Wondering to Be Done

Is there a word for the phenomenon in which a person who lives in a particular area is less likely than, say, a tourist, to visit a notable site in that area?  The classic example is the New Yorker who sees the Statue of Liberty every day but has never stepped on the island or climbed the steps to look through the windows in the statue’s crown—unless, of course, it’s to shepherd folks from out of town.  Is it that “there’s no rush”?  That one can always do it tomorrow, even when “tomorrow” turns out to be one decade slipping past the next?

I think that something similar occurs in literature—at least, it has with me.  Since coming to live in Monterey County over a dozen years ago, I have been aware of Jane Smiley, have known that she lives in Carmel Valley, am aware that she is an important, notable author.  But years passed and I never read her books.  This was true despite the fact that I was drawn to the subject of A Thousand Acres, with its inspiration in King Lear; was impressed by the idea behind 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel—not only an examination of the novel genre but an extended commentary on one hundred of them; was cheered by Smiley’s Letters to the Editor in various publications in which I wholeheartedly agreed with her politics.  I really do think that it was my knowledge of her physical proximity, the fact that she lived in the same county, that made the act of picking up one of her books seem less urgent.  What was the rush?  She was right next door.  In my mind, someday, I would read Jane Smiley. 

That day has finally come, and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing.

Smiley, who will be speaking at MPC this Thursday evening, writes about people and landscapes with depth and insight and a mature awareness of suffering and its corollary: the ability to carry on.  Indeed, in 13 Ways (which I am currently reading), she argues, “It is in the nature of the novel to say, ‘We are still alive.’”  Stories are always about life moving forward, in whatever direction of joy or disaster a particular author may have chosen.  “Prose implies that events can be organized, understood, endured, and survived,” Smiley writes, and it is exactly this quality of careful construction I found so striking in A Thousand Acres, a fantastic novel, and worth the wait.  In that book, Smiley reels out her story with patience and deliberation, creating a delicious tension in the reader who may know what happens to the characters in Lear and is eager to see how these Shakespearean fates may or may not translate to the novel’s damaged farm family in Iowa.

Smiley also writes about the human body with an uncommon level of spiritual curiosity.  Here are two passages from A Thousand Acres:

“Shame is a distinct feeling.  I couldn’t look at my hands around the coffee cup or hear my own laments without feeling appalled, wanting desperately to fall silent, grow smaller.  More than that, I was uncomfortably conscious of my whole body, from the awkward way that the shafts of my hair were thrusting out of my scalp to my feet, which felt dirty as well as cold.  Everywhere, I seemed to feel my skin from the inside, as if it now stood away from my flesh, separated by a millimeter of mortified space.” (p. 195)

“When I contemplate this memory, I feel on the verge of remembering what childhood felt like, that its hallmark was the immediacy of one’s every physical sensation, and also the familiar strangeness of one’s parts—feet and hands, especially, but also chest, knees, stomach.  I think I remember meditating on these attached objects, looking at them, touching them, feeling them from the outside and from the inside, wondering about them because there was wondering to be done, not because there were answers to be found.” (p. 277)

There is always wondering to be done, even if the answers are elusive, and Smiley is a welcome guide and companion on the wondering, wandering path of reading.  Looking down that path, I see many more books by Jane Smiley in my reading future.

The MPC Guest Authors Series presents Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley in Lecture Forum 103 at MPC on Thursday, April 19 at 7:00 p.m. The author will read from her fiction and discuss the writing of novels; questions from the audience are encouraged. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; tickets ($10) will be sold at the event.