Between the Covers
Whatever Happened to the Great American Novel?
By James H. Johnson
Apr 26, 2007

At a club on Saturday night, I fell into conversation with an exceedingly mousy young woman: mousy brown hair; mousy, pinched features; a mousy appetite at dinner that was replaced at the club by a distinctly un-mousy appetite for Miller Lite. We’d just finished celebrating our mutual friend’s birthday dinner, for which she and her friend had flown into town to attend. Our group was moving on to celebrating for celebration’s sake, and she and I were getting to know one another.

The mousy girl – she needs a name; we’ll call her Buttons – so, Buttons and her friend were in their early 20s, and without thinking much of it, I asked them what their major was in college. The friend said developmental operations consultancy management-ship or some comparably unfortunate practicality. When I asked what she did for a living, she repeated herself.

Operations management consultancy isn’t much of a talking point, so I turned to Buttons and followed the same line of questioning.           

And what was your area of study?   

English, with a focus in Literature, she said shyly.

(Oh, THRILL.) Really?! Any writer you enjoy in particular?

Yes, well, it’s kind of cheesy.

Of course not. Nothing’s cheesy if you really enjoy it. Who? Do tell.

Well, I LOVE Salinger. I love him, she said mousily. Especially The Catcher in the Rye.

See? Everyone loves Salinger. And do you write? Why did you decide to study Literature? What motivated you?

Honestly, she exclaimed I really actually do want to write the Great American Novel!

And I believed her. I was flummoxed, flabbergasted and fatigued, but I believed she believed it. I didn’t know what else to say – how could I prolong this futile dialogue with the theoretical author of the next great novel that our children’s children will do everything they can to avoid reading? What do you say to someone of that genus?

I said the only thing I could think of:

And what do you do for a living?, I stuttered.

I live in Detroit, and I work for Volkswagen, she twittered in response.

The last point just confused me. Fortunately, there was much celebrating to do, and I had several vodka and tonics to drink in preparation for dancing on my birthday buddy’s coffee table at three in the morning. I turned toward the bar, leaving Buttons to nibble on her sweater in peace.

A few days later, I was thinking about that conversation, more so the Great American Novel bit than the Detroit-Volkswagen foible. Are there actually young writers, I wondered, who aspire to compose the kind of book that elderly women title-drop while hat shopping or playing pinochle or ironing their husbands’ socks? “Oh sure, Beatrice, of course I read that! That’s the Great American Novel!”

What the hell is the Great American Novel, anyway? I asked Alan Williams (the other, sophisticated half of this column). He referred to Norman Mailer, who claimed that the closest thing we’ve got these days is The Sopranos. Alan explained: The Sopranos has “the immigrant experience, the idea of consenting to have nightmares in pursuit of the American dream, the blurring of the individual and self-reliance and egotism/narcissism, the decline of utopia and the assertion of contrary utopias, the plain-spoken and salt-of-the-earth prevailing over urban sophisticates – all that claptrap.”

True enough. But does anyone want to actually read that stuff anymore? More important, will anyone bother writing it? As long as this literary land is made of mousy Midwesterners and Jonathan Franzen, a brawny “I’ll write it!” shall emerge now and then from somewhere deep in the heart of the heart of the country.

That said, I think we may need to redefine what is required of the contemporary Great American Novel.

First of all – and crucially – it can’t be that Great, because Great novels are generally loooong novels, and no one will read a truly Great novel these days, unless Oprah stamps it with that special sticker-stamp she has. So the Great American Novel must be comfortable with being relatively slim and therefore merely “great.” Maybe Buttons should write the Great American Novella.

Second, we mustn’t overlook the possibility that the next less-than-Great American Novel may in fact be a memoir. That is, we may have already read it, in memoir form, but true stories are denuding themselves to reveal their fictitious inner machinery: some things true, others invented, still others that are flat lies that were composed to be mistaken for fact. Or the Great American Storyline might lie somewhere in between truth and fiction, disclaimed as such by publishers to avoid having to refund readers who simply can’t deal with the memory of having read the somewhat-great American Memoir and loving it.

Next, we must accept the possibility that this book may be written by a young woman named Khyati who lives in Mumbai. Everyone knows that low-paying jobs are going overseas after all, and, as Buttons’ fiscal relationship with German auto manufacturers attests, few professions are lower paying than that of the aspiring Great American Novelist.

