The Barriers of Circumstance : THE AGE OF GRIEF <i> by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf: $15.95; 213 pp.) </i>


After a reading of Jane Smiley’s new collection of stories and her title novella, “The Age of Grief,” it is the characters’ delight in the pleasing surface of the world that stays longest with the reader. Some of Smiley’s characters are charmingly conceited. Some worry about each other, their children, about themselves. They fear accidents and see dirty windowsills as a sign of creeping chaos. But Smiley’s readable prose is at its best when it reminds one of the pleasures of seeing the unexpectedly picturesque and of hearing familiar harmonies. Though there is interest for the reader in the knots that confound the characters, Smiley’s people come alive not in the dilemmas that motor the stories along but in the luminous details and sensual observations that the writer gives them.

In “The Pleasures of Her Company,” Florence, a nurse, comes home one night to find “. . . the one lovely place on her otherwise undistinguished block--porched, corniced, many-peaked, and recently painted Nordic blond with pique white trim. . . .” Possessions are strewn on the sidewalk.

“Draped over the back of a kitchen chair is a white dress, perhaps a wedding dress, its bodice shaped into fullness with blue tissue paper. One of its stiff lace cap sleeves has fallen off the hanger. As Florence notices this, a breeze lifts the skirt. She rearranges the sleeve on the hanger and, shy of being caught, hurries the rest of the way home. In the morning when she turns with her coffee cup to gaze out the window of her kitchen, the items are still on the lawn. The dress has fallen off the chair and lies spread on the green grass like a snow angel.”


The new people on the block are Frannie and Philip, and the unmarried Florence becomes a guest at their marriage. Frannie “makes Florence long to say something hilarious.” Naive about marriage, Florence is shocked when her friends separate. A little rushed (perhaps by the present-tense narrative), Florence never quite catches up with Frannie and never really gets the full pleasure of her company. What is memorable about the story is not its solution or observations about marriage--it is Florence’s naive and willing romancing about her friend.

“Dynamite” is narrated by a woman who is underground because of her political activities during the anti-Vietnam War period and who works now as a shift engineer at a fertilizer plant. “I built more bombs than the FBI thinks I did. It’s funny what reminds me of them--clocks, of course. Penny wrappers in banks, because they are about the same color as dynamite paper was. Once I was putting up a new closet rod, and as my fingers wrapped around it, I felt a frisson of uncertainty--closet rod is about the diameter and density of dynamite.”

The narrator wants to return home to put together her fragmented life but clearly won’t. In the end, her longing for her always vague and eccentric mother is so much more authentic and moving than the premise of the character as underground bomber that one wonders if such a foil was really necessary to character or story.

“The Age of Grief,” the title novella, is about six weeks in the life of a couple (both dentists) and their three little girls. The wife considers leaving her family for a lover. The husband-narrator works hard to avoid a discussion with his wife that would force her confession or reveal his knowledge of her dilemma. He succeeds, aided by the unrelenting current of daily life with children, not entirely convincing details of dental practice, but most of all by his dogged commitment to keeping things going no matter what. The age of grief, as he describes it, is “that the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and the rest of the world have been broken down, after all. . . . I understand that later you come to an age of hope, or at least resignation. I suspect it takes a long time to get there.”

Smiley’s thrust as a writer is generous. She wishes to tell us what she knows, to put her best thoughts about living into a pleasing dramatic form. Still, there didn’t seem to be much internal reason for the dentist’s extended musings to be a novella rather than a short story. In this case, the novella may be either too long or short a form--as many before Smiley have found it--for her to shine in.

The most circumscribed story in the collection is the one in which Smiley’s gifts work best. “Long Distance,” about an American man and his Japanese lover, was for me the most complete. In it, as in all fine short stories, form and content merged in a thrilling moment for the reader.