GAN Quest: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Equal under the law…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Scout Finch and her older brother, Jem, together with their friend Dill, become fascinated by the story of the neighbour they have never seen, Boo Radley. After getting into trouble in his youth, Boo’s father has kept him in the family home all this time and, although he’s now a man, Boo still stays hidden from the world. Unsurprisingly all kinds of rumours and legends surround him, and the children develop an almost obsessive desire to see this mysterious figure. Meantime Scout’s father has reluctantly taken on the task of defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Many in the town think he should have refused to take the case, but Atticus Finch believes that all men have the right to equal justice under the law. Over the couple of years covered by the book, Scout will learn much about the prejudices and cruelties and kindnesses of the people in her small town of Maycomb, Alabama.

As with so many of the classics, I first read this long ago when the world and I were young, round about the late ’70s, I’d imagine, and my late teens. Of course back then it wasn’t really a classic yet – it had only been published less than twenty years earlier in 1960. Oddly, my major memories of it have always centred on the Boo Radley storyline rather than the Tom Robinson one, so at that time, had I been asked, I don’t think I’d have mentioned race specifically as the major theme of the book. I’d have said it was about how society demonises difference, how justice can be distorted by prejudice, and how poverty brutalises us. Over the years, as its status has grown, and as racism has become a subject much more to the fore over here than it was back in those more innocent-seeming days, I’ve accepted rather unthinkingly that this clearly is one of its major themes and felt for a long time that I should re-read it rather than relying on my frequent watches of the film (which I also think says more about Boo than race).

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by night fall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Re-reading it now with all the current arguments around race in America in the forefront of my mind, it’s hard to see Lee’s portrayal as being as enlightened and forward-thinking as I’m sure it seemed back when the book was published. To modern eyes, her black characters seem to be very much a product of white wish-fulfilment. They are ‘good’ because they are respectful and subservient; they are intellectually inferior, not just through lack of educational opportunities but through ‘laziness’ and lack of ambition; and they are entirely passive, relying on a white knight to defend them, and not only in the legal sense of that word. Even Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid, though more educated than most black people in the town through her family’s long association with white folk (as servants obviously), comes across rather as the stock black character of older American fiction, whose main function is to show how kind (or sometimes how cruel) their white masters can be if they choose. Calpurnia knows her place and accepts it gratefully, though it’s a lowly one. It is of course a sympathetic depiction of the black characters, but one that jars a little now. There is no challenging of the innate superiority of whiteness here – merely an encouragement to treat ‘good’ black people better.

Even Atticus, generally held up as the pinnacle of just men, clearly doesn’t think of black people as in any way equal. He believes they have constitutional rights under the law, but that’s pretty much as far as he goes. There was an outcry a couple of years ago when Lee’s second book (which I haven’t read) came out and appeared to show Atticus as racist – while I wouldn’t go anywhere close to saying that about him in this book, I didn’t feel he could really be seen as fighting for equality either. Those of you who have memorised all my reviews (What? You haven’t??) will know that I criticised that other American novel always hailed as an icon of anti-racism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for portraying black people more as pets to be treated kindly than humans to be treated equally. I fear this book left me with the same kind of taste, though a less bitter one.

Other aspects of the book have stood up better to the passage of time, I feel. The writing is wonderful, particularly Lee’s use of various levels of dialect to differentiate class and social status. Although I have reservations about the black characters, the white characters ring wholly true, as does the town of Maycomb which becomes a character in its own right. Boo’s story is still a great commentary on society’s wariness of “difference”, although I found the ending a little too neat – the point made a little too pointedly, perhaps – on this re-reading. This time around I was more moved by the rape storyline than Boo’s, though more because of Mayella than Tom.

“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men. But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”

(Men may have been equal in court, but I wonder if Mayella thought women were.)

Mayella’s story (the alleged rape victim) is devastating in its portrayal of the powerlessness of women denied education and opportunity, and the trial scene must surely be one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the English language. Trying to avoid spoilers means I have to be a little vague here, but Lee does a marvellous job of showing both accuser and accused as victims of the white patriarchy. The callous treatment of Mayella both at the time of the rape and during the trial, (yes, even by Atticus), and the way she is then left in the power of the father who has been shown as a violent bully, if not worse, made me wonder who was actually lower down the social order – the black man or the white woman. Of course, Lee makes clear that poverty plays a major role here; one of the major strengths of the book is the comparison Lee draws between black and dirt-poor white people in terms of how they are treated by society, and of the subsequent resentment of the white people – Mayella’s father is more offended that Tom should have dared to feel sorry for Mayella than that he might have raped her. It’s a searing depiction of the sense of what we now call “white entitlement” that remains at the root of much of the race-related division in American society today.

So, although I found Lee’s portrayal of the black characters more than a little problematic, I think it’s fair to say that the major themes of the book – the inequalities inherent in the justice system, prejudice against difference, white poverty, the powerlessness of under-educated women – all still have much relevance to the race debates going on today, and to contemporary American society as a whole. Judged in its totality therefore, the book fully merits its place as a classic.

* * * * *

I listened to the book this time on the Audible audiobook read by Sissy Spacek. For my taste, she speaks too slowly and I ended up speeding it up, which worked better. But otherwise, I think she gives a wonderful reading, every word clearly enunciated, every character beautifully interpreted and every emotional nuance ringing true.

* * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

Achieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

Yes, despite all I’ve said, it undoubtedly gives a very clear depiction of race relations in the ’30s, and of attitudes towards race in the ’50s, so – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

Yes, though the question of race has been written about over and over again and will continue to be, this feels original to me because of the comparison drawn between the relative statuses of black people and poor white people; and the question of equal application of justice under the law feels original to me to for the time. Achieved.

Must be superbly written.

I love the writing and storytelling, and although I don’t think the prose has the same power and impact as that in the two books to which I’ve previously given The Great American Novel status, Beloved and American Pastoral, I’m still going to say – achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

I’ve said in the past (Beloved) that since “to some degree the whole of American society is still suffering from the after-effects of its foundation on slavery” it could be argued that books that tackle the subject of racism against the descendants of slaves in some way reflect the entire American experience. However… the small-town setting of this is too restrictive and the depiction of the black people is unfortunately too patronising for me to convince myself that this one does. I think what it captures is the white American experience. Therefore… not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * * * *

Book 14 of 90

 

GAN Quest: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The workings of the human heart…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

gileadWhen John Ames learns he doesn’t have much longer to live, he takes up his pen to write to his young son, to tell him some of the things he would have liked to tell him in person as he grew up. Ames is old, in his 70s, and his son is the product of a late second marriage, an unexpected second blooming of love for a man who had spent most of his life alone following the death in childbirth of his first wife and their daughter. As Ames writes, it is 1956, so his personal recollections take him back to the end of the previous century, but his knowledge of his family history allows him to go back a few decades further, to the Civil War and the struggle for the abolition of slavery.

The small town of Gilead in Iowa was founded by abolitionists, its main reason for existence in those early days to help the cause, and to assist in providing safe passage for escaped slaves heading towards the free states. Ames is the third generation of pastors in his family. His grandfather was a passionate abolitionist, willing to fight the fight with guns as much as with prayer, who ‘preached his people into war’. Ames’ father, on the other hand, was a Christian pacifist, horrified in his own time at the celebration of war during WW1, at the kind of patriotic fervour that drove the young men to go off to kill or die. As Ames gradually reveals the history of these two men, it is clear that he has been influenced by both; that their divisions perhaps have led him to be more introspective and questioning of his beliefs.

I am also inclined to overuse the word ‘old’, which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection. Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability. I say ‘old Boughton’, I say ‘this shabby old town’, and I mean that they are very near my heart.

And it’s Ames’ beliefs that are at the heart of the book. This is a man whose faith is thoughtful and profound, based on his lifelong study of the scriptures. He’s a bit touchy when people assume he became a pastor simply because his father and grandfather were – he’s keen to point out that his vocation is personal, founded on his relationship with God and nothing else. But he has made an effort to understand what brings people to atheism, too, partly because his brother gave up his religion as a young man, and partly because Ames sees the rise of atheism in the society around him. Much of his letter to his son is an explanation of his own faith, and an encouragement to him not to be swayed by the doubts and disbelief of others.

I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light – pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.

I must say I was rather put off reading this book by some reviews and comments from a few people who suggested that it’s full of Biblical references and theology that would make it hard to understand for someone without a solid grounding in the Bible. As a lifelong atheist, brought up that way, there can be few people out there with less knowledge of the Bible or of the intricacies of the beliefs of all the different Christian churches than I, so for the benefit of others I’d like to say that’s total nonsense. At every step of the way, Robinson makes crystal clear the basis of whatever aspect of faith she is discussing. The possible exception is the idea of whether predestination exists, though even there, it’s quite straightforward to understand Ames’ position on the subject – which is primarily that he doesn’t know the answer, and gets fed up with atheists using the question as some kind of weapon. Perhaps there are nuances that I missed that would be picked up by people better versed in the Bible, but certainly I had no feeling of ‘missing’ anything. It seemed to me that Ames’ unshakeable faith is based as much on his love of the world and of humanity, as on obscure theological points.

I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true. I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude, right down in the depths of my misery.

In the second half of the book, a young man returns to the town, the son of Ames’ oldest friend, the Presbyterian minister Boughton. This young man is called John Ames Boughton, a well-intentioned gesture from the elder Boughton which Ames has always rather resented. In fact, he resents everything to do with this young man, who has proved to be a disappointment throughout his life. Ames’ feelings about him are mixed with his sorrow for his lost daughter and for his brother’s atheism, and Ames himself is rather confused about why he feels so antagonistic towards the younger man. Now Ames is dying, and young Boughton seems to be forming a bond with his much younger wife, Lila, and his son. The latter part of the book is a very moving account of Ames wrestling with his own feelings and trying to come to a better understanding of the young man.

