Friday, June 1, 2018

On the Great American Novel

Philip Roth wrote one back in the seventies, a big baseball novel for the decade of Quaaludes and 'caine. He even called it The Great American Novel, just so we'd know. And in an irony he surely lived long enough to appreciate, it stands alongside Letting Go and When She Was Good as one of Roth's least read books. Even I haven't read it, but I have an almost irrational suspicion that it might not deserve its oblivion.

The hoary old notion of the Great American Novel--a concept originated by the now very obscure 19th-century American novelist John W. De Forest (What, you haven't read his Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty? It's a Penguin Classic.)--seems to be taking over my mind this first afternoon of June. For all its rebarbative nationalism (why must literature respect borders? why shouldn't we privilege cosmopolitan novels over national ones?), ideological jingoism (everyone knows America's the greatest country in the history of the universe (cue a groping group of drunken frat boys shouting "WE'RE NUMBER ONE! WE'RE NUMBER ONE!" while acting like so many number twos), so it must have great novels too), and unproblematic use of Dickassface Donald's favorite adjective (stolen, unsurprisingly, from a cartoon tiger who pimps sugar to pre-diabetic children: "Fascism, it's GRRRRRR-eat!"), the idea of the GAN still attracts me. More, it exerts a kind of Einsteinian gravitational influence on my imagination, curving my mind around its shadowy shape. This is likely due to my long-held contention that any American writer who isn't aiming in the general direction of Melville and Faulkner (in terms of artistic achievement, not crude imitation) is aiming too low.

There are several online lists (as ridiculous as most) of 100 or even 200 supposed GANs, and the best that can be said of them is that all the listed titles are in fact novels and were written by Americans. About the Trumpian adjective, most readers of these lists will harbor doubts. Regardless, any three- digit number is absurd. There are at most 25-30 novels that deserve to be called GANs (by my criteria: novels of the highest aesthetic value and international stature dealing with America and/or Americans). Stretching a bit, I can list about 50 (after the first three, in no particular order):
  • Melville, Moby Dick
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
  • Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
  • Wharton, The Age of Innocence
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • Melville, The Confidence Man
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
  • Dos Passos, USA
  • Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  • Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  • Faulkner, Go Down, Moses
  • Toomer, Cane
  • Barnes, Nightwood
  • West, A Cool Million
  • West, The Day of the Locust
  • Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
  • Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
  • Pynchon, Against the Day
  • Roth, American Pastoral
  • Roth, The Human Stain
  • Morrison, Beloved
  • DeLillo, Libra
  • C. McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  • C. McCarthy, Suttree
  • Mailer, The Executioner's Song
  • Kerouac. On The Road
  • Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  • Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Warren, All the King's Men
  • Styron, Sophie's Choice
  • Updike, Rabbit is Rich
  • Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • Gass, The Tunnel
  • Gass, Omensetter's Luck
  • Nabokov, Lolita
  • DeLillo, Underworld
  • Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner
  • Roth, Sabbath's Theater
  • Oates, You Must Remember This
  • Yates, Revolutionary Road
  • Proulx, Postcards
  • McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
  • Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
  • Johnson, Angels
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
  • Banks, Continental Drift
  • Baldwin, Go Tell It On The Mountain
  • James, The Ambassadors
  • Gaddis, The Recognitions
  • Franzen, The Corrections
I don't necessarily think all of these novels are perfect, but as a list of GANs I think mine is pretty much argument-proof.

1 comment:

Genji said...

A redoubtable list about which, nonetheless, I have a few doubts. I would have thought Darconville's Cat by Alexander Theroux, Women and Men by Joseph McElroy, and Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, to name a few, worthy of inclusion.