A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

A Thousand Acres: Review

I like stories that re-tell older stories, because they always function as an implicit criticism of the original (I guess if you listen to Harold Bloom, this applies to all stories, and he kind of has a point). And A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley’s 20th-century retelling of King Lear, certainly does create a new lens through which to examine Shakespeare’s play, but what I really liked is how, by changing the setting to Iowa in the 1970s, she reinvigorates the drama of the source material.

King Lear is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, but I have to admit that the central conflict, on its face, seems extremely antiquated, heavily concerned with the laws of patriarchal succession and the number of knights that a retired king should get to retain. Smiley’s adaptation brings the more universal moments into focus, so we can more easily see the stuff that keeps this story timeless–the difficulties of dealing with an aging parent who still maintains a psychological hold over you, the way things like inheritance and property seem to create arguments in even the most well-meaning of families, the way those family squabbles can spiral out of control. Reading scenes that have been recreated almost line-for-line from the original, I kept marveling at how Smiley had re-made the particulars in a ways that was at once specific and universal.

I don’t know if the events that Smiley adds to the novel and the relationship between the daughters, which don’t occur in Shakespeare’s play, were controversial at the time. They almost certainly would have certain retrograde corners of the internet frothing at the mouth today: angry YouTube videos about a “radical feminist author attempting to smuggle a discussion of rape culture into Shakespeare” feels almost too easy to picture. But the book does feel prescient in the way it addresses the memory loss that is a common side effect of PTSD, and the failure of society at large to listen to women.

I’m not exactly sure why Smiley included it–I don’t think she needed to make the stand-ins for Goneril and Regan any more sympathetic than she does. Perhaps she felt it was a skeleton key that explained some of the psychology in the original play? Or maybe she wanted to just surprise us with a plot development we haven’t been aware of for the last 400 years? If the last one is the case, it certainly worked, though I also felt it helped underline the case that it’s futile to look for a reason behind your past traumas, especially if you’re trying to go to the person who created them: that person doesn’t really understand why they hurt you any more than you do.

The book feels prescient in the way it’s concerned with the effects of chemicals and factory farming all the way back in the early 1990s, and as with Moo, the other novel I’ve read, she never insists on it–it’s always just there, in the background, seeping into the heart of the story like chemicals into groundwater. Smiley extends the scope of the ancient tragedy she adapts, looking not at just the poisoning of a family, but the poisoning of the land itself.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing A Thousand Acres, just follow the link below:

A Thousand Acres: A Novel

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This entry was posted on 16 October 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , , .
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