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson

There is very little plot in this book, which is normally a real no-no for me. But somehow I found Ames’ story totally absorbing and full of emotional truth – a quiet account of an ordinary man who loves his family, striving to be good in his heart, struggling to see God’s will, accepting the mystery at the heart of faith. It reminded me of the way Colm Tóibín writes – rather plain and understated, but full of beauty and empathy for human frailties. But for all the emotionalism, there’s humour in there, too – wonderfully crafted set-pieces that in their own way shed more light on all the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Yes, it’s about faith, and about racial inequality to some degree, but fundamentally it’s about humanity and the search for a redemption that can come only through a deeper understanding of the workings of the human heart. A lovely book.

Well, I can imagine him beyond the world, looking back at me with an amazement of realisation – “This is why we have lived this life!” There are a thousand, thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, it shows the importance of the Protestant faith in the history and making of the US, and casts a gentle light on the on-going racial divides at the time in which it’s set.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagI’m not sure about this one – certainly the race theme has been addressed frequently. But the dealing with it through an examination of faith, and the style of telling it in the form of a long letter to the future felt innovative to me, so I’m saying – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes, and I hope the quotes I have chosen give an idea of the soft beauty of the writing.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagThere’s a big part of me that would like to say yes to this, because it seems to this outsider that faith and race are the two defining aspects of what makes the US what it is. But the small town setting narrows the focus a little too much, so reluctantly I have to say – not achieved. I’m open to persuasion though…

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * *

 

Friday Frippery! Interim Book Report…

absalom absalomSo,

 

she (Miss Rosa Coldfield) rattles on circuitously, circling round and round, in a circle; and yet, not round always, but in memory, sometimes backward, before the enemy thrashed her father and destroyed the Old South, destroying it in a destructive manner, while he watched the dust motes and wondered why she repeated herself endlessly without ever actually saying anything to the point, endlessly repeating the story of her sister, long dead, and Sutpen, repeatedly telling him (Quentin) about his (Sutpen’s) beard that was the only thing that differentiated him from the wild black men he brought with him when he came to destroy the honour of his or possibly her family, or possibly their families, or possibly not, for as she would undoubtedly come to say “It is important that this story never dies, so I’m going to reveal it to you in a code so obscure it will take, not just the rest of your life, but the lives of many academics, paid for by the taxes not just of ourselves but of those who conquered us and tamed the wild men, destroying something precious but perhaps a little immoral along the way, for some strange people in the North, you know, think that to chain wild men to a post is nearly as wicked as to beat horses for no reason other than to show how wicked the beater is, to decipher it or at least to convince themselves that they had deciphered it because otherwise would be to admit that yet again the Nobel Prize had been given to someone who fundamentally can’t write intelligibly, though of course in the wondrous worlds of academe and literary prizes intelligibility ranks low on the list of things a writer should achieve, which is not how it was…” and she broke off as her voice retreated not into silence exactly, but into silence nevertheless, a silence forced upon her and all her race by the men who conquered her or them or him and his family and their honour, and he said “Yessum” which was, one has to admit, as good an answer as any from one of the broken ghosts that inhabit this broken land, broken by conquerors who destroyed the honour of those whose only fault, if indeed fault it were, and who is to decide that question is still to be decided, was to tie wild men to posts and impregnate wild women, hardly a fault at all; though some may say that then naming the offspring with silly names like Clytemnestra may have been the most wicked thing of all and may even have been some small justification for the destruction of these once proud people, now wandering ghost-like through the past and present…

William Faulkner

…with no calendar, dammit, to tell them where they might be supposed to be, which is to assume anyone cares, which brings me back to the point which I have unfortunately forgotten since my braincells began deteriorating at page 5 and the deterioration deteriorated so rapidly that by page 48 I had turned into a brainless mumbling mono-celled organism condemned to spend eternity going round in an endless circle of rambling, barely punctuated, incomprehensibly-structured prose, an endless circle of destruction, leaving me feeling like a ghost inhabiting a land which unfortunately the destroyers didn’t destroy thoroughly enough or they would have wiped out Miss Coldfield, Mr Compson, Mr Sutpen and all their pesky descendants and left Mr Faulkner with nothing to go round in endless circles about, so that when at some time in the future or perhaps the past FF asked for recommendations for the Great American Novel Quest, no-one, not one person, not even a ghost, would have suggested torturing herself half to death reading a pretentious, repetitive, repetitive book, which is to literature much as WWE is to sport, with its major claim to fame being that it contains the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language, thus getting into the Guinness Book of Records, surely more illustrious than the broken Nobel, though that record doesn’t specify intelligible, nor does it take account of the fact that Michael Chabon created a much longer, better constructed, and rather beautiful one in Telegraph Avenue, thus making this work even more redundant than it once was, this being the problem with all records, for who now remembers who held the record for the fastest mile before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mark, itself a record now broken, but one that was at least exciting at the time, which I suggest this one wasn’t; and if they did, if some ghost drifting in the motes of dust circling round the room of the woman who is doing a particularly bad Miss ‘Avisham impersonation, in her room where she lives with the blinds drawn, angsting about a 50-year-old jilting, had whispered “Read Absalom! Absalom!”, then FF would have known to say “No’m!” – but too late, alas, too late!

* * * * * *

I’m at page 72. 240 to go.

 

alphabetti help

 

GAN Quest: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Moments…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

let the great world spinOne August morning in 1974, a man was spotted standing on top of one of the newly-built Twin Towers. A crowd quickly gathered, wondering if he was going to jump. Some prayed for his safety and begged him to come down, others egged him on to jump, in that ugly way crowds have. But in a moment of unforgettable magic, Philippe Petit stepped out onto an inch-thick wire, 1350 feet above the ground, and walked between the towers. For 45 minutes he held the city enthralled as he walked back and forth, sitting, even lying on the wire.

When something as momentous as 9/11 happens, how do you deal with it in fiction? To tell the story of the events themselves can feel maudlin, voyeuristic – a kind of cashing-in on tragedy. Colum McCann’s book only obliquely refers to that day, but the iconic status of the Twin Towers, their presence in the book, means it’s never far from the reader’s mind. And it’s no coincidence that the one picture McCann has chosen to illustrate the book, with the benefit of hindsight becomes terrifyingly prescient.

philippe petit plane

Instead, McCann chooses a different unique moment in the history of the Twin Towers, using it as a starting point to tell the stories of some of the people whose lives intersected while Petit walked. It’s not a celebration of New York, exactly – it’s too clear-sighted about the many problems that existed at a point when the city was drowning in drugs and crime, and the country was reeling from Vietnam. But it is a deeply affectionate picture, a warts and all portrait of its people struggling to achieve that point of balance, to make their own walk, to recognise the occasional moment of magic in their own lives.

One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

In the end I loved the book, but it took a while for me to get there. Rather appropriately, it was almost exactly at the mid-point that I suddenly became invested in the lives McCann describes. I suspect this is one of those books that will actually work better on a re-read, because knowing how the stories play out will add the emotional content to the early chapters which I felt was a little lacking on a first read.

philippe petit sitting

Although I grew to love it, I can’t in truth say the book is unflawed. Let me get my usual foul language rant out of the way first. Some of the chapters are little more than long streams of foul-mouthed, unimaginative swearing, either in dialogue or when he’s writing some characters’ narratives in first person. An author should do more than pick up speech traits – mimicry is not art. Being brutal about it, one can train a parrot to repeat speech. But in fiction, an author should be able to achieve a sense of authenticity without simply parroting the poor language skills of the people on whom he’s basing his characters.

It’s a pity because, when he ceases the mimicry and writes in his own creative voice, he writes quite beautifully. The sections where he describes Petit’s preparation and walk create such brilliant atmosphere that I felt all the terror and exhilaration as if I were there on top of the Tower with him. His characterisation is superb – these people gradually became real to me so that I cared what happened to them. And he avoids any emotional trickery or contrived coincidence, so that their stories feel as real as their personalities.

Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

philippe-petit-1974

The other major flaw is that some of the sections don’t add anything and, in fact, serve only to break the flow and interrupt the development of an emotional bond between reader and characters. Some of the threads carry through the book, recurring and twining around each other, like an intricate dance. But a few of them are entirely separate – for example, the section about the boy who photographs graffiti on the underground, or the hackers who – well, I can’t really tell you what the hackers do, because it was so full of unnecessary techie jargon that almost the only words I understood were the incessant swear words, and I tired of them so thoroughly I skipped the bulk of that chapter in the end. I guess McCann was trying to cover everything he could think of that was relevant to New York or the time, but I felt the book would have been tighter and more effective if it had stayed more focused.

begorrathon 2016

Despite all this, the major stories have a depth and fundamental truth to them that in the end lifts the book to within touching distance of greatness. Corr, the religious brother working amongst New York’s prostitutes and drug dealers, is caught between his vow of celibacy and his love for a woman. Tillie tells her own story of her life as a prostitute and her shame as she sees her beloved daughter Jazzlyn follow her onto the streets. Claire is mourning the son she lost in Vietnam and trying to find a kind of solace in the company of other bereaved mothers. Gloria, whose life would have broken many women, finding a way to survive by holding out a generous hand to those around her. Solomon, the judge who spends his days brokering deals and plea bargains, suddenly tasked to find an appropriate punishment for this man who has committed trespass to walk between the Towers, and in doing so has caused a whole city to raise its eyes. As they cross each other’s paths, McCann shows how single moments can change entire lives, and ripple out to touch the lives of others.

He has shaved. I want to tell him off for using my razor. His skin looks shiny and raw.

A week later – after the accident – I will come home and tap out his hairs at the side of my sink, arrange them in patterns, obsessively, over and over. I will count them out to reconstitute them. I will gather them against the side of the sink and try to create his portrait there.

McCann paints New York as a city that lived for the moment, instantly forgetting its own history – a place without the memorials and statues that fill other great capitals of the world. And he leaves the reader to realise how that all changed when the Twin Towers fell – their absence a memorial that will exist as long as anyone remembers seeing them soar above the city skyline, and will have a half-life in photos, newsreels, art and literature for long after that. But as his characters walk their own wires and the great world spins, ultimately he reminds us that some moments bring magic and wonder rather than tragedy, and hope exists even at the darkest times.

The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.

