Jane Smiley’s Good Faith
Faber & Faber, 2003
Jane Smiley once said, ‘When I set out as a novelist I wanted to write in all the major genres.’ This has been one of the most distinctive, and distinguished, features of her work: rather than providing readers with variations on a comfortable, familiar theme, each new novel has presented itself as a perfect instance not of a ‘Smiley novel’ but of generic mastery. Moo (1995) is a tremendously funny and politically aware campus novel to put David Lodge to shame, whereas The Greenlanders (1988) recreates the stylistic austerity of the Norse sagas so well that it has still to find a wide readership (largely because of publishers’ timidity – it is both Smiley’s and my favourite of her novels). A Thousand Acres, her feminist resetting of the Lear story on a Mid-Western farm, was a tour-de-force that won her a Pulitzer in 1992.
However, by Horse Heaven (2000), I, at least, got the impression that Smiley had run out of genres. It is a sprawling, unsatisfactory, unfascinating attempt to portray the entirety of the international racing circuit, right down to the interior lives of its horses; an attempt, by Smiley’s own account, to have all the genres in the same book. Fortunately for her readers she has since descended from such ambitious heights. Smiley declares of her next novel, Good Faith (2003), ‘I wanted to get away from something so various and complex and instead write a simple story essentially about one guy.’
Though its cast is indeed severely scaled down from that of Moo or Horse Heaven, simplicity inheres not so much in the story of Good Faith as in the ‘one guy’ it portrays. The narrator, Joe Stratford, is an ordinary and unassuming realtor; his lover, the beautiful and married Felicity, tells him ‘the funniest thing about you is that you think you’re an average guy’. Joe is caught up in and eventually undone by his faith (at the beginning of the Reagan era) in ‘the proper American trajectory, rising and rising.’ Befriended by a Machiavellian former tax inspector, Joe is drawn into a world of high-finance property-development where ‘There’s money everywhere! Money money money! … Money these days is like water. It can’t stop looking for a place to go.’ It appears natural, even right, to Joe and his associates that they should spend their time encouraging this free-flowing stuff to circulate around them. Their capitalist exuberance is encapsulated in the exchange, ‘”Joe! I am getting! Are you spending?” “Always!” “Spend more!”’
Such passages recur throughout the book. Smiley’s clinical depiction of naked greed is repellent enough, but more disturbing is the concomitant irresponsibility, the willed ignorance of cause and consequence that she presents. The easygoing, or maybe lazy, vernacular of her characters (the dialogue and narration are littered with such fuzzy phrases as ‘for whatever reason’, ‘somehow’, ‘I suppose’) slides over into easygoing, or lazy, morality. Thus Joe muses on an impending huge commission: ‘That you could make that kind of money brokering real estate seemed so amazing I didn’t know what to think about it.’ So he doesn’t think anything. Another character exclaims, ‘”You ask me where the money’s coming from, and frankly I don’t know, but hey! Who’s asking?”’ This blissful ignorance in his professional life becomes a feature of Joe’s personal conduct. In his uncertain relationship with Felicity, he reaches ‘the moment to ask her what we were doing, what it meant, what she thought about it, what was next. Instead, I ate my own hamburger.’ In this context, the book’s recurrent imagery of consumption, particularly of those 80s icons, burgers and Cokes, reaches bathetic proportions. Marcus, Joe’s mentor, the IRS-man gamekeeper-turned-poacher responsible for the spiralling over-investment and corruption that drive the plot, voices the most egregious expression of the moral and personal wrong-headedness that the novel sets out to expose, as he advises Joe: ‘Business is about relationships. Marriage is about contracts and business is about relationships.’
Good Faith ’s critique of the overweening 80s is excellent: perceptive, caustic and unsparing. But it is not always very entertaining. Spending so much time (417 pages) among such degraded characters was a depressing experience, and I finished the book with a sense of relief. Joe Stratford’s expertly rendered ordinariness cannot but infect the narrative with its own insipidity. Smiley’s extraordinary ability to immerse herself in a given genre, or here, in a particular mindset, can work to her disadvantage. The book’s success in vilifying the Reagan mentality, its creation in the reader of a strong distaste for all the varieties of conspicuous consumption and moral lethargy the era promoted, places too great a strain on actual enjoyment. It is a scathing attack, all the sharper for its lack of direct authorial intervention, but an uncomfortable read.
April Warman is in the first year of her DPhil. at Pembroke College, Oxford, where she is researching treaments of death in contemporary poetry.