Every day on my lunch break I make some time to read. Whether it’s in the park near my office, or in the corner of my L-shaped break room where I sit quietly and unintentionally scare everyone that comes in to use the microwave, I take in at least a few pages of my current literary selection. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of, well, crazy-depressing books. So, when I grabbed Jim Shepard’s novel, The Book of Aron, from my desk without knowing what it was about, I was surprised to find (not sure why) the jacket teasing a narrative about a young boy in the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, circa World War II. Not exactly uplifting.
I did read that book (and highly recommend it) but after reading the blurb on the jacket I picked up my phone and messaged a friend requesting a few lighter literary recommendations.
She pointed me in the direction of The Nix by Nathan Hill. I put it on hold at the library and by the time I was done with Shepard’s amazing but crazy-depressing novel, it was there waiting for me – all 620 pages of it. I read the “advance praise” on the back cover and was happy to find glowing remarks from John Irving and Ben Percy; two authors I’ve read and enjoyed. It was a line in Ben Percy’s review that struck me the most: “Pay attention,” he says, “This is what a Great American Novel looks like.”
I thought I was in for a long, humorous ride, but I only made it 77 pages before putting the book down and not picking it up again. It felt a bit unhinged: the writing quick, but the development slow. The humor purposeful, but I didn’t care about the characters. And perhaps this is simply a sign of the times, but it was just too true to life. The hyperbole and pop-culture-reality aspect of it was a little too close to home. The two narrators I encountered were video-game-addicted men wallowing in their own deficiencies. The driving plot point – the main character’s estranged mother arrested for throwing gravel at a Republican presidential candidate – too much like something I would read in the news. The characters felt like cliches of cliches. And all of this made me go back to Percy’s praise: What exactly is a “Great American Novel” anyway?
I began my search where anyone trying to find the answer to a question in 2017 starts – oh hi, Google – and was confronted with a barrage of lists. Have I read the 15, 32, 100, 200 (!) best American novels of all time? No, of course I haven’t. Honestly, who has? But I have read some of them (sometimes quite a few) and in perusing these lists I wasn’t surprised to find names like Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and a lot of other well-regarded, primarily white male authors from the American literary canon. I also found a small handful of women – though mainly Harper Lee and Toni Morrison on repeat – and was particularly pleased to see The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz mentioned more than once. But the titles also varied greatly and there was really no clarity gained.
But the Great American Novel—the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence—the American "Newcomes" or "Miserables" will, we suppose, be possible earlier. "Is it time?" the benighted people in the earthen jars or commonplace life are asking. And with no intention of being disagreeable, but rather with sympathetic sorrow, we answer, "Wait." At least we fear that such ought to be our answer. This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially—in the production of a few outlines.
DeForest goes on to explain that despite claims, Irving hadn’t done it, Cooper hadn’t done it, and while Beecher-Stowe hadn’t done it, she’d come close. Hawthorne certainly hadn’t done it. And so my question remained. What DeForest did give me was the first outline of what I was looking for: “...the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence…”
In a piece in the LA Times in 2016, Carolyn Kellogg gathers a handful of critics together to discuss, “The Great American Novel: A book that most perfectly imagines the kaleidoscope of our nation, its social fabric and its troubled conscience, its individual voices and strivings, our loves and losses.” The description has evolved, but the general idea is there. What is America? Who is America?
So at this point I have to admit that The Nix kind of fits the mold. In the short section that I did read, there’s a 2-page non-stop rant from a student of the narrator (failed writer and resentful English teacher) that begins with her explaining why she won’t let him fail her (after plagiarizing a paper) and ends with:
And besides all of this now I have a flat tire on my bike and one sink in our kitchenette is plugged up and my roommate’s gross hair is always all over the shower and sticking to my lavender bar soap and my mom had to give away our beagle because she cannot deal with that level of responsibility right now and there’s all these low-fat ham cubes in our refrigerator that are like three weeks old and starting to smell and my best friend had an abortion and my internet’s broken.
As the scene moves forward, the narrator calls the student dumb, and she accuses him of trying to seduce her. Ahem. “...the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence...”
At a point the concept became generational. It’s widely agreed that it won’t be just one, but many that will fit the category over time. It creates competition: Who will be the next one? The designation has also become steeped in irony. Philip Roth – who happens to hold a solid place in most of the ubiquitous lists – even wrote a satirical novel called The Great American Novel.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri gives us a guide for writing such a novel. I highly recommend reading the full list, but here are a couple of highlights:
• affluent family lives in suburb. The husband (who is a professor but also a novelist) is cheating on his wife, but he thinks it falls into a moral gray area because he is a Great Man
• 16 pages imagining how a woman feels about something that perfectly explain why the author is now divorced
I laughed out loud. Anyone who’s ever read Jonathan Franzen will relate. Because what is a Great American Novel, other than the continuation of the Great American Boys’ Club? And this isn’t where I commence to rant about inequality in literature – the problem is huge and frustrating, and I can only hope we are slowly making progress. And I can’t discount the literary talent of most who receive their GAN merit badges. But I agree with Cheryl Strayed in her New York Times piece: “Never mind that this idea — that one person, and only one person, in any given generation can possess the intellectual prowess, creative might, emotional intelligence and writing chops to produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole — is pure hogwash.”
So I didn’t give The Nix a fair chance. Perhaps I should have had a bit more patience. When Jason Sheehan reviewed it for NPR he said: “It broke my heart, this book. Time after time. It made me laugh just as often. I loved it on the first page as powerfully as I did on the last, and I think I was right, right from the start. Because Nathan Hill? He's gonna be famous. This is just the start.”
I suppose I’m reading it through a different lens than Irving or Percy or even Sheehan. And perhaps I’m just taking life too seriously. But if the things being satirized make me roll my eyes, it’s possible the satire itself will bring a similar reaction. The book is still about the subject at hand, even if we’re laughing at the problem.
And here’s where I do commence to rant the tiniest bit about inequality: Let’s take a break from straight white male characters struggling with their own deficiencies. I do not agree that this represents anything particularly Great or specifically American. It’s not my America. And it’s not the average of our nation’s experience as a whole. Strayed addressed the idea that it can’t just be one person, but it also can’t just be one type of person. My conclusion? Good books are good books. Good writing is good writing. Let’s throw out the label entirely.