price of gas confusing if not actually wrong. An American yard is slightly larger than British yard -- room for more usually unsubstantive confustion.

For an example of a substantive (and worth catching) misunderstanding would be, for example, in the UK "to table a motion" is to bring it to active consideration while in the US "to table a motion" means to remove it from active consideration.

What I would gather from reading Kit's posts is that she actively welcomes feedback about matters that have a substantive meaning given the content of the post but feels that feedback about things that have no substantive importance tend to derail discussion.
 
Exactly. A mistake that leads to a genuine misunderstanding is worth discussing. A mistake that doesn't signify anything about the point I'm making or the book I'm discussing, but only about my own lack of expertise in a non-literary field, is not relevant to the issue under discussion. Which is not my mathematical skills or lack of them but the book and sentence being analysed.

And that does tend to damage discussions. Especially as a lot of people like to jump on such issues and talk about them. Once I wrote a post about mental illness in which I made a statistical comment that could be interpreted in two different ways, and I ended up having to issue an outright prohibition to stop the people who were obsessing about it to the cost of the discussion of mental illness. I was seriously worried there might be mentally ill readers who wanted to talk - it's happened before when I posted about mental illness - but who were being shut out by a completely irrelevant question of mathematics. It was very inconsiderate indeed.

Nitpicks are easy to talk about and consequently attract people who want to pick over them; they are, in consequence, extremely likely to cause a derail. And derails are bad for the people who want to talk about the issue actually at hand.
 
I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to argue.

You said, and I quote, "what is it with people" and I was attempting to explain what it is with me. I will shut up now.
 
It was a rhetorical question. I wasn't wondering what the appeal was, I was asking in exasperation why people thought that a preoccupation with small irrelevant details gave them the right to derail without so much as a by-your-leave.
 
I'm going to disagree that this calculation is nitpicking. When I first read your article, I didn't do the calculation either, despite being a math major. So I was impressed by your analysis about the implications in this first sentence about the hidden depths of the farm. But knowing that the property is really a mile and a half by a mile? In flat farm country (which is one of the possible connotations to me of that County Road designation), without trees or hills to block the view, you can see for miles in all directions. Just to make sure, I looked up a "distance to the horizon" formula, and for an observer viewing from 4-6 feet above the ground (standing or riding), the horizon will be a bit over 3-4 miles away.

So the implication of the revised computation is that the casual observer, walking or riding along the property line, could in principle take in the whole of the property with a single panoramic sweep of his or her head. It is vast, certainly, stretching out somewhere between a third and a half of the distance to the horizon. But it is hardly incomprehensible or hidden.

I think that does undercut the metaphors you are discussing in your corrected paragraph and the one that follows. So in that sense, I think the correction is similar to the comment about what are Catholic names, a correction to the underpinnings of the analysis, rather than a nitpick.
 
And adding a correction on myself - I remembered wrong and used the diameter of the earth instead of the radius in that horizon computation. The actual distance to the horizon for an observer 4-6 feet off the ground is between 2.45 and 3 miles - still enough to make the whole farm visible from one spot, but stretching it a bit further towards the horizon than I had first calculated.
 
I think that does undercut the metaphors you are discussing in your corrected paragraph and the one that follows.

I was going to make a long comment about how utterly unhelpful/enlightening your "correction" is to the analysis in question but decided to do ask a question of you instead --what part of the blog author's request that commentators not post what that blog author perceives to be derails did you not get?
 
I disagree with your assessment. (And if anyone else wants to join in the mathematical calculations, I will consider it a derail and delete you. There's only so many times I'm going to say it: this is not a maths blog.)

What's the implication of 'you could pass our farm in a minute'? Not that one stops to look at the whole farm, but that the farm is passing - which is to say, that it's going by at speed to one side.

The imagined 'you' is not standing facing the farm, looking out to the horizon: they are facing the road that goes by the farm, heading towards the T intersection, and if they're travelling at sixty miles per hour one would hope they're keeping their attention primarily on the road in front of them. And that last is not a joke: dangerous driving is actually a major issue at more than one turning point in the plot.

And look at the import of the sentence: it begins with speed, it ends with 'minute', it is all about time, not sight, and by landing finally on 'minute', that short unit of time, the focus is entirely on an imagined observer who does not take the time to see what's there in the depth and detail one would need in order to understand it.

Smiley is a careful writer. If she wanted to invoke a view of a farm stretching out to the horizon, that would have been the focus of her sentence: it is in no way beyond her powers to invoke a 'panorama'. The focus of her sentence is, instead, a farm moving past at speed, with only a very narrow strip in contact with the main thoroughfare.

It is not a panoramic sentence. One could, in theory, take a panoramic look at this farm from the road, but that's not what's happening in the sentence. The 'you' isn't a real person who can look and see things Smiley doesn't show us: the farm is made of nothing but the words Smiley choses to include. And what's there is not hidden - I never said it was - but unobserved. Not because it isn't there to see, but because it's hiding in plain sight, just like the suffering of the women. You can see it if you look for it, but the sentence doesn't, and neither do the characters. You can pass something quickly and reduce it to background if you don't look carefully, and that's what's happening here.

This is why maths is a derail in this instance. You can come up with all sorts of calculations to posit what one might see if one crunches the numbers together - but one does not read a Jane Smiley sentence as a number-crunching exercise. (You didn't, as you yourself acknowledge.) You read it for what's there, not what might theoretically be there if the calculations came out thus-and-so.

The sentence is not a factual description. All that is there is what's there, and all that's there is the words, and the words are about moving past without observing.


And I'm saying this seriously: one more bloody maths look-up and I start on the delete button. Take it outside if you have to, but enough is enough, no means no, and I am getting fed up.
 
Okay, no math, can I talk about names some more? I keep thinking about that "Cabot Street Road."

It's a country road which leads to the town of Cabot, where presumably it becomes merely Cabot Street. But why Cabot? The name brings to mind, first, seafaring explorers-- an odd choice for a town about as far from the sea as you can get? Except, as Ginny says, the first settlers to arrive on the prairie always spoke of it as a sea, the sea of grass. The sea of grass that's been swept away by wheat, but which Ginny imagines as still underlying that firm tile floor created by her grandparents.

The second thing that the name brings to mind is, of course, good old Boston:
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.


Again, Cabot, IA, is pretty far away geographically and culturally from the "Boston Brahmins." But are we to infer that the descendents of Cabot's first settlers also think pretty well of themselves?

I won't even get started on the "Zebulon" of Zebulon County.)

Cabot Street Road and road past Ginny's farm make a T intersection, which means, when you get there you've got to make a choice: toward the town or farther onto the prairie? Whichever, you can't just keep going the way you're going, or there'll be trouble.
 
You're right and I hadn't thought of that: we get a 'Which way are you going to do?' decision right in the first sentence. Good catch, sir. :-)

And yes, about Cabot - interesting points. My ears are less tuned to American names, but what you say is convincing. I'd add a third thought, which is that the sound of the name itself is staccato and short-vowelled, uncompromising on the ear. Ginny talks about how the English and Scandinavian settlers brought a hidebound ethos with them, and the clipped names - Cabot, Cook, Clark - seem to invoke a close-lipped manner.
 
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