Colum McCann
Colum McCann

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagColum McCann is Irish by birth and nationality (so this review is also part of Reading Ireland Month) but has lived in the US for thirty years. I reckon he’s assimilated pretty well so… achieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, it’s a great picture of New York in the ’70s, when the city was at its peak of crime and social decay, and also references the changes brought by 9/11 to the city’s psyche. Achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, using Petit’s walk and the ’70s to obliquely discuss 9/11 is an innovative and successful approach. So – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagDespite his too frequent lapses into speech mimicry and foul language, and his occasional lack of focus, the majority of the book is indeed superbly written. So in the spirit of generosity inherent in the book, I’m going to say… achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagSadly, while the book undoubtedly captures parts of the New York experience brilliantly, I don’t feel it is wide enough in scope to meet this criterion. So… not achieved.

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.

.

* * * * * * *

 

GAN Quest: Beloved by Toni Morrison

belovedA story to pass on…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live isolated lives in their community, because everyone knows that their house at no. 124 is haunted. Sethe’s two sons have already left, unable to take any more of the spiteful tricks played by the ghost. But Sethe and Denver see the ghost differently. To Sethe it is the other daughter that she lost, a child known only by the single word carved on her gravestone, “Beloved”. The ghost is angry but Sethe understands why and endlessly forgives, no matter how cruel or violent her behaviour. And to Denver, the ghost is her sister, her only companion in her loneliness. Then one day a man from Sethe’s past arrives, Paul D, who knew her when they were both slaves on Sweet Home. It seems at first that he has driven the ghost away, until some weeks later a strange young woman arrives at the house – her name, Beloved.

Despite the ghostly presence of Beloved, this is mainly a straightforward account of the horrific treatment meted out to many slaves and of the need for the characters to face their past in order to be able to create a better future in their hard-won freedom. Beloved is an obvious metaphor for slavery itself, still haunting and torturing those who have apparently escaped its chains. And the ‘message’ is that freedom is as much a state of mind as of body – that slavery’s after-effects still have Sethe in its toils, and that even the next generations, embodied in Denver and the missing sons, live their lives in its shadow.

The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be. So scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

The simplicity of the message does not, however, make it in any way a simple book. Morrison’s brilliant writing and imagery turn this into one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating books I have ever read. There is furious anger here, in scenes of brutal horror, cruelty and vile humiliation, but the overwhelming tone is of a sorrowful lament for humanity. And to make it bearable, just, there is also beauty, love, some kind of healing, and ultimately hope.

Oprah Winfrey in the 1998 movie of Beloved
Oprah Winfrey in the 1998 movie of Beloved

Sethe was born into slavery and sold to Sweet Home when she was a young girl – the only girl amongst a small group of men. Sethe had her pick of them and her choice fell on Halle. The story of Sethe’s time on Sweet Home is told in flashback, so the reader is quickly aware that some horrific series of events led to a heavily pregnant Sethe, alone, on the run, trying to make her way to the Free States. Her three children had been smuggled out before her and she is desperate to get to her youngest daughter, whom Sethe was still breast-feeding when they separated. But we also know from flashbacks to a later period, when Sethe has made it to freedom, that this is the daughter who dies in infancy.

Morrison uses the imagery of milk throughout the book, as a symbol of the bond between mother and daughter, and of the basic right of any woman to nurture her own child. Sethe herself was denied this right as a child – it was more economic for there to be one slave to feed all the children than to allow mothers to feed their own. So for her, giving her milk to her own children is a deep need, an assertion of her humanity. And in an act of extreme brutality, she is subjected to something that for her is worse than rape – the stealing of her milk, her children’s milk. It is this moment of fundamental violation that drives her to act as she does – to be willing to do anything rather than see her children, especially her daughters, raised as slaves.

Oprah Winfrey as Sethe revealing the "tree" on her back
Oprah Winfrey as Sethe revealing the “tree” on her back

Paul D’s story is just as harsh, and Morrison’s telling of it is an eloquent indictment of some of the worst practices inflicted on slaves – not just appalling physical cruelty, but a process of psychological dehumanisation that left the men stripped of the strength to rebel. And perhaps the worst aspect of it is that it is entirely believable – the basest cruelties carried out with a casual disregard – man’s inhumanity to man indeed.

They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.

And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt who folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last.

These are the histories that Sethe and Paul D, and Beloved, must face and understand before they can have hope of true freedom. As the memories, or rememories as Sethe calls them, are told, they will have to be able to forgive each other and themselves for the things they did to survive. And Denver, the one child not born into slavery, if she is to provide hope for future generations, will have to find some way to break the chains that bind her to her mother’s history. As the book draws towards the climax, these three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved, reveal their deepest selves in an intertwining stream of consciousness of unforgettable horror, power and dark beauty.

In the beginning I could see her I could not help her because the clouds were in the way in the beginning I could see her the shining in her ears she does not like the circle around her neck I know this I look hard at her so she will know that the clouds are in the way I am sure she saw me I am looking at her see me she empties out her eyes I am there in the place where her face is and telling her the noisy clouds were in my way she wants her earrings she wants her round basket I want her face a hot thing

Even when the imagery is at its harshest, Morrison fills it with a savage poetry that lifts it to something so much more than a mere catalogue of human baseness. The sheer beauty of the writing contrasts so vividly with the ugliness of the story that it, in itself, provides a kind of promise of redemption – a proof that humanity can indeed rise from the ashes, however devastating the fire. In the end, Sethe comes to believe that Beloved’s is not a story to pass on – but it is! It is a story that must be understood if we are ever to truly understand ourselves, and ultimately isn’t that what literature is for? Tragic that such a book should ever have come to be written, heartbreaking and devastating to read, but I count it a true privilege to have been given an opportunity to hear Beloved’s story.

Toni Morrison Photo: Reuters
Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

 

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, although it is written about a previous time in history, it certainly is addressing questions that are still resonating throughout American society today. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, the story of slavery may be one that has been addressed before but I doubt it has ever been told so deeply and brilliantly from the viewpoint of a woman slave. So – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagNot just superb, but stunning, with a sustained power and beauty I’ve rarely encountered, especially in a story of such brutality. Achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

us flagYou know, the straightforward answer to this would be no. It concentrates almost entirely on one aspect of the American experience, one part of the culture. But… I so want this to be my second GAN… so I would argue that to some degree the whole of American society is still suffering from the after-effects of its foundation on slavery, and is still trying, like Denver, to find a way to break those chains and become truly the country it wants to be – can be. So I’m going to say yes… and it’s my quest, so there! 😉

* * * * * * * * *

So, for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my second…

 

beloved the gan

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A tide in the affairs of women…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

their eyes were watching godWhen Janie walks back into town eighteen months after leaving with a man 12 years her junior, her former friends and neighbours gossip and snigger, assuming he has spent all her money and then left her for a younger woman. But Janie’s story is more complicated, a tragedy but also an awakening, her journey one of self-discovery.

I’ll start by saying that I think this is an excellent novel, fully earning its place as a contender for the title of Great American Novel. It has been analysed to death by people far more qualified than I over the years: adversely, on the whole, at the time of its original publication in 1937, and then positively, when it was resurrected in the ’70s by academics with an interest in female and black voices in American literature. I had never heard of the book until it was mentioned by several people when I asked for recommendations for GANs, and I assiduously avoided reading anything about it in advance so that I could enjoy the rare luxury of reading it without preconceptions.

Janie is 16 when we first meet her in the care of her grandmother, a slave who became pregnant to her owner just before abolition. Janie’s own birth was as a result of the rape of her mother by a teacher. The date isn’t given, but a quick calculation suggests that the bulk of the book takes place in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. This matters, because one of my major criticisms of the book is that it seems to be set quite apart from historical context. There is no mention of WW1, no suggestion that any of the men fought or, indeed, had an opinion on the rights or wrongs of fighting for the USA. My (shallow) understanding is that this was a time of great change for African Americans, when they began to demand that a country that expected them to fight and die for it should also give them rights as equal citizens, develop a true democracy that embraced all people equally. But Janie’s world indicates none of this, and I found myself therefore not being able to entirely accept it as a realistic picture of the time.

Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie - which even from the stills looks dreadful.
Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie – which even from the stills looks dreadful.

Instead, Janie’s contemporaries are shown as lazy, passive and unambitious on the whole, their aspirations beaten out of them by a world still run by and for the white elite. That I could accept more, though it seems in conflict with the idea of the development of the all-black town of Eatonville in which much of the story is placed. And Eatonville itself doesn’t ring wholly true – when Janie and her new husband arrive there, it is no more than a plot of land with a few shacks, but within a few years it seems to be a thriving success story, without any indication of where that success comes from. And again, there is no discussion of politics or the wider world – Eatonville seems to exist in happy isolation, and the people Janie meets there and on her travels live carefree lives, based around drinking, gambling and sex – a happy-go-lucky existence, with no thought for the future. The position of women is one of almost total subservience to their men – a style of life where sexism and domestic violence is accepted by all. I was surprised at how negative a picture a black author was creating of the black community at a time when the political struggle for equality was building to a crescendo.

Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behaviour justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

The reason I bring up these criticisms first is that, after I finished the book, I read the forewords and afterword in my copy, written by Edwidge Danticat, Mary Helen Washington and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and was rather stunned to discover that my criticisms echoed those of the male black writing community of the time, whose dismissal of the book was based pretty much on it not conforming to the political agenda of the black movement. The subsequent feminist critiques of the ’70s and later, it seems to me, dismiss these criticisms too easily, perhaps because they think that to accept them would weaken their own argument that the book is a seminal text in the finding of the black female voice in literature. I beg to disagree – with both parties: the lack of a political context is a weakness but not one that prevents the book from making an important contribution; and the fact that it gives women in black culture a voice does not negate the fact that it would have been a greater book had it addressed, or at least acknowledged, the contemporary political situation.

Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day's bean-pickin'...
Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day’s bean-pickin’…

Where the book excels is in its portrayal of Janie’s character – her finding of her own way despite the male dominance of the society she lives in. As a person of mixed racial ancestry, Janie’s light skin tone and unusual hair are used to great effect to show how indoctrinated the black psyche had become to accept the desirability of ‘white’ physical traits; showing within their community the same kind of prejudices heaped on them from outside it. Having been married off young to a much older man, Janie rebels and runs off with the good-looking and ambitious Joe to Eatonville, only to discover that Joe too believes that a woman is at her best in the kitchen and bedroom. We know from the beginning of the book that there is a third man in Janie’s story – the younger Tea Cake, for whom she has left her comfortable home in Eatonville and gone off to work the fields in the Florida Everglades. It is in the few months that she spends with Tea Cake that Janie finally discovers what it is to love and be loved equally.

Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward till he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

Although the structure of the book is that Janie is telling her story in retrospect to her friend Pheoby, this is a third person narrative for the most part, slipping into first occasionally as we are made directly privy to Janie’s thoughts. All of the speech is in dialect, which Hurston handles brilliantly, and although the non-dialogue parts are in a more standard form of English, she maintains speech patterns, tone and vocabulary throughout. The dialect is not so broad that it makes the book hard to read – it’s sustained so beautifully that it almost recedes into the background after the reader gets tuned into it. While I have criticised the portrayal of the society as negative, it’s also done with great skill, making it completely believable within the internal context of the book. The writing is lyrical at times, especially the section in the Florida Everglades where the land and weather come to play a huge part in the story. The book has its share of tragedy and horror, but Hurston offers compassion to her characters at all times, and she draws them subtly, so that there are few of them who can’t earn our empathy.

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston

I am aware that this review has taken on gargantuan proportions, but that’s a sign of the effect the book and the debate surrounding it had on me. I could write at length about my disappointment that fundamentally Janie’s search for herself seems too much to be a search for a man who will love her right. I could mention my anger at the way Hurston seems tacitly to endorse wife-beating so long as it’s done with love(!). I could wonder about the lack, not just of children, but of any mention of them. But instead, I’ll say that, despite my quite severe criticisms of it, I loved the book for the language and the compelling story-telling, and for making me think, and it’s one that I’m sure would deliver even more on a re-read.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, despite its lack of political context, it gives an excellent portrayal of this part of black culture.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, the examination of the place of women within this culture was clearly innovative for its time.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – the dialect and lyricism of the writing are undoubtedly excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.

.

* * * * * * *

 

GAN Quest: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Walking the high wire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the house of mirth 2Beautiful Lily Bart, trained from birth to take her place in the highest echelons of New York society of the late 19th century, lacks the money to maintain her position in this elite and snobbish group, so must marry well. At the age of twenty-nine her options are beginning to narrow, so she must do it soon before her beauty begins to fade. But Lily has a problem – she is unable to bring herself to marry purely for money and has met only one man who inspires passion – a man who doesn’t possess either the wealth or the desire to live the kind of life Lily must have. This is the story of Lily’s gradual descent through the social classes as a series of bad decisions causes her to lose the one thing more important to this shallow society than beauty – her reputation. Along the way, she will gain some self-knowledge and learn to value her self-respect more than her status. Well, almost…

Original illustrations by AB Wenzell
Original illustrations by AB Wenzell

If only I could have loved Lily! If I could at any point have felt that she were worthy of a week of my life, or a moment of Selden’s (an adulterer, so not a particularly high standard to reach)! It is undoubtedly true that books affect us differently depending on when we read them, and I suspect that had I read this when I was eighteen, it would have delighted me nearly as much as Ms Austen’s books did at that age and, like them, would probably then have remained a favourite. In fact, for a large part of the beginning, I found myself comparing Lily to Austen’s equally unlikeable heroine, Emma. But even in Emma, Austen tempers her view of a society that restricts women to the unpleasantnesses of the marriage mart by having a little humour and some fundamentally decent characters. In The House of Mirth, Wharton invites us to sneer at the characters rather than laugh with or even at them, and the most decent man is an adulterer who then snubs Lily for doing considerably less than he did. Accurate, of course, as a representation of the inequality of women, but hardly likely to make the reader warm towards him. Not this reader, at any rate.

the house of mirth original illustration 3

The book gives a cuttingly brilliant portrayal of this society and of the basic amorality at the heart of it. Money clears the path to good reputation – one can be forgiven anything if one is rich enough. But commit the crime of poverty and one is left balancing precariously on a high wire, without a safety net. And Lily doesn’t have the self-control to stop herself from swaying with each wind that blows. Her fall is described with what feels like great authenticity. She doesn’t plummet to her doom – rather she lands high up on a hill and then slips gradually down. This lets Wharton show the various strata of society, from the established and well-born, through the nouveau riche, to the rich but not quite respectable, and finally to the dinginess of genteel poverty that Lily has been brought up most to fear. Lily has opportunities to break her fall but each time, as she reaches the crunch, her pride won’t let her make the sacrifice that would be necessary.

Gillian Anderson and Etic Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?
Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?

The writing is, of course, excellent, as is Wharton’s insight into the workings of this society and the characters who inhabit it. But I found it a cold novel, without the contrasts that might have lent it some much needed warmth. I liked no-one, and actually I suspect that was Wharton’s intention. Being shallow, however, I need someone to care about to make a novel really work for me – and I couldn’t care about Lily, however hard I tried. Oh yes, by the end I felt sorry for her but, truthfully, not terribly. Her ambitions are so petty, her hardships so cushioned, her decisions so egotistical. She represents everything that is worst about a society where worth is measured by wealth, and just as I wouldn’t regret the passing of that kind of society, I couldn’t get worked up about this one unimportant little hanger-on. Get a job, was my constant cry! But no, Lily couldn’t even manage that. Become a companion to a rich old lady, then, I shrieked at her! No, no, she replied, I must attend parties and look more beautiful than everyone else or my life is not worth living. I felt forced to agree with the latter part of that sentence. And thus, when we wound slowly, slowly, slowly to the inevitable end, I regret to say I… giggled. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to, honestly! I really hoped I’d sob!

the house of mirth original illustration 2

I don’t at all think my reaction means that the book fails, however. Apart from a rather sickly sweet finale (hence the giggling), I suspect my reaction was very much what Wharton intended to inspire. Certainly she wasn’t holding these people up for admiration and, as a social critique, I feel the book works wonderfully well. (I felt at points, though, that Wharton was far from immune from the attitudes and snobberies she was criticising – her depiction of the Jewish Rosedale, for example, and her stereotyping of the ‘poor’.) In the end, the lack of any characters that I could fully sympathise with (poor Gerty, too pathetically good to be true, I fear), meant that, like Emma, my admiration for the book never quite grew into love.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWithout doubt, it gives a brilliant depiction of the various levels of rich society of the time and of the hypocrisy at the heart of it.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I’d say the perspective of a woman falling through the various levels is an innovative way to examine the workings of this society.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – I found the writing curiously cold, but nonetheless penetrating and excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, and with only four stars and four GAN flags, not even A Great American Novel, I fear. But it’s still a good and important novel that I’m glad to have read. The only thing holding it back from being a great novel for me is that I couldn’t learn to love Lily…

* * * * * * *

 

Great American Novel Quest – The Second Batch

The Quest continues…

 

Great American Novel Quest

The first batch of ten contenders produced some fantastic reads, but so they should have since they were carefully chosen as some of the traditional front-runners in the race to be The Great American Novel. However, the list was also heavily weighted towards Dead White Men, with the addition of the occasional living one. All white and only one woman. This time round I’ve selected a rather more diverse group – 6 from the pens of female writers, three of whom are black, and a couple of recent books that haven’t been around long enough for us to know what their eventual status will be.

peanuts writing 4

There has been much interesting and thought-provoking chit-chat amongst my fellow readers as to the near impossibility of a book achieving that pesky fifth criteria which it needs to be declared The GAN…

For the elusive fifth flag, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole.

…though I would (and did) argue that American Pastoral does. I’ve found coming up with a revised fifth criterion that’s better than this one to be impossible also – to skew it so that favourite books can get in would certainly increase the number but would kind of take away the point, which is surely that The Great American Novel is one of the rarest of beasts, perhaps mythical. And entirely subjective.

peanuts writing 2

But, to be honest, the quest is more about finding Great American Novels in general than identifying one ‘winner’, so I’m quite content that several in this second batch are unlikely to be The GAN. I’m hopeful that some will be GANs and that more will be great novels. And if one of them happens to gain the elusive fifth flag, then that will be an added bonus.

peanuts writing 3

* * * * * * *

So… a drum roll, maestro, please… for…

The Second Batch

.
Beloved by Toni MorrisonStaring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonWhen Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiea story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home. Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America.

Absalom! Absalom! by William FaulknerThe story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.'”

Gone with the Wind by Margaret MitchellMany novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.”

The House of Mirth by Edith WhartonThe tragic love story reveals the destructive effects of wealth and social hypocrisy on Lily Bart, a ravishing beauty. More a tale of social exclusion than of failed love, The House of Mirth reveals Wharton’s compelling gifts as a storyteller and her clear-eyed observations of the savagery beneath the well-bred surface of high society.

 

Middlesex by Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Lolita by Vladimir NabokovHumbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweStowe’s powerful abolitionist novel fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852. Denouncing the institution of slavery in dramatic terms, the incendiary novel quickly draws the reader into the world of slaves and their masters.”

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – (carried over from the first batch) an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).

(NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.)

* * * * * * *

 

Many thanks to everyone who has joined in the discussions and/or suggested contenders. I have another 25 or so still to come after this, but am still looking for recommendations. I’d particularly like to add some more cultural diversity to the list (there are no black male authors on it, for example, and none from authors with Latin-American or, indeed, Native American heritage). Also, more women are needed to even things up a bit – there are very few female authors amongst the remaining 25, since I’ve included most of the ones on my list in this batch. And I’d love to mix some outstanding modern American fiction (1980 to 2010, say) in with the classics, whether they would be contenders for GAN status or not. For preference, though, they should shed some light on that great conundrum which is America.

peanuts writing 1

* * * * * * *

So… what do you think of the list? Are there ones that you would endorse… or dump? Any recommendations?

