Is there such as thing as The Great American Novel? How should we define the term, and which authors, if any, have produced titles that deserve this crowning accolade? In a recent podcast, writers Elizabeth Gilbert and Adam Gopnik took up these questions with a great deal of perspicacity, discussing the Great American Novel (let’s call it G.A.N.) as it was understood historically and in its modern day iterations.
For starters, a simply great novel– as I see it -should strive to elucidate some essential feature of the human experience, and in particular, human experience in the author’s day and age. But is there an added criterion for the Great American Novel?
Gilbert and Gopnik begin by distancing the G.A.N. from the Great European Novel. The Great European Novel is epitomized in cross-sectional novels such as Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which attempt to catalogue life as it exists at each level of society. This formula does not work in a country like America, where we have no ennobled class and (ostensibly) a more equalized distribution of wealth and privilege. Rather, as a country of immigrants, American society is best understood as a kind of melting pot – a medley of people with disparate backgrounds, cultural mentalities, and beliefs. A G.A.N., then, would be a novel like Moby-Dick or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – books in which a diverse group of people are forcibly thrown together, stirred up, and let loose.
From my own reading list, I can see how this melting pot formula applies. Donna Tartt’s recent book The Goldfinch, first instance, utilizes it when the protagonist Theo gets stuck in a crowded museum during a bombing. During this moment of crisis, Theo is drawn to the side of an elderly man named Welty, whose dying request is that Theo steal Carel Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch and carry it out of the museum;obeying the dying man’s request charters Theo’s course for the remainder of the novel. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto also fits the bill. In an unspecified South American country, a terrorist group holds a group of party guests hostage for a period of several months. The result: relationships are forged not only amongst the hostages, but also across hostage-terrorist lines.
There are others, of course. And yet for each novel I determined to meet Gilbert and Gopnik’s criteria, there was one which did not, and which I believed nonetheless deserved the title of G.A.N. Take The Great Gatsby, for instance. An undeniable classic, Gatsby gets at a different type of phenomenon that is uniquely American – the possibility for self-invention. Along with Gatsby, you can throw in works like Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Cather’s One of Ours, and Miller’s Death of a Salesman – all starring ardent, idealistic protagonists determined to make their way in the world according to their own definition of “success.”
At the moment, I happen to be reading a book that qualifies as a G.A.N. along both of these axes: Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. In the summer of 1974, Jules Jacobson – the funny, ambitious protagonist of The Interestings – attends an exclusive summer arts camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods. There she meets and befriends five others campers, all of them talented budding artists who inspire in Jules a mixture of envy, fear and adoration. Dubbing themselves The Interestings and attempting to blanket their ambition in a sheath of irony, the group of six sets out to make their mark on the world.Wolitzer charts their progress across several decades, observing as several achieve the success they once dreamed of, and several others resign themselves to more practical occupations. Through Jules – who struggles to reconcile herself to the latter category – Wolitzer is able to offer a fresh look at the age-old question of success, proposing, ultimately, that we might just find ourselves content with a less-exacting definition.
So yes, Wolitzer’s book offers us both a colorful and diverse cast of characters – thrown together at an adolescent summer camp – and a conversation about the possibility of self-invention. It is a G.A.N. if there ever was one. And yet waving a flag of greatness over The Interestings seems counter to everything that The Interestings stands for. Instead, I will simply congratulate Wolitzer on producing a touching and important book, and, in the spirit of that work, I will propose that there may not be a best definition of The Great American Novel, and perhaps that is the way it should be.
That’s all for now. Make sure to stay tuned for future blog posts from yours truly, SWS.