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  • The Lie of the Land: Heartland Novels by Smiley and Kinsella
  • Carl D. Malmgren (bio)

In terms of tone, treatment, and outcome, one can hardly imagine two novels more different than Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. In one, the narrator loses nearly everything she holds dear—father, husband, sister, lover, home, land; in the other, the narrator resurrects a baseball hero, befriends the most reclusive author of our time, J. D. Salinger, talks to his long-dead father in his backyard, and finds the world at his doorstep. One novel tells a tale of family discord and dissolution, the other, a tale of family solidity and triumph. In one the father is driven mad and done in; in the other, he is brought back to life in the prime of youth. In a phrase, one novel speaks of rape and exile, the other of rapture and exaltation.

But to concentrate on outcomes is to overlook the significant similarities between the two novels. These narratives take place in the “heart of the country” and treat their settings as representative. Both novels deal with what it means to be a heartlander, to be rooted in the great Midwest 1 ; these are narratives of the land, of what it means to possess it or to be possessed by it. In addition, both are first-person narrations in which the central action involves the narrator’s coming-to-terms with a strong father figure. The link between setting and [End Page 432] action is not accidental, insofar as in both novels farms and farmland are identified with fathers, the authority figures who secure the land. These authorities are also authors, those who transmit the narratives—histories, biographies, fictions—which give roots to both farms and fathers. As the “Father” each thus also secures the realm of language and narration, and to gain or lose the Father involves access to fields of signification. Both novels are built on a chain of equations and substitutions, a “symbolic economy” that Jean-Joseph Goux would find striking and inevitable. Goux argues that the chain has to do with the “general equivalent,” an abstract measure that enables us to exchange commodities by standardizing and specifying their relative value. Goux stipulates that the first such equivalent is money, but argues that money provides a paradigm for a general cultural operation: “The institution of FATHER, PHALLUS, and LANGUAGE, of the major ‘signs’ that regulate the values market, in fact stems from a genesis whose necessity and whose limits are doubtless most pronounced, theoretically, in the origin of MONEY” (13). Shadowing both these narratives is a metanarrative of the general equivalent. Both novels start out describing farms, but fan out to examine a “mode of symbolizing that is both economic and significant” (Goux 4).

The Land

“God what an outfield,” he says. “What a left field.” He looks up at me and I look down at him. “This must be heaven,” he says.

“No, it’s Iowa.”

—W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe

“If this had been my dad’s place, I never would have left. This looks like paradise to me, that’s for sure.”

—Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres

In terms of its treatment of the land, A Thousand Acres begins where Shoeless Joe ends. The narrator, Ginny Smith, and her family preside over a thriving farm operation that boasts a thousand acres of the [End Page 433] most arable land in the Midwest. They live on the “biggest farm farmed by the biggest farmer,” a state of affairs that confirms Ginny’s “own sense of the right order of things” (Smiley 20). Her family’s reputation and prosperity not only make her life seem “secure and good” (5); they make her feel centered, firmly rooted in the earth:

[I]t seemed to me when I was a child in school, learning about Columbus, that in spite of what my teacher said, ancient cultures might have been on to something. No globe or map fully convinced me that Zebulon County was not the center of the universe. Certainly, Zebulon County, where the earth was flat, was one spot where a sphere (a seed...

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