Misery’s company in Jane Smiley’s latest, ‘Private Life’

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Private Life

A Novel

Jane Smiley

Alfred A. Knopf: 324 pp., $26.95

“O the wo that is in marriage,” the Wife of Bath proclaimed while emerging, for all that, lusty and free. In her new novel, Jane Smiley stirs up marital woe as thick as mud, yet her female protagonist never manages to send up more than a rebellious bubble or two before sinking back under.

The sardonically titled “Private Life” — the one that Margaret and Andrew Early construct is a fetid horror — loads the dice. Andrew is a self-absorbed megalomaniac advancing into outright madness, Margaret is hesitant and clueless; furthermore their marriage takes its shape in the pre-women’s liberation years of the early 20th century. Smiley uses such extremes to draw dark lessons about a Mars-Venus standoff she seems to see surviving to this day. A war of weaknesses: two supine ruins with the male ending on top — because of greater obliviousness, not greater strength.

Even before her marriage, Margaret is portrayed as male-scarred. A brother died roughhousing with explosives; their doctor-father killed himself after failing to save his other son from a fatal illness (Smiley makes it a foreshadowing: The man was convinced that life and death belonged to him).

She has been brought up in the Midwest under a wealthy grandfather who is smugly patriarchal to the end (“John Gentry died in a condition of some satisfaction”). With two sisters married, she approaches spinsterhood lacking any sense of her own value or identity. Her only spark of assertion is riding a bicycle — speed, flight —- and even then she gets her skirt hopelessly tangled. Andrew, a neighbor’s son, comes along to help.

He is a local celebrity, an astronomer who had taught at the University of Chicago and claimed to have discovered a number of double stars. “The man who changed the world,” a Missouri newspaper calls him. Fatally, he believes it. With Margaret, he is by turns grandiloquent, aloof, puzzling; he talks with manic passion about his scientific theories. Overwhelmed and nervous, “she decides that this nervousness was love.” And they marry.

Up to this point, Smiley has written with convincing detail and an excellent feel for turn-of-the-century place and speech. It is all rather static, though — like seeing a foundation methodically laid with no sense that anything in particular is to be built upon it.

Then things come into active focus, and it is a dismaying one. Andrew, convinced of his genius, is sure he holds the key to the universe. It is the wrong key, though. Bit by bit we, and Margaret, learn of his failure. At Chicago he had developed paranoid grievances against his colleagues; eventually he was fired. All he has now is a second-rate position north of San Francisco as astronomer at a Navy base, where he and Margaret set up their household. Suspicions develop about his work with double stars; a former colleague accuses him of plagiarism.

At home he churns with theories and conjectures. He writes an unpublishable book refuting Einstein and resurrecting an ancient hypothesis that the space between the stars is filled by ether. Margaret begins to think of him as a fool; when their sickly newborn dies, contempt turns to hatred. Andrew’s wild solipsism, she feels, has sucked up all the life around him, including their baby’s.

There is no rupture, though, even when Andrew’s mania intensifies. He claims that Einstein has come to California to spy on him. He is convinced that a Japanese family, friends of Margaret’s, are also spies and reports them to the FBI. Possibly as a result, they are among the first to be arrested after Pearl Harbor.

Too self-centered to feel his wife’s hatred more than vaguely, Andrew treats her with oblivious courtesy, seeing her mainly as someone to expound to and type his book. And if she cannot muster the conviction to make a break, it is because she is weakened in part by his intermittent flashes of uncanny prescience. (A man inflicts pain, in Smiley’s desolate portrait, not just by being wrong but by being right.)

Instead, she engages in small escapes: hanging out with a childhood friend back from a career as a globe-trotting female journalist, vaguely falling for and at one point making love with a Russian immigrant, observing a family of coots on a nearby pond, going for drives.

All symbols of flight, of course, and fairly heavy-handed. Smiley has points to make, and if blunt, they are not without interest. As a novel, though, “Private Life” is a ragged affair. There is compelling tension in the early days of the marital standoff, and in following the construction of Andrew as a grotesque. After a while, though, he is too predictably mad and Margaret too predictably hapless to sustain any convincing narrative momentum.

Eder, a former Times book critic, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.