Dark horse picks for the Great American Novel

Herman Melville – Mardi.  Guess what, another obsessive quest.  Imagine Melville retelling Dante, but hating Christianity and seeking to revise it.  This is no less conceptual than Moby Dick, anthropologically more sophisticated, and utterly metaphysical.  Fans of Herodotus should pick this one up.  Typee is also much underrated, it is more than just a popular novel.

Vladimir Nabokov – Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.  I had to read the first two hundred pages twice and I still do not quite understand them.  The book is a dizzying array of puns, word plays, criss-crossing plots and voices, a treatise on the nature of time, and a catalog of erotic perversions, including incest.  This is Nabokov at the peak of his powers, much better than Lolita.  Someday I might think it is better than Pale Fire.  And yes it is fun reading, whether or not you know what is going on.

Ender’s Game trilogy, by Orson Scott Card.  These books are about virtual reality, the brutality of youth, game theory, the nature of war, and the implausibility of speciesism.  One hundred years from now the series will still be changing people’s lives.

Some fat potboiler probably belongs here but I can’t bring myself to write down any particular title.  Am I too hooked into the analytical and the symbolically complex?

Soon you will get my winner and the runner-ups.  Natasha tells me her winner is Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, although she warns she read it in Russian when she was nineteen.  Comments are open; do not yet put down your winner, but you are free to list your dark horses.

Comments

Wow! I read Ender's Game in High School for some project. I really liked it, and don't think I ever really thought of it in terms of ideology at that time. Furthermore, I didn't even know it was a trilogy. I will have to get those again. Who knew that back then, in my days of government education that I had a capitalist spark ignited.

I believe there is a fundamental flaw in trying to name a single Great American Novel, because the American experience is so ridiculously diverse. Still, some dark horse candidates:

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—A eulogy for the American dream. The passages about how and why the 60s counterculture failed are poignant and witty and insightful (pp. 68 and 178 of the Vintage paperback edition).

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian— in some of the most poetic language I’ve ever read, McCarthy captures the brutality of the American frontier and Americans’ perverse drive to conquer. "If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?"

The novel I started in college but never finished (a claim I share with many others).

Heller's Catch 22 and something (not sure what) by Saul Bellow. Ragtime by Doctorow.
Given the "new morality" in the US, let's add Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, just for fun.

Ender's Game is a fine series, but I have found that Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are even better. Why?

a) Snow Crash is a wonderful exploration of post-nationalism, cyberspace, language and the near future
b) The Diamond Age is a wonderful primer on how modern computers work, an exploration of an even further post-nationalist future, nanotechnology, the evolution of the Internet and the ramifications of a "post-needs" society.
c) No aliens or Ansibles.

To some degree, Snow Crash could be considered a sequel to Cryptonomicon, and The Diamond Age seems to be a sequel of sorts to Snow Crash.

I think they both show more of the 'American Gung Ho' spirit than Ender's Game, which is more of a world-government style 'everyone bands together' epic.

Don DeLillo. Surely.

Dark horses, but defensible:

To Kill a Mockingbird, because the Great American Novel really should be something that is actually accessible to the average American (which sad to say Nabakov is not)

The Big Sleep, because Phillip Marlowe is the archetypical American, both as we are and as we wish ourselves to be.

The Monkey-Wrench Gang, Ed Abbey. True, it's in the 'male fantasy' genre, but so's Huck Finn.

I suppose the criteria for the great american novel should not be constrained to the intrinsic/local merits of the book. I think it should also consider such things as the influence it may have on shaping an American ethos. Books in this vein include Uncle Tom's Cabin, a wonderful book, not tremendously innovative, but nevertheless so powerful that upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln said (or is said to have said) "So you're the little lady that started this war." Clearly a book believed to have (in jest) precipitated the Civil War merits attention, not for aesthetic reasons, but for cultural. I suppose this is what people are getting at when they suggest something like Atlas Shrugged. Not near the winner, but in this vein, I would include Elmer Gantry, Main Street and Babbit by Sinclair Lewis. These books captured the red state blue state tensions 80 years ago. While not filled with stylish fireworks, or exquisite prose, they were Lewis' attempt to, as he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, "give America a literature worthy of her vastness."

What is this, Literature as geography? Add that to "obsessive quest".

I don't suppose Stranger in a Strange Land is "dark horse" enough...

I think that the contribution of the GAN has to do a great deal with the timing. How about picking them by decade or era? Or, even by issue topic. I'd put my dark horse on Dick's, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

I agree with Matthew that The Great Gatsby deserves the nod. The many Honorable Mentions should include Raintree County (Ross Lockridge) and Guard of Honor (James Gould Cozzens). Both deal with the impact of America's greatest wars on the lives of ordinary people.

