Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Great American Novels

The Great Gatsby is shit. It's a ponderous tome full of Midwestern moralizing against the far more interesting and fun urban Northeast. And it's the worst sort of Protestant moralizing, where not the sin but the pleasure derived from it is seen as the real evil.

So the hell with Gatsby and all the idiots who think they're deep because they can name drop it once it's made into a movie. Again. Today we're gonna talk about those American novels that don't suck. In fact, these are the books that define American Literature as something not only separate from the rest of the Anglophone canon, but better in every way.

Portnoy's Complaint
When I wanted to think of a counterpoint that Gatsby is some grand work, this sprang immediately to mind. There's more gut-twisting truth to a single page of this than there is in the whole of Fitzgerald's turgid doorstopper - from the chronic anxiety over his parents to his desperate search for sexual release, Alex Portnoy is so very American. He wants it all and strives ceaselessly, turning himself into a gibbering neurotic mess. And all delivered in a breathless monologue to his psychiatrist.
Dog of the South
Yes, I've brought this up before. It's still worth your time because no other writer - except one we'll be getting to - really has a grasp on the American South. And Portis is rarer still in that he doesn't romanticize the former Confederacy. He sees them for what they are, in all their smallness, but still treats them as whole people. Driving to Belize to get your car back may not be Journey to the West but it's the closest many poor bastards born in Arkansas can hope for.

The best book on World War II that isn't a real history and better than Catch-22 by virtue of actually being funny. Vonnegut's experimental, sci-fi framing device doesn't even detract from the tragedy of Dresden he witnessed and even when the humor is at it's blackest he holds a very clear sympathy for all parties involved, from the put upon Billy Pilgrim to the trash-talking vato who will one day vaporize Billy's head.

Naturalism as a literary genre began in America and nobody ever did it better than Frank Norris. Everyone from the title character to the reflexively lying chambermaid are such stark, brutal, and unsympathetic characters... Yet Norris never judges them. They do terrible things for rational reasons - or not - and Norris merely reports. And in so doing, he paints a picture as wide open, awe-inspiring, and existentially terrifying as the unforgiving desert where his tale comes to an end.

The Crying of Lot 49
The best thing Pynchon ever wrote and not just because it's the shortest. This book is both an excellent slice of postmodernism while utterly taking the piss out of the whole genre. In less than two hundred pages, every cultural movement of the Sixties collides into a grand mystery that means nothing. The whole point is that there is no point, an obnoxiously condescending theme if handled by anyone else as Pynchon brings us to the revelation with some of the most laugh-out-loud funny writing this side of Wodehouse.

A Scanner Darkly
What list of great American novels would be complete without an entry on our very own Balzac? Philip K. Dick began his career mucking around in science fiction but consistently wrote beyond the conventions of that genre. And no place more than this book - an exploration of all the drug experimentation and security state paranoia that has so defined the culture for the past forty years, all centered on very human characters. Even that conniving jerk-off, Barris. If you can only point to one thing Dick excelled at, it was constructing characters so vivid and so intimate that we love them not in spite but because of their all too familiar flaws.

Everything by Mark Twain
You wanna talk evils of the rich? Twain was doing that before Fitzgerald was even born, with his scathing novel The Gilded Age. And this came after everyone already loved him for Tom and Huck. Every other writer here owes something to Twain because he set the standard for great American writing - keep it low and funny. Don't try to get all fancy like Joyce, stick to the ugly and ridiculous reality of the human condition. Which leads us to...

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
What can I say that hasn't been said before and better? The magnum opus by the finest and bravest American writer of the 20th century still holds up today because in a way we haven't moved on. Thompson chronicled the collapse of the American dream in a book so short he probably never gave it that much thought, but which so accurately reflects the broken hedonism of the counter-culture and the seething hatred of all things fun by the Bad Old World, as exemplified when Thompson and his lawyer go tripping balls right into a cop convention.

Low and funny. That's what all the great American writing is made from and not just because it trades so heavily in sex and drugs. But that visceral, almost populist approach to prose allows American writers to get dug in, to show the effects of all the Big Themes and Big Ideas on real blood and bones humans. And it leads to them building up a brilliant comic wit by necessity - "If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh. Otherwise they'll kill you."

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