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Great American Novel, Recent Attempts At

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This post is about Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. If you do not want to read a lengthy and spectacularly irresponsible preface about the whole concept of the Great American Novel, please scroll down and skim appropriately.

But I guess if you don’t like overlong introductions then you probably aren’t into Infinite Jest. I don’t know. Just read it.

The thing with the Great American Novel is that it might already have been written. Or it’s possible that it was written and then became obsolete, or that it has never been written. But as a kind of White Whale (I’ll come back to that) of American Literature I personally think it’s mostly a myth. Probably a number of different people have executed the feat of Defining This Country in the space of let’s say four-to-eleven-hundred words of fiction.

I think Moby-Dick, for instance, succeeded here, and probably don’t have to do much arguing for it. Melville created, in addition to incredibly round and interesting characters, a genuine sense of longing for achievement, a desire for and a certain semi-accidental efficacity at building an American mythology. It’s meaningful that when Melville was writing, America really didn’t have a history, to speak of. Other than slavery and a fairly sizeable pre-national rebellion against a folklore. Anyway, Moby-Dick is awesome for many reasons I don’t have room to spell out.

I think rather than encumber new readers with a paragraph about every solid whack at a Great American Novel I can think of, I’m just going to offer a list. Feel free to quibble in the comments section, though it’s never been my habit to change my mind. Ok, enough prefatory apologies:

More successful attempts at Great American Novel, in their eras:

The Scarlet Letter
The Great Gatsby

Then for some reason obscure to me people only wrote incredibly awesome books in or about other countries (Ireland and Russia spring to mind) after 1922, for a while. There were some American books also, but in my view they were only very good. Unless you are thinking of On the Road, which I hated and thought was not only not about America but not about anyone other than Jack Kerouac and his various cronies.

But I’ve lost my main point. Oh, here it is: only after things started to get really full-on systems-go postmodern did Great American Novels start getting written again. It is rumored that William Gaddis was one author in this new tradition, though I am unqualified to speak on him. But in my cripplingly biased and malnourished weltanschauung, JR was the first in the wave of subsequent postmodern Great American Novels.

Then eventually you get Underworld, which is folklorically awesome. It has been pointed out to me that Underworld coasts in large part on the merits of its preface, which eventually was republished as the novella Pafko at the Wall, a retelling of the final game of the 1951 pennant race. I swear, even if you don’t like baseball, these sixty pages of fiction will convince you that the guys who played for the 1951 Giants, especially Bobby Thompson, are actual like bronze-blood-infused demigods. Which creates an American mythology, and that, if you can recall 35 minutes ago when I was writing to you about the virtues of Moby-Dick, is what it’s about, see. I’m not so nihilistic about Underworld that I think all 800 pages are worth only the first 60, but if you have somewhere to be I’d recommend reading just Pafko.

And this brings me finally to the crown jewel of postmodern American fiction, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This book is like head-bendingly amazing. I looked over the history of blogcritics to see what has been written about this book, and all I found was a post from someone (nameless, I’m not a McCarthyist for crying out loud) who questioned the notion of reading 1100 pages about a tennis prodigy. To that I say, one, it’s not 1100 pages about a tennis prodigy, only like 600 are about that. Then there’s an additional 100 about a professional punter, and 400 about a recovering Demerol addict. I will further add that each one of these pages is so well-written it’ll make you blind. These pages are also hysterically funny, and stomach-punchingly adept at forcing you to stare the creepy solipsism of the modern ironic condition in its weird, beady cyclops eye.

Wallace published this magnum opus in 1996, and in that time, I’ll admit, the government has not, as he pseudo-prognosticated, reimagined itself a loose confederation of North American nations. But almost everything Wallace wrote has come true in some more metaphorical way. This book is killing you and you don’t even know it.

Great American Novels, say what you want. But anyone believes Infinite Jest is about a tennis prodigy is only right inside a very specific tunnel. Its scope metastasizes on every page. It’s the largest, richest novel you can possibly cram into its meager 1100 pages.

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About Kirt Manwaring

  • Eric Olsen

    great job Kirt, welcome! You’ve convinvced me to pick this monster up again – I’ve owned it for years but never been able to get past the girth.

  • There can be multiple Great American Novels, can there not?

    Some would say Neal Stephenson’s “The System Of The World” is the GAM, some the Dark Tower series.

    One shall delve into Infinite Jest, O Great One

  • I haven’t read any Stephenson, though I’ve heard his praises sung before (perhaps not as highly…)

    Anyway, sure, have more than one Great American Novel, I’m largely open to that. However that may be, DFW is not messing around here. It takes signficant measures of in- and perspiration to get through his tome, but I can’t ever remember being so entertained and fulfilled at the same time.