Dos Passos, USA

The first dark horse that comes to my mind is Walter Miller's _A Canticle for Liebowitz_, though it may be the great 20th century American novel. It probably doesn't have enough freakishly weird and depressing Southerners for academia, though.

That's a good question, for whom is this the Great American Novel? For academia, NYC intelligencia, the average reader, Tyler Cowen, or other?

Of course Zac (two posts above) is right, but the readers voted.

BTW, I'm thinking more "confronts themes of particular importance to some kind of American collective psyche", and less "caused or presaged major historical change" or "captured a time period in all its diversity". I've taken this tack mostly because I'm not very enthusiastic about novels in those latter categories, and so haven't read most of the major ones, let alone enough others to have a point of comparison.

My vote is cast for "The Sotweed Factor" by John Barth. Set in colonial America, but with just a splash of postmodernism.

And there's game theory. And syphillis. And hudibrastic!

More darkhorses:
Absalom, Absalom, Faulkner;
The Moviegoer, Walker Percey;
Call It Sleep, Henry Roth;
We Have Always Lived In The Castle,
Shirley Jackson;
A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley

If this is a series of blog articles about a subject Tyler's supposed to know little about, then it seems like he should spend some time discussing what makes a Great American Novel such. What about these novels qualify them for consideration? Otherwise, we'll just get a list of books Tyler thinks are Great, that are written by or about Americans (or America), and happen to be in Novel form. That seems weak to me. For a novel to qualify it seems like it should deal with the idea of America - what it means to be an American, the problems and tragedies (as well as the hopes) of the American experience, etc. (which someone rightly noted is ridiculously diverse). Perhaps on the next list of titled we'll be told why they seem to qualify for consideration.

Someone once said that where Britain has its major social division along class lines, America's great divide is along racial lines. This seems right. America also had one great, profound historical divide that will (or at least should) always live somewhere in the back of the minds of those who claim to be Americans - the Civil War. So there are two big issues to consider for the Great American Novel (not necessary conditions - the diversity of the American experience allows that many things will qualify, but sufficient to be counted as essentially American).

And what deals with these two divides better than anything I've encountered?

Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom.

Still a darkhorse (and not my winner), but always to be considered, and for the reasons I mention.

Second on Absolom, Absolom, & Blood Meridian, for the same reasons mentioned above; would also suggest: All the King's Men; and Gatsby probably can't be ignored. Include Arrowsmith with the 3 Lewis novels mentioned, maybe Drieser's "American Tragedy"....
Shocked (and thankful) nobody has mentioned Confederacy of Dunces, although probably deserves a revisit after/due to recent history.

Based on nothing more compelling than personal preferences, I must nominate The Barefoot Brigade, by Douglas Jones. Now for the $20 question: has anyone else read it?

Ah, but Doug, Ender's Game is in America... just one radically changed by world catastrophe and supernationalism brought on by said catastrophe (make up a crisis and you're allowed to do anything... first rule of civilization)

Marge Piercy, Gone to Soldiers. A wonderful WWII-era tapestry of lives on the war front and the home front.

Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence. Or almost anything else she wrote.

Jane Smiley, Moo. A weaving of the lives of undergraduates and faculty at Moo University, a large land-grant state university in the Midwest.

And, yes, Faulkner (though I would pick Light in August).

The Caine Mutiny. Wouk made a meta-claim for the designation by having one of the characters furiously working on The Great American Novel throughout his novel.

But I mostly think of all the young men (~20-40) I meet who say that they are writing the great american novel. Women who are working on novels never say this. So other than the occasional literary proclamation, I think of the GAN as a tremendous number of unfinished manuscripts, whose authors have resolved their identity crises in more conventional ways. A critical survey of these might reveal a set of themes or another Confederacy of Dunces.

That said- howabout The Outsiders by SE Hinton?

My other dark horse picks:
1. For Faulkner, "As I lay Dying"
2. "Deliverance". (actually, that would be my high school english teacher's pick. really.)
3. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"
4. Breakfast at Tiffany's, the novel
5. and I second the mentions of "Death Comes for the Archbishop" and "Gone With the Wind"

Here's my votes :
Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
East of Eden, Steinbeck

Pot Boiler : Kavalier and Clay

I do agree with Enders Game. All the sequels are very good but nothing as outstanding as the original book. Thanks for reminding me of that book, it's one of my all time favs and will have to be revisited.

Fight Club is a terribly mediocre book. Fincher did the book justice with an excellent movie.

Gatsby has to be the first among equals although I have sentimental leanings towards Catcher in the Rye.

LaSota's comments are right on the mark.

Technically its "The Great American Novel" by Philip Roth.

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