Great American Novel Quest – The First Batch Update

The story so far…

 

Great American Novel Quest

Since I’ve now read nine of the original batch of ten books I selected at the start of the Great American Novel Quest and am delaying the tenth for a while, I thought it might be time for a quick round-up and the selection of the next ten.

It’s taken me much longer to read these than I originally planned, for the usual reason – too many review copies of new books. I just can’t seem to break that habit! However, the protracted timescale is no reflection on the quest – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed becoming a little more familiar with some of the greats of American fiction and am looking forward to the next selection just as much.

peanuts 1

* * * * * * *

 

First, a brief summary of the criteria and how well they were achieved by the books I’ve read so far…

The Great American Novel – must achieve 5 stars and 5 GAN flags.

A Great American Novel – must achieve 5 stars and any 4 GAN flags.

Great novel – 5 stars books that don’t achieve at least 4 GAN flags are simply great novels.

The quest is of course entirely subjective and results are heavily influenced by my personal preferences, so the whole thing shouldn’t really be taken too seriously!

peanuts 3

* * * * * * *

 

The GAN criteria (which are explained in greater depth in the original post) are:

1. Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

3. Must be innovative and original in theme.

4. Must be superbly written.

5. Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

peanuts 2

* * * * * * *

So here are the results for the first batch of ten. If you’d like to see any of the full reviews, please click on the book cover…

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The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

 

the great gatsby 2

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A Great American Novel!

* * * * * * *

 

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

 

revolutionary-road

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A Great American Novel!

* * * * * * *

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

 

huckleberry finn

🙂 🙂 🙂

Gulp! Sorry, America!

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

 

the road

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A Great Novel!

* * * * * * *

 

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

 

empire falls

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A Great Novel!

 

* * * * * * *

 

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

 

american pastoral

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Great American Novel!!!

 

* * * * * * *

 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

 

the amazing adventures of kavalier and klay

😀 😀 🙂

Oh dear!

 

* * * * * * *

 

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

 

the grapes of wrath

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

 

 

A Great American Novel!

 

* * * * * * *

 

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

 

the lay of the land

😦

Umm…!!

 

* * * * * * *

 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

 

gilead

This is the one I haven’t yet read and am postponing for a little while.

 

It won the Pulitzer!

 

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Check back tomorrow for details of the next ten. And meantime, please let me know what you think of the ratings so far…

peanuts 4

GAN Quest: The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

A digressive, long-winded, over-adjectived, frequently-hyphenated contemplation of the middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road American male…

😦

the lay of the landFrank Bascombe sets out to have a meeting with his ex-wife. Five immensely tedious reading hours later and nearly a third of the way through the book, he hasn’t yet got there. But he has digressed endlessly on those subjects that seem to obsess the white, middle-class, middle-aged American male of fiction – their health, the fact that they don’t understand their children, their ex-wives (almost always plural), their sexual prowess or lack thereof, and the way the country is going to the dogs. I admit defeat – I can’t take any more.

I feared right from the beginning that I was going to struggle with this book. Straight away, Ford gets into existential crisis mode with our narrator, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, fearing that he is not ready to meet his maker. Five hours later, I was unsympathetically thinking that he shouldn’t worry – he has plenty of time left since he has the ability to turn every hour into a yawning eternity of low-level angst. It took me four days to read that five hours’ worth, because I had to keep stopping to remind myself that actually life isn’t a dismal wasteland of pretentious emptiness – or at least, if it is, then I prefer my own pretentious emptiness to that of the tediously self-obsessed Frank Bascombe.

Each line of sparse and unrealistic dialogue is separated by two or three paragraphs analysing the one before and anticipating the one to come, while every noun is preceded by roughly eight, usually-hyphenated, increasingly-convoluted-and-contrived, unnecessary-except-to-fill-up-the-space adjectives…

…elderly, handsome, mustachioed, silver-haired, capitalist-looking gentleman in safari attire…

…a fetid, lightless, tin-sided back-country prison…

…a smirky, blond, slightly hard-edged, cigarette-smoking former Goucher girl… (what on earth is a Goucher girl? All those words and yet he still fails to communicate his meaning.)

Frankly, until I tried to read this book, I thought I was fairly fluent in American. After all, I coped with Twain’s dialect in Huckleberry Finn and Steinbeck’s in The Grapes of Wrath, and dealt comfortably with Ellis’ pop culture obsession in American Psycho. But it appears not. Even my Kindle’s built-in US-English dictionary didn’t recognise more than half of the words I looked up. Has he invented this language? Or is it a kind of slang that was fashionable a decade or so ago and has now been already forgotten? Whatever, if it’s comprehensible to Americans then that’s what matters, of course, but I think I’d have to wait for the English translation to become available. Though I’m in no rush for it…

…skint black hair…

…business lunch and afternoon plat-map confab…

…against every millage to extend services to the boondocks…

My life in Haddam always lacked the true resident’s naive, relief-seeking socked-in-ed-ness…

Richard Ford
Richard Ford

It’s not just made-up words and jargon related to the property market that are problematic for this non-US reader, it’s also his use of brands as a shortcut to description – fine if the brands mean something to the reader, otherwise irritating. And he constantly does the same with what I assume are cultural references…

He knows I bleed Michigan blue but doesn’t really know what that means. (Nope, nor me.)

This means a living room the size of a fifties tract home. (So… tiny? Huge? Average?)

Mike frowns over at me. He doesn’t know what Kalamazoo means, or why it would be so side-splittingly hilarious. (Again, nope – pity, because by that stage I could have done with a laugh.)

I’m not really blaming the book for being ‘too’ American – why shouldn’t it be? – but it did make it impossible for me to get into any kind of reading flow, since I was constantly either looking things up or trying to work out the meaning from the context, a problem I’m not usually aware of when reading American fiction, or certainly not to this degree. I’m quite sure that was a large part of why I found it such a stultifying read, but I’d have tolerated it if I’d felt the book was shedding light on anything that interested me. But I’m afraid the trials and obsessions of the well-off, educated, American male don’t, particularly. Shall I eat wheat-grain or indulge my wicked side with a ‘furter? Let me list all the things I wear so you can understand my social position. I spent $2000 dollars on Thanksgiving lunch just because I can.

A 1950s tract house - or as we in the UK would call it - a house.
A 1950s tract home – or as we in the UK would call it – a house.

Buried amidst the heap of unnecessary wordiness, there is probably some insight on what it is to be middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road and male in Millenium America, and there may even be bits that are funny. Sadly I lost my ability to laugh at around page 5, but am hoping it may return now that I’ve abandoned it. Is there a plot or a story or any kind of forward progression? Not that I noticed, but maybe it becomes a gripping read once he gets to the meeting with his ex-wife, if he ever does. I guess I shall never know…

* * * * * * *

(Dear Matt, (who recommended this one to me) – my sincere apologies! Sometimes the reader and the book just don’t gel, and I had to get it out of my system for fear of developing stomach ulcers. 😉 )

 

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest*laughs hollowly* To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

white_flagPerhaps it would have if I could have borne to read all the way through. But since I couldn’t – not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagSince I feel as if every second book written by American males (and indeed British males) is an exceedingly similar account of their middle-aged angst, then no.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagUmm…guess the answer to this one!

 

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, and since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, neither A Great American Novel nor even a great novel, I’m afraid. Though perhaps Americans might feel differently…

* * * * * * *

PS Fascinatingly, every single 5-star review of this on Amazon UK is written by a man. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that before on any novel. Perhaps it’s not so much that I’m the wrong nationality as the wrong gender… or both.

Book 7
Book 7

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn” Robert Burns

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the grapes of wrathWhen Tom Joad returns to his parents’ farm after serving a prison sentence for murder, he finds it deserted. In the four years he has been gone, the land has turned to dust through a combination of drought and poor farming practices. The onset of the Great Depression has meant that the banks have taken over ownership of vast tracts of the land and, in pursuit of profit, are expelling the small tenant farmers to create massive one-crop farms, worked by machines rather than men. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Tom and his family join the exodus.

First published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression, and Steinbeck’s anger and disgust come through loudly in the power of his prose. A starkly political novel, it’s interesting that there is little or no reference to either the politicians or policies of the period. This adds to the feeling of the farmers being isolated, abandoned by their nation and utterly reliant on their own limited resources. It falls somewhere between a call to arms for the poor to unite to overthrow the forces of capitalism, and a warning to the powers that be that the result of driving people to the limits of desperation might be just such an outcome. I didn’t know Steinbeck’s own political stance before reading the book, but was unsurprised to read later that at this period he was involved in the Communist movement within the US.

A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most powerful books I’ve read and it has left me with many indelible images. The writing is never less than excellent and is sometimes stunning, while the characterisation and brilliant use of dialect make the Joad family and the people they meet on their journey completely real. The story is a simple one, of man’s inhumanity to man – a story that has been told often, but rarely with such concentration and power. But it’s several weeks since I finished reading the book and I still haven’t quite decided what I think of it.

"Departure of the Joads" by Thomas Hart Benton 1939
“Departure of the Joads” by Thomas Hart Benton 1939

On the one hand, most of the first half of the book drags terribly as Steinbeck tells the story of the journey in minute, endless detail. I feel I could now get a job as a car mechanic working on 1930s models. I get the importance of the car to these families, but I don’t care whether bronze wire will wear away as the widget rubs against the doodah – I truly don’t. But the tedium and repetitiveness of parts of the book didn’t bother me as much as the heavy-handed and unnecessary polemical interludes, where Steinbeck spells out his message in case the reader has been too stupid to understand it. I’m guessing any reader who doesn’t ‘get’ it, will have given up the book long before Steinbeck gets to the political pamphlet chapters. Occasionally it stops feeling like a novel at all and becomes almost like a ranty student essay on the evils of capitalism. If he explained the process of supply and demand once, he must have explained it a hundred times – ironic really, since it is surely only needed once, if at all. And the constant misery! Again, yes, absolutely – the story is appalling, more so for being true, and of course we need to see the horrible impact of absolute poverty on people’s lives and humanity. But when authors feel they have to top up the human misery with the old ‘dead dog’ technique, I fear they cross the line between emotional truth and emotional trickery. Of Mice and Men was the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn into bathos, and decades later I feel exactly the same about this one. And then there’s the ending… but we’ll come to that…

“Preachin’s bein’ good to folks when they wanna kill ya for it. Las’ Christmus in McAlester [the jail], Salvation Army come an’ done us good. Three solid hours a cornet music, an’ we set there. They was bein’ nice to us. But if one of us tried to walk out, we’d a-drawed solitary. That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it.”