  • Kirt –

    First off, very interesting and provocative review.

    About the Great American Novel: why does an American novel have to “define” America to be “great”? Can it not be a masterpiece of storytelling written by an American about Americans in America?

    As I just argued elsewhere, my two choices for top spot in 20th Century novels and, by extension, the Great American Novel, are Kerouac’s On the Road and Stephen King’s The Gunslinger (or the entire Dark Tower series if you like, Aaman!).

    On the Road is the classic outsider story, the classic road story as told by a seeker manic for truth and kicks and adventure outside the quickly solidifying strictures of post-WW II life. It’s also a classic buddy story, a romance if you like, and the rollercoaster of ultra-highs and lows that only the road can bring. It has influenced generations of writers and pushed many — including yours truly — to head West to seek fortune and glory.

    Finally: I’d like to hear more about Infinite Jest. So far I know that it’s really long and about, in part, tennis.

  • I picked up “Infinite Jest” this evening – I must say I am very pleased with it’s early pages – makes Tom Wolfe’s “Charlotte Simmons” look weak and cardboard-like, not that Tom Wolfe is not a fine writer.

    Thank you for the call out – I just think you might have spent more time on the actual book review and broken the analysis of the GAM into a separate post

  • Of course each person has their own vision of the GAM. And perhaps that’s all that is needed. But the Great American Novel would be something based on consensus. Which is why I think I’ll soon make that a feature of my young Web site.

    Step up, step up. Submit your nomination for GAM.

  • I’ve written it a few years from now

  • Temple – You have my vote(s). I imagine I’ll be the anchor on the “pop fiction” side of the spectrum. Let’s hear from the literary types!

  • OK i’ll get that going tomorrow.

  • I think that the key thing about the Great American Novel is that the writer won’t set out to write it and the critics won’t recognize it as such at the time it’s written.

    Plus Elmore Leonard has written a whole series of GAMs over the last 20 years. It’s not likely to get much better.

    Oh, and to whoever mentioned The Dark Tower should hang his head in shame. To even be a decent novel the author has to make at least a minimum effort at writing decently, and King’s turgid, disjointed, incomprehensible and barely literate crap masquerading as fiction at best aspires to mediocrity. This is the work of a writer who peaked 30 years ago with The Shining and has steadily gone down hill and phoned in his work more and more since then. His inspiration went on vacation and took the remains of his talent with it.


  • I agree on Leonard, who has written some of the finest crime fiction in American literature.

    However, I couldn’t disagree more on King. Have you even read the first installment of The Dark Tower (The Gunslinger)? In any event, it was originally published in 1982, with a revised (mostly to the good) manuscript published recently.

    It’s an epic story, a fantasy Western with iconic characters and wonderful narration. It’s finely written, a haunting tale of the search for salvation and for the redemption of all worlds. It’s funny and strange and frightening and magical and wonderful. I’ve read it at least half a dozen times and never get tired of it.

    So no, I won’t hang my head in shame, Dave, for calling attention to a book I (and millions besides) love dearly.

    It’s a wonderful extension and interpretation on grand storytelling in the tradition of Dickens and Tolkien, and it’s one of the reasons I became a writer.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash


    Lots of talking points here:
    In a way, “ON the Road” is a great and truly American novel, Sure, it is a bit sloppy, and appeals to males of a certain age far more than it does to females or those who did not read it until after college (a SWAG, but valid), but I challenge anyone to find me another novel that is comparable to it and set in another country. OtR is a product of its times, but if Kerouac had been in another country at another time, would he have had the right factors to make into an equally great novel?

    There is a big difference in my view between a great novel written by an American, a great novel set in America, and the Great American Novel, that is a novel that captures America, its people and the protagonist(s)’ place in it. Throughout the world, readers take previous older works from other culture, the Greeks, Romans, Shakespeare, Cervantes, etc. and embrace it as a great work, because of universal themes and other facets, but not some great regional work, they can’t relate to it. In a similar manner, books that are uniquely American (which I have neither time or space to define here) won’t be recognized as great by the world because they are uniquely American. I probably have not made my point clear, but it had to be made.

  • A good list, really—though JR (or, better yet, though not on the list The Recognitions) stands out in this list for me. Funny how Underworld keeps showing up on these lists—it’s not even nearly DeLillo’s best work. Of all of his novels, Libra seems the most *American*.

    The novel I would add to this list is Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion. A wild book, chock-full of America—the attempt to tame the land, brother vs. brother, etc., etc.

  • Pinner

    Waitanminute here…All this love for Wallace is giving me a headache. First off, I admit to not having read Infinite Jest, but I also admit to not having the desire to. By reputation, I just don’t see myself enjoying it, but that is a prejudgement, I admit.