But, for the sake of argument (as well as everything that poor Buttons holds sacred), let’s say the Great American Novel can be written by an American, will be fiction, and – well, I still think it has to be short enough to hold prominent attention spans, such as the kind belonging to the guy who directed Pathfinder and Nicolas Cage. If this fictional novel is even theoretically possible, there remain some very literary obstacles to overcome.

With another suggestion, Alan unintentionally pointed out another issue. He suggested Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a recent possibility of a pretty Great American Book. If you haven’t read it yet, go get it. The Road really could be the most recent Great American Novel. It does away with all that immigrant/utopia/claptrap stuff and begins years after America has been thoroughly destroyed by some nameless disaster that is currently in the developmental operations managementship stage. But, most important, it’s by an author who has the kind of cultural equity required to write a Great American Novel. I mean that, well, just say his name: Cormac. He sounds like the kind of guy who spits 9mm shells at 70-pound game for fun and sometimes for sustenance, if necessary.

The first problem with developing authorial equity, I truly believe, is our healthcare system. It ruins our unproven writers’ credibility. And not the kind of credibility you get from spending a lifetime writing stories that inform mankind’s perception of the human condition. I mean the kind of credibility that comes from making people believe that you write stories that inform mankind’s perception of the human condition. You know, writerly quirks, such as Tom Wolfe’s white suits and Sylvia Plath’s suicide. Once upon a time, all writers seemed to begin life as bedridden wimps whose imaginations were their sole escape from the twin prisons of their rooms and infirm bodies, as well as the regular bullying they suffered when they escaped into the outside.

But now, the wealthiest country in the world can afford to keep most (or at least enough) kids healthy that the real geniuses avoid the kind of social-outcast status that encourages your neighborhood Nietzsche, your playground Proust.

In that same vein, do other nations even have their own Great Novels? Is there a Great Belarusian Novel out there? A Great Democratic People’s Republic of Korean Novel? Is it possible that the French just think of Madame Bovary as a Great Transnational Novel, Even in Translation, We Don’t Care Who You Are? Maybe this Great American Novel idea is just another blurring of our actual egotism/narcissism, rather than the metaphorical kind we anticipate in Great American Novels.

If the Great American Novel can actually be written, I think that maybe it’s unfolding page by page around us already. Take the recent revelations about the military’s reinvention of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death, for instance. That story is an absolute inversion of the immigrant experience: The Great American Hero fights for the American Dream on the bad guys’ turf. He’s the kind of hero who doesn’t mind forgoing a well-paying job for what his believes – he trades personal triumph for a nightmare in a very direct pursuit of the American Dream.

Tillman, or the character the military invented, was an example of the blurring of the individual, self-reliant American with the egoist-narcissist, or at least a reader’s-digestable version of that kind of human conflict. Meanwhile, Tillman’s foreground action is anchored by the country he left behind. The U.S. – embittered, embattled, the very definition of contrary utopias painted in primary colors – betrays sign after sign of a declining utopia.

But in this story, the plain-spoken and the salt-of-the-earth don’t prevail over urban sophisticates. They can’t exactly, because the Great American Novel has usurped the real.  The war planners write the story of a sacrificed hero, while the real writer has already moved on: He’s gone and destroyed the world altogether. All that regular folk can do is play the part of the publisher and, in sworn testimony on Capitol Hill, pick apart the governmental memoir to reveal the story’s mechanized, fictional center.

What is there to write about, really?

I’m afraid, Buttons, that all the old Great American Themes are no longer the territory of the Great American Novel. The Great American Conflicts are resolved, except anything about abortion or possibly the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, and even that’s losing its luster. All the good characters have become caricatures, and all the underdogs who will ever win already have. We lament the state of our superheroes, who suffer in the twilight of their film careers. If you need a coming of age tale, talk to a twelve year-old. They’ve already got enough stories to make Holden Caulfield lose his innocence.

“All this time nothing genuine is allowed to appear and nobody knows what’s real.” Saul Bellow said as much in a Great American Novel titled The Adventures of Augie March.

Come to think of it, he wrote a whole book on the subject. A really great, American novel.

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