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck

On the other hand, the story is an important one that is as relevant today, sadly, as at the time of writing. Whether one agrees or not with Steinbeck’s call of Workers Unite! and class struggle as the solution to poverty and ongoing waves of mass migration, whether one believes that capitalism or socialism is the system most likely to bring a more fair and just society in the end, the vivid picture that he draws of humanity’s imperative struggle for survival in even the most hopeless of circumstances cannot fail to move and must surely stir the consciences of those of us whose present comfort depends on the poverty of others. I found myself drawing parallels with the current influx of people from Africa and Asia into Europe, and the issues surrounding illegal immigration in the US. But more than that, I discovered I was making comparisons to slavery and reflecting that at least, under that repellent system, the owners felt that they had to protect their ‘investment’, whereas these people belonged to no-one, had no intrinsic ‘economic value’ and were thus ultimately even more dispensable. An uncomfortable train of thought and a tribute to Steinbeck’s anger that he made me think it against everything I believe.

Dorrus Bowden, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath film (1940) Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext
Dorrus Bowden, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath film (1940) Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. The women stood silently and watched. And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.

Sometimes the quality of the writing takes the book almost to the sublime. From the first chapter, with the unforgettable images of the windstorm and the dust and the dying corn, with the women watching to see if their men will break, he makes the land a character in its own right, as important as any Joad, and its death as moving as one of theirs. The story of the turtle’s indomitable spirit as it unwittingly spreads the seed that will allow nature to have its rebirth is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have read. While I was never quite sure what message he was attempting to send with the biblical themes, they add a sense of eternality, of inevitability, to the struggle for a more just society. The sheer power and anger of the ‘Moses’ scene will stay with me forever, as will that ending – which I hated even while I recognised the force of its essential truthfulness, and which left me as angry about humanity being reduced to this as Steinbeck could possibly have desired. And just as angry about the emotional manipulation he used to achieve that effect.

Not a book that I can say I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but one that I am glad to have read and will not forget.

Elmer Hader's cover design
Elmer Hader’s cover design

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagAbsolutely, and furthermore an aspect of Western culture that we are still struggling with today. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagI certainly think the socialist theme would have been innovative in its time and in fact still reads as innovative now, when the Cold War has been won and capitalism appears to have been the victor. (In fact, I am intrigued as to why a book with such a strong socialist message is so highly regarded in the ultra-capitalist US? Answers below, please.) Achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagHmm…it is superbly written, there’s no doubt about that, especially the descriptive writing about nature and the land, the biblical echoes in some of the language, and his wonderfully skilled use of dialect. However… there are also huge chunks of it that are simply dull and don’t add much. But I’m going to say achieved, since the excellent bits outweigh the dull bits.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI fear not. It isn’t trying to. But one of my criticisms of it is that it doesn’t expand out to set the experience of the ‘Okies’ into the wider context of society, thus giving a one-sided, polemical picture of the poor as fundamentally good and the rich as uniformly bad. A powerful but too simplistic message, though perhaps it wouldn’t have felt that way at the time.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4½ stars and four GAN flags, I hereby declare it A Great American Novel. But one I doubt I’ll ever read again…

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

american pastoralRude awakening…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov has it all. A star athlete in his college days, owner of a successful glove-making factory, married to a former Miss New Jersey, and living in the big country house he always dreamed of, he is the embodiment of the 1950s American Dream. And specifically, the immigrant dream – Swede is third generation Jewish-American, each generation having become a little more successful, a little less Jewish, better educated, more assimilated, more American. And why shouldn’t that progression continue with the fourth generation, Swede’s daughter Merry? Born to every advantage, cosseted and loved, what causes this girl to become involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement and, aged 16, bomb the village store and, in passing, kill a local doctor? This is the question that torments Swede during all the long years that Merry is on the run.

This is called a polishing machine and that is called a stretcher and you are called honey and I am called Daddy and this is called living and the other is called dying and this is called madness and this is called mourning and this is called hell, pure hell, and you have to have strong ties to be able to stick it out, this is called trying-to-go-on-as-though-nothing-has-happened and this is called paying-the-full-price-but-in-God’s-name-for-what, this is called wanting-to-be-dead-and-wanting-to-find-her-and-to-kill-her-and-to-save-her-from-whatever-she-is-going-through-wherever-on-earth-she-may-be-at-this-moment, this unbridled outpouring is called blotting-out-everything and it does not work

The story is told by Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several of his novels. In this one, Zuckerman was at school in Roth’s old hunting grounds of Newark with the Swede’s younger brother at the time when the Swede was winning glory on the football and baseball fields. To the young Nathan, he was a hero whose sporting skills lifted the morale of the community in the final years of WW2, and who was living proof that success was attainable for anyone from any background in the great meritocracy of the US. It’s only after the Swede’s death in the present day (late 1990s) that Zuckerman hears the story of Merry and the bombing. So the reader knows from the beginning that the story Zuckerman tells is not in fact ‘true’, except for the barest of bones, but instead Zuckerman’s imagining of it. The struggle to make sense of it all is in fact Zuckerman’s rather than the Swede’s. As a result, neither Swede nor Merry are fully real, not even in the fictional sense of that word. They are representations – Swede of the ’50s and Merry of the ’60s. Though that in itself is too simplistic, since Merry actually represents the most extreme aspects of the ’60s – the ones that leave Swede (i.e. Zuckerman) baffled and horrified.

Newark race riots
Newark race riots

Zuckerman talks of the Swede as ‘bland’, an ‘incognito’, a ‘human platitude’. He is stuck in his ’50s rut, a man so pleased with his life that he can’t see beyond its boundaries. His reaction to the race riots in Newark is one of incomprehension – it has never occurred to him to try to see the world through other people’s eyes, or to consider that the path to success might not be as easy for others as for him. He assumes his values are right and therefore shared by everyone. When Merry plants her bomb, she doesn’t just destroy the village post office, she smashes the smug certainties of Swede’s world and, by extension, destroys the ’50s American Dream he epitomises.

Merry exists not as herself, but only as Swede’s idea of her, and as a result her motivations are as incomprehensible to the reader as to her father. At first she appears as the idealised child he adores and later as the object of his anguish and bewilderment. She comes to represent everything Swede doesn’t understand about this new generation: who look outwards rather than in, who are contemptuous of the values of their parents, who get enraged about things that don’t directly affect them, who think the political system has failed them, and some of whom resort to violence to achieve their political aims. As she grows into adolescence and then adulthood, she turns into a monster, almost feral in her rage against everything Swede holds dear – especially the America that he loves. And when Swede finally finds her again, many years later, she has transformed into something so disgusting in his eyes that she appears barely human. And his tragedy is that still he loves her.

He stood over her, facing her, his power pinned to the wall, rocking almost imperceptibly back on the heels of his shoes, as though in this way he might manage to take leave of her through the wall, then rocking forward onto his toes, as though at any moment to grab her, to whisk her up into his arms and out.

"March Against Death" - November 1969 "Two, four, six, eight - now it's time to smash the state!" (Photo: DC Public Library Washington Star Collection)
“March Against Death” – November 1969
“Two, four, six, eight – now it’s time to smash the state!”
(Photo: DC Public Library Washington Star Collection)

The writing is superb – Roth at the very top of his game. Scalpel-like as he performs his dissection of this man, but filled with emotional power as he describes the Swede’s feelings of grief and despair. Beyond the two I’ve concentrated on, there is a whole cast of characters, each one carefully crafted to fill out Swede’s world. Dawn, his wife, desperate not to be forever pigeon-holed as a former beauty queen, but finding in the end that her beauty is a shield she can hide behind when her world collapses. Swede’s father, venting his anger and frustration at the world that made his grand-daughter into a monster. And the ambiguous Rita Cohen, the revolutionary friend of Merry who tortures and taunts the Swede, playing on the vulnerability of his desperate love for his daughter, using sex as an ugly weapon in her desire to humiliate.

The descriptive writing is just as strong. Swede’s pride in his business is shown through the lovingly detailed descriptions of every aspect of the glove-making process, from selection of the skins through the stretching and cutting to sewing and fitting. This is a place where craftspeople reverently produce items of beauty and quality for a world in which women still keep a glove drawer, with different shades and lengths to match each outfit – a ’50s style that also faded as the ’60s progressed, with Jackie Kennedy being perhaps the last great glove-wearing icon.

jackie-kennedy-gloves

“I love you,” he was telling Merry, “you know I would look for you. You are my child. But how could I find you in a million years, wearing that mask and weighing eighty-eight pounds and living the way you live? How could anyone have found you, even here? Where were you?” he cried, as angry as the angriest father ever betrayed by a daughter or a son, so angry he feared that his head was about to spew out his brains just as Kennedy’s did when he was shot. “Where have you been? Answer me!”