    However, all discussions of OtR aside (which I would call the Great American Just Post Adolescent Novel), I wonder at the lack of Pynchon on this list. Gravity’s Rainbow is one of, if not the, best novels ever written, and despite taking place largely in Europe, it is such a masterful exploration of American history as to be simply astounding. What other book ties together Puritanism, WWII, Rocketry, and even events happening after the book ends (the cold war) into a musical send-up of almost every movie made before 1960? It’s amazing to say the least. Pynchon’s whole body of work could qualify for these distinctions, from Mason and Dixon with its strange view on the art of storytelling in America, to Lot 49 and its whirlwind view of the paranoia of mid-twentieth century America. Anyone who thinks King qualifies for GAN needs to read Pynchon.

  • Thanks for all this feedback guys. Let me address a couple of points, quickly:

    1. About on On the Road. I’ll agree it captured the essence of its team, though of all the beat writers I was only ever able to stomach Ginsberg. This is partly a reflection of my age, but that fact, in turn, points out that Kerouac did not communicate with anyone other than his own coterie (understood broadly).

    2. About Gaddis. I haven’t read The Recognitions, but was led to understand that it concerns itself in an important way with Dutch painting. Without having read a word of anything, I chose J R just as a nod to an important figure about whom I know very little.

    3. Now, Gravity’s Rainbow. One: a phenomenal piece of writing. Incredibly grandiose and complex. Also, prurient and in some ways insufferable. I think Pynchon is a master at his craft, and probably a real jerk on top of that. I liked The Crying of Lot 49 very much, but didn’t find it expansive enough to be a candidate for this discussion. (Let’s face it; it’s just a matter of taste, the whole Great American Novel thing. It’s like personal grandstanding, and I knew that when I posted. But it fetches arguments, so why not?) Lot 49 does take a nice dig at L.A., though, a city I happen to think has it coming.

    And, finally, DeLillo. Libra is higher-order fiction. It’s DeLillo’s most insightful and human work, though not as funny as White Noise. The reason I chose Underworld has to do with creating an American mythology, which is the thing I’ve been after from the get-go. It’s sort of an unrefined and swollen theory of mine, but I’ll post about it another time. Also, I love baseball and can’t help being swayed a little.

    It interests me that no one has defended Philip Roth yet…

  • Because Roth actually “wrote” The Great American Novel?

  • Naz

    Though I’ve only read about half of the novels on your list I think it fair to say you ommitted a couple GREAT american novels.

    Sister Carrie: Theodore Dreiser

    The Bostonians: Henry James

    I think these are two novels that, had they been allowed to shape America through lasting discourse, would have led to a better America.

    These are novels (along with the Great Gatsby) that tackled the rotten at the heart of America.

    Surely in the new America, where the rotten core has spread to the surface, a new Great American novel will focus on the problems with America and seek to remedy them.

  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • Nick Jones

    “This is the work of a writer who peaked 30 years ago with The Shining and has steadily gone down hill and phoned in his work more and more since then.”

    Finally, someone who came to the exact same conclusion as I did.

  • Two wrongs don’t make a right, and all that

  • “Surely in the new America, where the rotten core has spread to the surface, a new Great American novel will focus on the problems with America and seek to remedy them.”

    It sounds like you’re describing the Shitty American Novel of Ideas.

    I tend to flee any novel that attempts to remedy anything.

  • Well said, Rodney.

    Generally speaking, I seek out one thing and one thing only from a novel: a good story that captures and keeps my interest.

  • Steve

    Infinite Jerst is my favorite novel and DFW my favorite author. BTW if you like IJ, try also DFW’s “The Broom of the System”, but stay away from “Conversations With Hideous Men.”

    I also loved “Oblivion,” but it is a very different book.

    Much as I love it, IJ is NOT the great American novel. I submit, it does not want to be.
    To mention IJ and Moby Dick in the same sense is a serious mistake. IJ is a post modern classic, or at least is should be. It is driven by theme and style. The great American Novel is driven by plot. A couple of favorite examples of the latter include Poor No More, by Rober Roark, and, more contemporarily, Middlesex, by Jefferey Euginedes.

    Also, BTW begins with Gaddis’s “the Recognitions,” not “JR.”

  • “The great American Novel is driven by plot.”

    Who says?

  • sydney

    Well there has been relatively few or insignificant American developments or advances with regard to form or style of the novel. So they can’t be the sole factors defining what the great American novel is.

    Other countries have contributed similar developments or experiments with the novel form.

    So that leaves American ideas, attitudes and opinions as the distinctive element.