The principal task of the prequel is to return to the imagined origins of a well-known text’s events and characters. This curious exercise – an excavation of a text’s hypothetical history – might be compared with a Freudian case study: the present can only fully be understood with reference to a reconstituted past. The successful prequel, I would argue, is an essentially subversive form. A sequel can interest and surprise us without making us view the original in a different way, simply by introducing further characters and incidents, or by moving on to the next generation. A successful sequel can be an imitation or pastiche of the original, such as the sequels that have been written to many popular mainstream novels. But in a prequel, where the end of the story is already known, this freedom simply to expand is lacking, and some kind of disjuncture between the original and the new text is probably required. A prequel’s readers don’t want simply to be told what they know already; rather they want to be offered a new way into the old text. This desire in the reader for a twist or surprise is fully satisfied by Jane Smiley in A Thousand Acres (though, strictly speaking, this is an imaginative updating of King Lear with prequel elements rather than a pure prequel – much of the action corresponds to that of Shakespeare’s play itself). The key to this family’s dysfunctional dynamic lies in its incestuous secrets – Larry Cook abused his two elder daughters after his wife’s death, though not his youngest, Caroline. Although Smiley does not set out to prove in any crude way that King Lear itself is a play about incest, neither does she want us to see her interpretation as wild, anachronistic speculation. In an interview published by The Atlantic Online in 1998 she explains:
I’m not saying that Shakespeare ever thought of Lear as an incest perpetrator. I am saying that some people think there’s a kind of coded reference to incest in this group of folkloric stories, and that therefore you could plausibly attribute the older sisters’ deep, deep anger to abuse that they had undergone.
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