The Greenlanders
Jane Smiley, 1988

I first heard of Jane Smiley in 1995, when I saw her novel Moo everywhere. I know nothing about it.

I first read something by Jane Smiley in 2004, when Slate commissioned a bunch of articles about why the '04 election had turned out so disastrously. A lot of the contributors were the usual suspects offering the usual talking points, but Smiley was much more in tune with my own opinion in her article, "The unteachable ignorance of the red states," which I quoted at some length in my own election writeup. So I stuck a "+1" next to Jane Smiley's name in my mental Who's Who and went about my life.

In 1996 I saw William T. Vollmann's The Atlas everywhere — I think the publisher may have had some sort of promotional deal with Northwestern University, where I was getting my M.A. at the time — and the saturation marketing got me to at least look up who this guy was. It turned out that he was writing a series of novels about early contact between Europeans and North American native peoples, and the first installment, The Ice-Shirt, was about the Viking voyages to Greenland and thence to Labrador and Newfoundland. I knew that Vikings were credited with those discoveries, but it hadn't previously occurred to me that, hey, that means that there were encounters between Vikings and Micmacs! Wow! And Vikings and Eskimos even lived together, or close enough for their worlds to overlap! So I very eagerly started into The Ice-Shirt, only to find that it was a mixture of Norse sagas, Inuit mythology, and gonzo journalism. Not my sort of thing at all.

But having had that connection made meant that when I came across the chapters on Norse Greenland in Jared Diamond's Collapse I was totally enthralled. I don't know whether I could be a social scientist — the actual process of sorting through data from middens and ice cores and archeological digs doesn't really sound like my thing — but I am generally fascinated by the fruit of social science, i.e., the conclusions drawn about how people in distant times and places lived their lives. I think it explains a lot about the world to view people as the loci created as the principles of geography and sociology and economics and a hundred other disciplines play themselves out. This is what Collapse does, and to a great degree, The Greenlanders tells the same story. Starting around 1340 and ending around 1420, it's the saga of a decaying world in which "summer came later every year, more and more cows were carried out of the byre next to dead, the grass grew thinner, the hay crop smaller"; one in which the cathedral may have been "built for the ages, but perhaps these ages were about to end." We follow the generations as every year more farms are abandoned, more children are carried away by starvation, more Inuit "skraelings" show up in the fjord. The difference is that, unlike a social scientist, Jane Smiley gives these people souls.

After all, there are lots of authors out there who are interested in exploring the shapes societies can take. There's a whole subgenre of SF that's all about imagining potential cultural configurations. The problem is that rarely do I get the sense that these authors consider their characters anything more than loci of geography and sociology and economics and etc. And while I do want to see that side of the characters I read, I also want to get the sense that they weren't just summoned into existence, hocus-pocus, for the purposes of the plot, and aren't banished to a storage closet whenever not appearing on the page. I want to read about people whose lives are as important and meaningful to them as yours is to you or mine is to me. So, sure, a history book might paint a picture of a Greenlander whittling chess pieces from a walrus tusk by the light of a seal-oil lamp. And that's all well and good... but I want to know what his wife's favorite color was when she was six. A history book isn't going to tell me that when she looks at her reflection in the barrel of meltwater under the eaves, she still expects to see that six-year-old girl looking back at her, just back from tromping after her uncle up in the hills, learning to snare ptarmigan. Neither will your typical piece of "literary SF," which is what Pattern 15 complains about. But The Greenlanders succeeds in incarnating both the historical tragedy of Norse Greenland and a set of specific people whom we follow from infancy to whatever fate awaits them. This is basically exactly the sort of thing I want to read.

And yet in a sense this is exactly the sort of thing I normally don't want any part of! While I wouldn't call it a "tone poem," there is a certain hypnotic quality to the cadences of the prose, peppered with Nordic compounds: "homefield," "spooncase," "sourmilk." And its organizing principle is largely textural, an incantation of the rhythms of life among a people halfway between their rapacious Viking forebears and their progressive Scandinavian descendants: 558 pages of manuring fields, milking ewes, making cheeses, weaving wadmal, plotting against neighbors, chasing after children and trying to get a read on what sort of people they might become, if they live. One of the consequences of living in a relatively plotless narrative is that the characters in The Greenlanders aren't protected by their importance to the story: major characters are casually dispatched in accidents, die in childbirth, get wiped out by epidemics. With every winter comes the famine, and in the spring we learn which of the children we've become so invested in have randomly starved to death. And there are two things I want to say about that, one about ideas, one about form:

Ideas: Part of the reason I loved this book is that to a great extent it's about attachment to children who are then snatched away, which is of course one of the themes I return to on a regular basis. There are lines in this book that are just so lovely — Birgitta's father tells her that she can't get too attached, and she replies, "I can't help it that they fill up my eyes with their beauty and winsome ways" — and others that struck me as really profound. There's a moment when Gunnar, depressed that his daughter Gunnhild has left for Iceland, likely never to be seen by him ever again, is told by the local priest that "we must satisfy ourselves with the knowledge of our heavenly meeting" with lost children. Gunnar replies, "We must, indeed. But it seems to me that this thing is hard for a father to do, and for one reason, that much of what draws me to them is the manner in which the passing days flit across them, so that they are themselves and yet not the same as they were. When we put off our flesh and appear in the raiment of our eternal souls, perhaps we shall long for this earthly quality." I can't think of a better way to phrase why I like Jock Sturges so much.

Form: One of the projects I've been secretly working on in my copious spare time is an engine for computer-generated narrative, sort of a cross between the Erasmatron and Philip K. Dick using the I Ching to write The Man in the High Castle, and The Greenlanders feels as though it could be the output of what I have in mind. That it's so successful is inspiring.

Anyway, reading The Greenlanders was something I really needed, in that it feels like it's been ages since I actually liked something, and I was starting to wonder whether I had lost my capacity to enjoy narrative or what. Maybe I just need to read more fiction. I think one of the reasons that the textural nature of The Greenlanders worked for me was its textual nature: I wasn't locked into real time the way I am with a movie, and could read fast or slow, without feeling impatient or rushed the way I often feel when watching a film or, for that matter, listening to a podcast or audiobook. Now if only I knew what to read...

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