Sunday, October 08, 2006

Russell Banks

Last night I went to the Dewey Lecture at the Downtown Library. Russell Banks talked about canon formation, using the occasion of the New York Times poll of "the most significant novel of the last 25 years." His choice was Ironweed by William Kennedy, because, he said, it's the book he most wishes he had written.
I think that's a good standard for making a list of novels. He talked a lot about the folly of making end of the year lists and best novels of the century and such things. But he did come up with a list of five things that good novels must tell us:
  1. Who we are
  2. Where we came from
  3. The names and powers of our gods
  4. Who our enemies are
  5. How to protect ourselves from enemies

He said the Great American Novel is a mythical creature, like a hippogrif. He said it is a book that is still being written. I think it is almost an impossible task, at this point in our national history. Can one novel encompass everything? Isn't it rather presumptuous to believe that one novel can speak to the many aspects of what it means to be American?

I don't know, but I think I would have to have voted like Banks, choosing a novel I just liked or wished I had written, rather than trying to decide which was "most significant." For the most part I find "important" novels boring. Middlesex and The Corrections come to mind as novels that try to be important and The Great American Novel at the outset. I liked Middlesex, but I preferred the narrator's story to the larger immigrant story. I couldn't read The Corrections. I read about ten pages and thought if I had to read one more description of magazines piled around the house, I was going to scream.

Just thinking about it now, I'd have to say that the novels that come to mind as my favorites are not American, but British or Canadian. And if I had to pick just one novel? Just one American novel? Aargh! I can't do it!

But just for the record, of the novels nominated in the NYTimes poll, I loved Underworld, but I wonder if it will age well. It seems so much of our time. I do love Beloved, but I loved it less the second and third times I read it. I haven't read any Roth since Goodbye, Columbus. I just can't stand that much discussion of masturbation. Banks said last night that John Irving voted for himself.

Actually, thinking about it just now, I have to wonder why Sherman Alexie didn't get any nods. If there is one aspect of American culture that needs illumination, I think it is Native American culture. I loved Reservation Blues and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Middlebrow suggested to me that maybe it's a problem of genre: my favorite American writers are short story writers. Ron Carlson, for example, is one of the best. Jesus's Son by Denis Johnson and The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien both received some votes in the poll. The other book I might have voted for is All The Pretty Horses, though again, it pales upon revisitation. Notice another problem with all these titles? Yep. All men. The other book I thought of was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which Middlebrow mentions is really a novella.

Which leads me to the question, is the Great American Novel a masculine conceit? Do women's novels, because they tend to (gross overgeneralization) focus on more intimate portraits, automatically fail to be a Great American Novel? I think maybe so. I think our conception of the Great American Novel excludes many fine novels by women, just by virtue of the definition of the GAN.

So maybe I would make a protest vote: Break it Down by Lydia Davis. It's a book I wish I had written. It's short stories.

So what about you? Cast your vote and be counted!


middlebrow said...

The men got together and rigged the Great American Novel game from the outset.

susansinclair said...

Bastard Out of Carolina.

Lisa B. said...

I'm still voting for Underworld. I have read it several times and it holds up well, and actually, I think it speaks quite eloquently for an entire half century, not just for our time. So it totally gets my vote.

runners-up: Housekeeping--how is it a novella? It's 200 pages long. It's a short novel.

Actually, Cloudsplitter, one of Banks's. That book blew my mind and continues to reverberate there.

Counterintuitive said...

I was appalled (in a good way) and engrossed by All the Pretty Horses. But my favorite at the moment, and this is biased as just this weekend pulled it off the shelf to discuss it with my father-in-law who was re-reading it, would be Cold Mountain. It blew me away and was still good as I reread several passages.

And I do have two men--there's something to that idea that it's male concept. I'd have to reread Housekeeping...I think I'd still like it. I loved Beloved when I read it in college but on short revisits (I've never reread the whole thing) it just doeesn't seem as good as it once did.

ErinAlice said...

Okay this is so out of my league, if it's not Apple's Ideology and Curriculum then I haven't read it in the last couple of years. I do agree that the concept of the GAN is quite masculine. The term Great American is a masculine concept. In protest I nominate any book in the Harry Potter series. Because they were (and are) written by a British woman, becuase he compared the GAN to a hippogrif and cause crazy housewives who think that the Onion is a legitimate online periodical, try to ban them from school libraries!!!Sweet.

ErinAlice said...

Okay I reread my post and I did not mean legitimate, I meant nonsatrical or "serious".....just a side my friend wore a shirt he bought from The Onion that says "It's not a crack house, it's a crack home."

Sleepy E said...

I'd vote for The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme, but then, I think it was written in the 70s. That, and I haven't read it in 9 years and it probably isn't relevant anymore. But it seems to tackle all of the main criteria, while keeping the structure of a mythological quest. And it is hilarious.

I think there is a tragic lack of comedy in these selections....something we also see in the film world at Oscar time. All of the big winners are deadly serious. Deadly serious.

Lisa B. said...

No, Underworld has some amazingly funny parts and he's in general very witty. Also, there are long Lenny Bruce passages that are like DeLillo's channelling him.

Okay, I'm obviously the chair of the "DeLillo is the GANovelist" committee. Sorry. I really, really love that book.

Also, I do love Donald Barthelme, for the record, and he is really funny.

Anonymous said...

okay, i basically am voting for the great european novel and well, here admist sherry and olives, I'll just tell you what ISN'T going to make it and that's that French Hollenbecq guy's pathetic attempt at the philosophical novel..(elemental particles).hopefully none of you have bothered with him, but he's been all the rage (only because he causes a stir and we all know the old world over here needs some stiring).

Does Canada count for great AMERICAN or is it only USA? Can we vote for Hundred years of solitude?