by Jane Smiley (Mantle, £18.99)
In past volumes of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy—about the descendants of an Iowan farming family—the absence of any unifying voice or plot device left you curious about the author’s purpose amid the many local pleasures of her rich social panorama.
Smiley’s new novel Golden Age—the title is ironic—concludes the multi-generational chronicle as a parable of American decline. Like the excellent Some Luckand Early Warning (reviewed in Prospect’s Summer fiction special) it proceeds in year-tagged segments, this time from 1987 to 2019. The killing of a child at a military checkpoint scars an Iraq veteran; scandal unseats a congressman whose trader brother is caught pocketing funds before the 2008 crash. His greed is a key source of drama as he betrays a cousin struggling to save the old farm from rapacious agribusiness.
While Smiley’s eye for caprice remains, an air of duty hangs over her work here. Little happens for too long and when action does arrive—one character is killed by lightning, another in a hit-and-run—it’s abrupt and excessive. Someone widowed in 1994 finds that her husband’s dead body brings to mind the Rwandan genocide; a year later someone thinks “the world was full of terror… as this bombing in Oklahoma showed.”
True, this approach to period fiction lends a frisson of authenticity to the near-future episodes, but it’s deflating to find the two-book set-up ultimately put in the service of an over-familiar dystopia.