Pre-script: Fans of Jane Smiley (or Arundhati Roy, or Aravind Adiga) must stay off this post. If you choose to read and get offended, remember that you were warned. I will not approve your comments.
I believe that award winning novels (and movies) have to necessarily be depressing and bring out depravity in humans. I tried hard to think that this is just an unsubstantiated prejudice and if I read award winners with a neutral eye, I may be proven wrong. So read I did, with an un-jaundiced eye. First “The Stone Diaries” which, while not in the class of making you sob your heart out, had enough melancholia to fit into my pattern. But the narration made up for the fault.
Thus fortified, I started “A Thousand Acres” by Jane Smiley. This must be the longest book of bland narration I have endured in my life. I don’t know how many pages long the book is, being a kindle version of, ahem, suspicious origin. But everytime I turned a page, my eyes instinctively went to the lower left corner that tells you what percentage of the book I have finished. Yet, doggedly, I pursued the book, with the one aim that I must read the book before trashing it here.
“A Thousand Acres” (ATA) is a modern version of King Lear, I hear. I have not read King Lear, not being particularly a great fan of Shakespeare tragedies, but ATA has strengthened my resolve to not read King Lear. ATA limps along for almost 70% of the book with reams and reams of bland narration. And then suddenly like the author just woke up, there is a much contrived pretentious hyperactive melodrama and an abrupt, hurried closure. The feeling is of having trudged all the way to the top of Mt. Everest just to be suddenly pushed off the cliff.
What might be considered interesting is the description of a farmer’s life in America – the tasks in managing a 1000-acre farmland and the interaction between neighbours and farmer friends. In fact, most of the first parts of the book are these kind of descriptions, which are, even if verbose, bearable. (The women are done with breakfast by 6 AM ! I’d have never survived there.)
I understand that until recently, society has been very patriarchal, unjust towards the woman. Even now, women are victimized solely on account of their sex. But sometimes do we take it too far? The book suggests that all men are evil – the father who crushes his daughters, the husband who wife-beats and later rejects her because of her mastectomy, the husband who worries more of his hog farm than wife, the neighbour who manipulates the two sisters for his own sexual needs, the neighbour who badmouths the sisters …as I think back, I can’t remember a single male character who has been portrayed as normal. They are all fiends, out to get women.
The protagonist, Ginny, a wimp of a woman, who gives in to everyone’s whims and fancies, suddenly walks out on her husband because she has had enough. Are we supposed to sympathise with her? Are we supposed to sympathise with anyone at all in the story? The women have their own agendas (except of course Ginny, who is an angel who has been “pushed” beyond endurance) and the men are evil.
Of course, as expected, there is depravity in all its glory. Depravity seems to be the bottom line for an award winner. If it is an extra marital affair, umm..ok…but not deprave enough. But throw in incest, and you have a sure winner – remember God of Small Things? Yes, I know. The world is not squeaky clean. Human beings are not squeaky clean. There is depravity. There is misery. There is incest. S#$% happens. But when you convert s#$% into an asset, there, I believe is a serious problem.
A law suit, heartbreaking senility of the father who was once a heartless monster, bankruptcy, a scheming ungrateful sister, extra marital affairs, dishonesty, divorce, miscarriages, deception – all elements to add to the sense of utter hopelessness. For the reader that is. The author must have known the moment she wrote the last sentence that she has pulled a smart one. Pulitzer prize is apparently given to books that represent America.
I would feel very ashamed to be represented by A Thousand Acres, if I were American. Yes, I am ashamed to be represented by God of Small Things and White Tiger, if you really have to know.