Books Magazine

Still Searching for the Great American Novel

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy
Still Searching for the Great American NovelI’m slowly making my way through the American literary cannon, a book at a time, in search of the elusive Great American Novel. I just completed David Foster Wallace’s massive tome, Infinite Jest, one of the more recent nominees for this title [1]. At over 1,000 pages (included over 90 pages of footnotes [2]) Wallace’s dense and multi-layered story certainly has the size of an epic. But his semi-parodic near future America and focus on a Boston tennis academy, the residents of an adjacent halfway house, wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists, and an illicit movie so entertaining that it’s lethal to all viewers is in my mind a bit too idiosyncratic [3] to fit the bill as the Great American Novel. But what does fit the bill?
In concept, the Great American Novel is a title given to the novel, written by an American, which best encapsulates the American Experience, the spirit of the nation and the people, or better described by borrowing a term from German, the work that captures the zeitgeistof America. It’s the American equivalent of the national epic; America’s Les Miserables, Ulysses, or War and Peace. There’s no shortage of candidates for the title; here’s a shortlist (in chronological order):

Many of these books sit on my bookshelf, and many of them were rich rewarding reads, and certainly each captures a portion of the American Experience. For instance, in Moby Dick [5] there is the struggle of democracy, equality, and power, which echoes American pre-Civil War struggles with slavery; in Blood Meridian we are shown in stark tones  the violence that accompanied the settling of the American West; The Grapes of Wrath explores the crushing poverty of the Great Depression; and Underworld gives us lives lived in the low heat of the Cold War during the last half of the twentieth century.
But like the still view of a photograph each of these novels and all the others listed above can at best only capture a facet or a few facets of America, a limited angle, nuances and not the whole. After all America is too large, with a huge diverse population drawn from all over the world, and a history and culture too sprawling to ever be captured by one writer in one novel no matter how kaleidoscopic the story or how broad the cast of characters. And the same could be written about the efforts of a single filmmaker or historian or journalist. But this isn’t meant to diminish the writers (and other chroniclers) that attempt great novels or reach to express what America means. In fact I much admire the ambition of writers that yearn to express the soul of America even if the best they can achieve is partial success.
Still Searching for the Great American NovelWhenever I think on novels and literature I always fall back to James Joyce and Ulysses because I’ve never read anything better. Joyce set out to write an Irish national epic and perhaps he succeeded (it’s worth keeping in mind that Ireland is a much smaller country than the United States), but what really speaks to me when reading Ulysses isn’t the Irish elements. Instead, when I strip away the structural and stylistic flourishes and place the literary, philosophic, and religious (and many other) correspondences in perspective, I find the most alive book I’ve ever read. Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Stephan Daedalus, Molly Bloom, and what seems to be the whole population of Dublin come alive through their thoughts, emotions, motivations, memories, physical urges, biases, their interactions with each other, and their shared histories. Ulysses takes place over less than 24 hours, but it gives us the fullest glimpse of life and lives of any fiction I’ve read or watched or listened to [6]. Scholars and academics may be kept busy dissecting Joyce's techniques and allusions, but for me it’s the life of the novel that makes it important and worthwhile.
And indeed, while I can say pretty emphatically that Wallace’s Infinite Jest is not the Great American Novel, it is a book teeming with truths. Wallace’s collection of tennis prodigies, recovering (and not recovering) alcoholics and drug addicts, terrorists and government agents, and everyone they interact with, is vivid and bursting with life. At the core, after you’ve taken his weird future in stride, Wallace’s characters struggle with what it means to be a family, to make and sustain human connections, and to cope with the burden of being alive. It’s his take on the plight of what he considers to be the sad post-Cold War generations and our collective need to find some distraction, be it drugs or entertainment or sexual conquests, from the day-to-day struggle. And his remarkably fluid writing style (the words seem to have flowed onto the page from his mind), massive vocabulary (Wallace makes you keep your dictionary close), and talent for perfectly expressing detail (that tool that all great novelists must have) make Infinite Jest a first-rate and worthy read [7].
I’ve always believed that great artists, and especially novelists, are better equipped to describe the workings of the mind, from our motivations and emotions and rationalizations to our physical cravings and how we perceive the world, than science or religion or philosophy. Novelists like Joyce and Wallace offer insights into what is means to be human. As the great critic Harold Bloom noted, reading a novel isn’t going to make you a better person, but hopefully reading a great novel will provide at least a tiny explanation of life. If an author can do that, he or she has achieved a great success.
So I’ll continue searching for the Great American Novel. I doubt I’ll ever find one book that expresses all that “America” means or is, but I am certain that what I will find is even more important, glimpses of truth and life. That’s all we can seek from any art.
[1]Infinite Jest was published in 1996, when Wallace was just 33-years-old.
[2]Anyone familiar with Wallace’s writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, knows of his very effective use of footnotes, which I must admit is a bit of an inspiration for my own notes.
[3]This is but the barest synopsis of Infinite Jest, which is rich in characters, sub-plots, themes, and exquisite detail.
[4]And this list could be expanded to include Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men (1946), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1953), Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), John Updike’s Rabbitseries, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy (1938), and Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove (1902), to name but a few.
[5]A work I must admit that I don’t particularly care for.
[6]I’ll be returning to discuss Ulysses much more fully in future posts.
[7]After reading the novel and Wallace’s descriptions of the crushing weight, the unendurable weight, of clinical depression, it is less of a surprise that he killed himself in 2008. He suffered from depression all his life and eventually the medications stopped working for him. It’s deeply sad and will deprive us of any more work from this gifted American writer. He left behind not only Infinite Jest but a large collection of entertaining, informative, and incisive essays and non-fiction pieces along with a couple of short story collections and a couple of other novels (the last of which, The Pale King, was unfinished upon his death and published posthumously).

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