Philip Roth (Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)
Philip Roth
(Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)

This is an astounding book, well worthy of the Pulitzer it won in 1998. There’s enough realism in it to read it simply as a powerful and often deeply moving story of parental love and despair, but it’s true power is in Roth’s depiction of the massive culture shift that happened somewhere in the sixties, the rebellion of child against parent, youth against authority, citizen against state. And, fairly uniquely, we’re seeing it not from the perspective of the young looking back either with indulgence or anger at the past, but from the point of view of that past, that portion of society who saw the future unfold in ways they couldn’t understand, their values rejected by the children they had nurtured, their dreams crashing around them.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWritten in 1997, the book is set in the recent past. I reckon the ’60s and their cultural upheaval were still reverberating strongly in the ’90s, and there’s no doubt that the Vietnam war was still at the forefront of the American consciousness, and influencing policy. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagWhile both the failure of the American Dream of the ’50s and the upheaval of the ’60s have been written about many times, what makes this one feel innovative to me is that we see it happening from the point of view of the past looking forwards, while knowing that it’s actually being written from the present looking back. Also, the device of Zuckerman imagining the story from the few facts he knows gives Roth the freedom to present his characters as representations without them feeling like stereotypes or puppets. This triple layering – Swede/Zuckerman/Roth – is crucial to the success of the book. So – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagI don’t always find Roth’s writing superb, but in this one he moves me, horrifies me, enrages me, disgusts me, and frequently leaves me breathless with the sheer power of his prose. Achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

us flagD’you know, for the first time I’m strongly tempted? Although the book is set in a very specific part of the culture – the Jewish immigrant community in Newark – the themes transcend the setting. The smashing of the ’50s dream, the generational shift, the diminishing of the relevance of tradition, the rise in direct action political protest, the growing participation of women in the political and intellectual arenas (not to mention their sexual liberalisation), the loss of respect for authority, the race riots, the impact of Vietnam – these are the things that define the ’60s for all of America, surely? In the same way as Swede is a representation of the ’50s, his small society is a microcosm of all America. I’m going to tentatively say – achieved! (Though I may change my mind after hearing what you have to say…)

* * * * * * * * *

So, (despite the fact that I still prefer both Gatsby and Revolutionary Road), for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my first…

The Great American Novel

American Pastoral

Philip Roth

 

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

the sun also risesMasculinity, machismo and matadors…

 

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When I started looking for the Great American Novel, I expected to be inundated with people telling me I must read Hemingway. Oddly, rather the reverse happened – the general consensus seemed to be I should skip him. So obviously I grabbed the first chance I could to find out why…

Written in 1926, Hemingway’s characters are part of the ‘lost generation’ – those young people so emotionally damaged by WW1 that they are left drifting and purposeless, leading lives of dissolute recklessness. We first meet our narrator, Jake Barnes, in Paris, where he works as a journalist. Jake and Lady Brett Ashley love one another, but Jake has been left impotent by a war injury, and Brett is not the kind of woman who could be happy in a relationship that didn’t offer her sexual fulfilment. So Brett embarks on a string of sexual adventures, usually with friends of Jake’s, while Jake drinks. And drinks. And drinks. Actually, so does Brett. And by about a third of the way through the book, I was toying with the idea of knocking back three bottles of wine, a couple of brandies, and an absinthe or two myself. (But then the ‘lost generation’ usually has that effect on me – privileged, feckless wasters living off Daddy’s money, and blaming their dissipated lifestyles on the war. Poor ex-soldiers, of course, just had to go home, get a job and get on with things – they couldn’t afford to get ‘lost’ in Paris or Spain. Poverty is such a great sat-nav.)

“This is a good place,” he said.
“There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.

When Paris begins to run low on alcohol, Jake and a loose group of friends and acquaintances, including Brett and her fiancé, make their way to Pamplona in Spain for the annual bull-fighting fiesta. There is a lot of alcohol available in Spain, of all different kinds, and this, together with the fact that every man in the party has either slept with Brett or wants to, leads to lots of macho posturing – not unlike the more formalised posturing that takes place between the matador and the bull. Surprisingly enough, Lady Brett seems to quite like matadors…

Painting by Miki de Goodaboom www.artmajeur.com
Painting by Miki de Goodaboom
http://www.artmajeur.com

Hemingway’s writing style is an odd mix of sometimes overly simplistic prose with occasional passages of real beauty. Some of the dialogue is mind-numbingly trite – repetitive and dull – and he gets fixated on details from time to time, like how much a bottle of wine cost or what each person ate. I tired very quickly of the endless descriptions of binge-drinking and drunken quarrelling. But some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting.

The bull who killed Vicente Gironés was named Bocanegra, was Number 118 of the bull-breeding establishment of Sanchez Taberno, and was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.

Ernest Hemingway with friends (and alcohol), during the July 1925 trip to Spain that inspired The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway with friends (and alcohol), during the July 1925 trip to Spain that inspired The Sun Also Rises

The same patchiness applies to the characterisation. I’m not at all sure what he was trying to achieve with Lady Brett’s character – but I’m pretty sure he didn’t achieve it. She didn’t come over as a real person to me at all. Her permanent drunkenness and ridiculously promiscuous behaviour may have made many men want to sleep with her, but the idea that they all fell in love with her was a stretch too far. I felt as if she was a puppet rather than a character, her behaviour merely a device to provide reasons for strains and tensions to develop amongst the group of men.

I’m sure screeds have been written about the blatant anti-Semitism in the book and I must say I wasn’t overwhelmingly thrilled by his stereotyping of his Scottish character either. But honestly both characterisations seemed to me more like lazy regurgitations of racial caricatures than any kind of active racism, and it was the 1920s, so no doubt they seem more shocking to us now than they would have been then. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure that he wasn’t attempting to gently ridicule the prevailing anti-Semitism of his time – but if that was his intention, by leaving it ambiguous, again I feel he failed.

Painting credited to 'Matador Painter'
Painting credited to ‘Matador Painter’

However, I feel we get to know Jake well and some of the others come over as fairly well-rounded. There is a good deal of subtlety in the way he slowly reveals Jake to us as the most resilient of them all – the one who is physically damaged, but with the most emotional strength in the end. The whole ‘there’s more than one way to be masculine’ message may seem obvious in retrospect but it’s actually fed through in a gradual and almost understated way, and I felt I only really saw what Hemingway was doing as I looked back at the book after finishing.

Everything was fresh and cool and damp in the early morning. Nurses in uniform and in peasant costume walked under the trees with children. The Spanish children were beautiful. Some bootlblacks sat together under a tree talking to a soldier. The soldier had only one arm. The tide was in and there was a good breeze and a surf on the beach.

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

I’m going to confess that in the end the book impressed me considerably more than I expected. Despite my many criticisms, I found it an absorbing read that drew me into the world Hemingway was describing and made it a believable one; and my appreciation for it actually grew in the few days after I had finished reading it. I feel that it needs to be approached like an impressionist painting – when you’re close enough to see the detail it all looks a bit messy and it’s hard to make out the picture. But stand back a bit and the details recede – the constant descriptions of drunkenness, the repetitiveness, the banality of the dialogue – and the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

“No-one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

revolutionary roadFrank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

Although Yates takes us into the minds of most of the characters at points, we mainly see the world through the eyes of Frank Wheeler. The book begins as April takes part in an amateur performance of The Petrified Forest – a play with the central theme of artistic and intellectual worth trapped in a loveless and humdrum existence, but where tragedy leads to escape. No coincidence that this should be the play that Yates chose, and no coincidence either that the performance should fail badly, leaving April publicly humiliated. Already in these early pages, Yates has signalled his major themes of intellectual elitism, entrapment and failure.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

Frank once aspired to lead the life of an intellectual, perhaps to be a Hemingway, defying convention and rejecting the lifestyle of his parents. He was feted in his student days as one of the coming generation, a brilliant conversationalist who would (in some way that he never quite got around to pinning down) have an intellectual impact on the world. April – beautiful, cool, aloof – aspired to be a serious actress. Each attracted to the other’s projected image rather than to the underlying person, they seemed an ideal glittering match, until the reality of pregnancy forced them down the path of conventionality towards earning a living and making a home.

kate winslet in RR

Now they are trapped – by their children, by society, but mostly by each other. As they fail to be what they anticipated they see their failure reflected back to them from the other’s eyes. It is only when April comes up with a radical plan to allow them to regain their lost glamour as free-wheeling intellectuals that Frank begins to realise he may no longer have the courage to pursue this dream – to risk discovering that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal, the belief in which has been the foundation of his sense of snobbish superiority over his neighbours and colleagues. When April reveals that she is once again pregnant, for Frank it is an excuse to retreat back to the safety of his conventional life. But to April it’s another trap – to keep her in a lifestyle she never wanted and to prevent Frank from becoming the man she thought she was marrying. For April, the coming child is her prison – for Frank, it is his escape.

She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.

Yates is brutal to his characters, shining a light so bright there’s nowhere for them to hide. And through them, shining a light on this ’50s society, perhaps the last generation where women were still so irrevocably defined by motherhood and the men they married; and perhaps the first generation where men were beginning to question the role of masculinity in an increasingly white-collar world. Frank’s ambivalence towards his father is based on a mixture of intellectual condescension together with an unacknowledged jealousy of his physical skills, embodied in the recurring image of his father’s powerful hands.

Richard Yates
Richard Yates

Post-war, we see a generation of ordinary men who had access to higher education, often as the first in their family to do so. Where for Gatsby the American Dream was about money, birth and beauty, Yates shows the ’50s as a time of two dreams in conflict – the security of middle-class suburbia and the excitement of intellectual escape – with his characters caught between them. And yet Yates also seems to suggest that neither dream is worthy of pursuit – that somewhere along the way the lofty aspirations of previous generations have narrowed and shrunk down to this.

The place [Paris] had filled him with a sense of wisdom hovering just out of reach, of unspeakable grace prepared and waiting just around the corner, but he’d walked himself weak down its endless blue streets and all the people who knew how to live had kept their tantalizing secret to themselves, and time after time he had ended up drunk and puking over the tailgate of the truck that bore him jolting back into the army.

The ’50s were a time of huge change – the beginning of the decade still reflecting pre-war values and conventions, and the end looking forward to the surge of youth culture, sexual freedom and social upheaval that typified the ’60s. Yates brings the period brilliantly to life in this shortish novel that nevertheless has space to look not just at the characters as individuals but also at the society and culture they inhabit. His depiction of Frank’s workplace as a soulless maze of pointless paper-shuffling is superb, reflecting the growing struggle, for men in particular, to find some sense of fulfilment and worth when there is no physical input and no visible end result.

leo di caprio in rr

“Whaddya do then? Advertising man, or what?”
“ No, I work for Knox Business Machines.”
“Whaddya do there? You design the machines, or make them, or sell them, or repair them, or what?”
“Sort of help sell them, I guess. I don’t really have much to do with the machines themselves; I work in the office. Actually it’s sort of a stupid job. I mean there’s nothing – you know, interesting about it, or anything.”

Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere. A masterpiece.

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagA brilliant depiction of the hiatus between the war and the 60s and of the middle-class trying to work out a new identity in the post-war world – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagSubjective, but yes, I think so – the theme has been revisited since (and to some degree before – as Yates himself makes clear by referencing The Petrified Forest), but the setting, the climax and most of all the language within the dialogue make it innovative and original, so…achieved

Must be superbly written.

us flagMost definitely achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagOh dear…I’m going to change this criterion when I do a GAN Quest update, since I really think it’s unachievable and unreasonable. But meantime, no…this is about a specific group within America – young, white, educated, middle-class, so can’t be said to capture the entire American Experience. I also feel that, dialogue aside, the themes in this novel are not completely specific to the US – Britain and most of Western Europe were struggling with very similar issues of identity and aspiration at much the same period.

* * * * * * * * *

So with great regret, not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare Revolutionary Road to be A Great American Novel. And another truly great novel – if all the ones on my list are as good as this, the quest will be a rare treat.

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Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…

GAN Quest: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Boats against the current…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the great gatsby 2One of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, The Great Gatsby lays bare the casual recklessness and unthinking cruelty of the privileged rich in the pre-depression, prohibition era of America. Set in the summer of 1922, the book portrays the brittleness of a society still quivering from the aftershocks of WW1 and looking fearfully towards an uncertain future. The hedonism and dazzling decadence of the “Roaring Twenties” is exposed as a thin veneer over a society riven by class division, old wealth and new, and showing the first signs of a breakdown in the old social order.

The story is set in the fictitious areas of East and West Egg on Long Island. Facing each other across the bay that separates them are two mansions. The house on East Egg is the home of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, both born into wealth and privilege. On the other side lives Jay Gatsby, not just a self-made man, but self-invented. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is cousin to the Buchanans and neighbour to Gatsby, and finds himself rapidly becoming a conduit between them.

The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life.

To claim perfection for a book might be too grandiloquent (though I’m tempted), but I confidently claim that the first chapter of Gatsby is the perfect first chapter. We get to know Nick, restless from the war, running from his comfortable mid-western home to escape the weight of family expectations. But Nick is no country bumpkin – he is assured and confident, sliding effortlessly into New York high society while still retaining some of the clear-sightedness of an outsider looking in. We meet Daisy, beautiful, privileged and outwardly vulnerable; but already we begin to see the hard shell of self-preservation that exists beneath her filmy, gauzy exterior. We are shown Tom, seeking a way to fill his empty life now that his days as a football star are over – through him we see the fraying of the certainties of the established order. And as the chapter closes, we catch our first glimpse of Gatsby, thinking himself unseen, revealing his desire and his vulnerability in one simple gesture. All this in a few beautifully written pages, and with room too to give the reader a feel for the setting of the novel to come, both physical and emotional.

But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

gatsby and daisy

Gatsby himself is one of the most unforgettable characters in fiction; a self-made man to whose lavish parties New York society flocks, exploiting his hospitality while gossiping shamelessly about his murky and mysterious background. But Gatsby doesn’t care what the world thinks of him – only Daisy, the representation of all of his dreams and aspirations. For Gatsby, Daisy is the American Dream – the beauty, the wealth, the class, the privilege. And it was the odd democratisation of war that had allowed the Gatsbys and Daisys of this world to mingle – the uniform of an officer providing the entrance ticket that Gatsby’s own background didn’t give. This is a beautiful and poignant love story, but the Daisy that Gatsby loves is the memory of a dream; his pursuit is not so much of Daisy herself as of the time he holds most dear – the time when Daisy and he were in love.

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of…”
I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

F Scott Fitzgerald
F Scott Fitzgerald

Through the contrast of the Buchanans and Gatsby, Fitzgerald blasts away any idea of American society as being equal or even meritocratic and shows that, just as much as in the Old World, there is an aristocracy and upper-class who will defend at any price the privilege that their name and old wealth bestows. Gatsby’s name-change, his vagueness and lies about his background are partly to cover up the murky way he came by his wealth, but also to try to invent a background that will make him acceptable to this snobbish and exclusive elite. But he doesn’t quite pull it off – his ostentation and stilted use of what he sees as upper-class language give him away at every turn. And yet, despite his shadowy past, despite his occasional vulgarity, Gatsby shows himself to have an integrity and honesty wholly lacked by the society to which he so much wants to belong.

“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.

The first time I read Gatsby, I was so enthralled that I read it in one glorious sitting, breathless and amazed. It’s a short novel, written with a wonderful economy that allows Fitzgerald to cast a laser beam at the divisions of this class-ridden society while still creating some of the most fully-realised characters in fiction; not to mention providing a well-plotted and deeply moving story too. A masterwork of fiction, this is a book I have read many times and expect to read many more with just as much pleasure.

gatsby glasses

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagFor the light it sheds on privilege and class in 1920s society…achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagAlways going to be subjective, since my reading in US literature isn’t wide enough to be definitive – but yes, I believe the theme meets the originality requirement so…achieved

Must be superbly written.

us flagMost definitely achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagHmm…this is always going to be well-nigh impossible. Gatsby does give a very clear picture not just of the rich but also of the contrast with the ordinary working people of New York. Through the contrast of Daisy and Jordan, it shows aspects of the changing status of women. Through Tom’s fears of the future, it hints at the problems of race that are going to scar so much of the twentieth century. Through Nick’s comment at the end (“I see now that this has been a story of the West after all…perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”), a contrast is shown between the values of ‘East’ and ‘West’. I’m tempted…but am going to say no, Gatsby doesn’t capture the entire American experience – this is very much about one specific part of it. But I’m willing to be persuaded to change my mind…

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, sadly, but for achieving 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare The Great Gatsby to be A Great American Novel. And a truly great novel.

* * * * * * * * *

Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…

Great American Novel Quest

Let the Quest begin…

 

Last year I somewhat presumptuously declared in my review that Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land should be on the shortlist for the title of Great American Novel. One of the reviewers I often chat to on Amazon US asked me which other books I would shortlist. After some humming and hawing, I had to admit that my knowledge of American literature was so woeful that I couldn’t come up with anything other than The Great Gatsby and Roth’s American Pastoral. This led to a series of conversations, both on Amazon and here, about which books were deserving of the title. So now it’s time for me to get better acquainted with some of these books…let the Great American Novel Quest begin!

Great American Novel Quest

Over the next year and probably beyond that, I propose to read a contender once a month or so. Of course, life might intervene as it has a habit of doing, so this will be a fairly flexible target. During various conversations, I’ve built up a little list of recommendations (see below). I’m hoping blog readers will join in by adding to the list of contenders or telling me why the books already on the list shouldn’t be on it after all.

But the first question is – What qualities must a book possess to make it a Great American Novel?

Wikipedia says:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

Hmm! I like some of that – the representative theme, the American author – but dislike some. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to exclude books written in standard American English, or even in British English for that matter. And I don’t feel it should necessarily be epic in scope. Also, America is such a huge concept with so many different parts that I feel that to ask one book to capture the ‘American experience’ might be too much.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:

any novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.

Again hmm! That seems pretty broad to me…too broad.

An article by Kevin Hayes in the Huffington Post gives the background to the creation of the phrase as an advertising slogan. Hayes suggests that a GAN should be a ‘national epic in prose’ that would ‘encapsulate the nation’. Hayes adds another requirement:

The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.

No hmm! this time. I entirely disagree with this statement. I find innovative storytelling methods usually lead to books that last for a season rather than eternity, and for me any novel that aspires to greatness must be both timeless and a pleasure to read. (Ulysses, for example, uses innovative language – but is also reputed to be the book that is most often abandoned unfinished.) Vernacular if appropriate, beauty in the use of language certainly, but otherwise stick to the tried and tested. Let the insight be the thing that takes precedence.

So here are the criteria I’ll be judging the books against – each one achieved will gain the book 1 GAN star:-

  1. Must be written by an American author or, since the US continues to be a hub of immigration, an author who has lived long enough in the country to have assimilated its culture.
  2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing – therefore, it might be set in a historical (or even futuristic) timeframe but must still say something about the contemporary American experience.
  3. It must be innovative and original in theme – difficult to define originality in words but I suspect we all know it when we come across it. No derivations, no ‘school of’, no banality.
  4. Must be superbly written – I don’t care how insightful it might be; if it’s dull or badly-written, it’s out.
  5. For the elusive fifth star, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole. I suspect this will be an almost impossible challenge, but I hope to be proved wrong.

 

What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m starting off on the wrong track? Are there criteria you would add – or remove?

Here are the books that are currently on my list. The first 4 I already own, so they’ll be being read first. After that, the list is subject to change – I’m hoping you’ll help by telling me which books you think should be added and which you think don’t deserve to be considered…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – starting off easily with a re-read of a book I already know and love. ‘A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.’

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates‘Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream.’

The Road by Cormac McCarthy‘The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior – from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness.’

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had.’ –Ernest Hemingway

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford‘In his third Frank Bascombe novel Richard Ford contemplates the human character with wry precision. Graceful, expansive, filled with pathos but irresistibly funny, The Lay of the Land is a modern American masterpiece.’

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon‘Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope.’

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson ‘In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.’

A Hemingway novel – any suggestions for which one, bearing in mind the American theme? Should Hemingway be included at all?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck‘A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.’

Empire Falls by Richard Russo‘In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.’

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – this will be another re-read. ‘In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all the twentieth century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss.’

(All blurb extracts are from Amazon.)

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks in particular to Roger Brunyate and Matt Geyer for most of these recommendations. Both Roger and Matt review on Amazon US and I always enjoy our bookie discussions there. (Matt also comments here occasionally, and is the author of his own book, Strays – you can see my review here and, before your quite natural cynicism kicks in, the review was written before Matt and I became online friends.)