Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The (God Help Us) Great American Novel

I was talking with a colleague last night about the book he's writing--a study of the "epic novel." He is working on a few of the obvious choices--Ulysses, for one--and a few not so obvious--Gertrude Stein's mostly-unread The Makings of Americans--and pretty soon conversation turned to Norman Mailer, and the thread that has run through all his obituaries--his "failure" to write "The Great American Novel."

Of course I would hate to be saddled with this behemoth of an anti-accomplishment while still fresh in my grave, but to be fair, Mailer brought it on himself. As this piece in the Independent observes:

Mailer believed in it utterly. He called it "the big one" and dreamed of bagging it one day, as game hunters go after "the big five" of elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard. From the start he nursed Tolstoyan ambitions – or, given his interest in writing about psychological states under extreme pressure, Dostoevskyan ambitions.

The consensus seems to be, of course, that Mailer never wrote it. Of course, he wrote a lot of big American books--so what precisely is the GAN supposed to be? The Independent cited the results of a 2006 poll on the subject and came up with this description:

The Great American Novel should be a consideration of an historical event with grave resonances for the modern age; it will be centrally concerned with outrages against human rights, or the suspicion that beneath the smooth surface of American life, dangerous impulses still lurk unseen. It will be obsessed with death and, perhaps in consequence, display few traces of humour. And its author will be someone born no later than 1940.

There is something a tad tongue-in-cheek about this of course, and its implication seems to be that the whole idea is something of a sham. I must admit I'm sympathetic to this critique. The GAN was invented by Mailer's generation (of, need I even say it?, male writers) for selfish purposes--it was the idealized actualization of their own aesthetic, a fantastic vehicle for self-important achievement.

Sounds like I'm knocking those guys, but really I'm not. Every novel is envisioned as the ultimate expression of its writer's own aesthetic. The writing of any novel is an act of epic self-absorption. The difference with the GAN was that Mailer promoted the hell out of it, until it became a category independent of his advocacy. And ever since, the rest of us have been asked to wear this gaudy, ill-fitting vestment, and have generally been found lacking.

The ideal American novel is as protean as America itself. It changes its shape as America does. And what greater American value is there than independence, than the liberty of the individual? The real Great American Novel is whatever I say it is, whenever I happen to say it. It's whatever any of us are writing at any given time. In other words, as a concept, it's essentially meaningless. I can't help but write an American novel, frankly, and as for greatness, a guy can only try. Personally, I will take the workaday obsessions of Nicholson Baker--his minutae-obsessed escalator ride remains a high-water mark of American consciousness, in my mind--over Mailer's broad brush any day. I'll take the interior over the exterior, the hilarious over the grim (though if I have a choice, I'll take both at once), the apparently meaningless over the obviously important.

I once drew (horribly) a cartoon: the caption was "Charting The Interior Landscape." The picture was of a guy picking his nose. That's me, working on the Great American Novel. You got a problem with that?


aos said...

As a Canadian dare I even comment on the GAN (we have our own CAN to bag or natter about) but I could never accept Baker as more than tradecraft. I'm not saying he's not gifted but when you compare his work with some of Boyle's (Tortilla Curtain comes to mind)or Dennis Lehane or James Ellroy it seems more an exercise than a work. Don't mean to seem tendentious but I think the GAN or just the RGAM (Really Good AM) should look beyond ones own shoelaces.

5 Red Pandas said...

I love the exchange between Alan and Jeeves in Jonathan Ames's Wake Up, Sir! about the Great American Novel. Page 125 if you have the hardcover.

"You know Jeeves, I'm not trying to write the GAN. My ambitions aren't that far-reaching. But maybe my book will be the Great New Jersey Novel, since it's about me leaving New Jersey for New York, but always knowing in my heart that I would return to New Jersey someday..."

rmellis said...

Of course, it's a matter of taste, but I'd rather read Baker on his fingernail clippings than Boyle on anything. Because Baker is actually writing about what it's like to have a mind and a consciousness -- how the mind and the world connect. He's endlessly original about the familiar. He makes me see the world (and America) differently.

jrlennon said...

aos, I'm with the Mrs, Baker beats those guys any day, in my book. Though I do like Ellroy a lot.

Canadians are welcome here, BTW. You have produced some killer scribblers.

Since you seem to like crime fiction, are there any Canadian crime novelists we might not know about here whom you can recommend?

And I have already tried writing the Great New Jersey Novel...I think Richard Ford's trilogy beat me by just a tad though...

rmellis said...

Can a woman write the great American novel? I wonder.

Maybe I'll give the Cute American Novel a try, though.

5 Red Pandas said...


You're being ridiculous in asking that question since anyone who knows anything knows that only men's lives are universal, thus only men can write the Great American Novel.

jrlennon said...

Baby, you could totally write the Hot American Novel. Oh yeah!!!

aos said...

I understand enjoying Baker type work but I just can't get over navel gazing and even though an endless look at my own would change my impression of the world, I prefer to take my world neat. Its why I like Helprin's descriptions of the world or even something like Charles Baxter's Feast of Love which was about the relationship dance and once again wonderful descriptions of clear nights also not unlike Richard Ford's midnight tennis playing. But each to their own I guess...I always sided (unpopularly it seems) with Wolfe and Franzen on the big novel debate (not that I liked his but the world is worth a few words I think).

Canadian crime novelists? Tend to go European and American but Giles Blunt is not bad, Peter Robinson you probably know and City of Ice by John Farrow. I think Canada has many fine writers but few of them tend toward mystery.