The Great American Novel, as a Scottish acquaintance of mine eloquently observed, inclines by the lay of the land it covers towards voluminosity. Breadth is mistaken for depth. The slog to get from cover to cover is a mark of authentic Americanness, a textual re-enactment of the trailblazing pioneers that traversed the vast expanse of prairie, swamp, mountain, desert, salt flats and virgin forest to appropriate the land. The pioneers laid the foundations for America’s east vs. west coast delineation: they bookended an abstract, incongruous space into a spatial unity (albeit one strewn with hostile elements and antithetical forces). The north vs. south axis represents America’s politico-historical spine. East vs west (recto/verso) is the self-constructed diaphragm binding the country into an imaginary cultural whole.
The Great American Novel is an epic trek through self-styled Americana to make sense of it all. The folksy language, the poetic turn of phrase, the hollering call to arms, the clanging bells of moral alarm, the metaphysical depictions of nature: these are the tools with which authors equip themselves for the gruelling journey ahead. Even the best authors (think Cormac McCarthy) imbue their paginated pilgrimage with a sense of religious urgency. America is the great conundrum, rivalled only by Russia, its natural counterpart, in its expansiveness and messianic leanings. The Great American Novel attempts to reconcile America’s schizophrenic origins: mercenary self-interest and religious fanaticism. For the twain historically twined into the obese, fitness-crazed, bipolar, germophobic, gun-toting, self-obsessed dystopian mess that it is today.
The almost 319 million personages that make up America will never be united. Yet the Great American Novel attempts to embody all that sprawl and drift as a singular entity. America retains a naive faith in the transformative power of the word (see Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterful “Why American Writers and Orators are Often Bombastic”). Rousing speeches galvanize underdog armies (in movies), talk down questionable legislation (on Capitol Hill), and generally win the day (in court, in courtships). Despite the vast body of evidence attesting to the spuriousness of political promises to combat inequity, Americans still rally around the Word as long as it is delivered with enough proselytizing fervour and emotional oomph. In There Will Be Blood (a self-consciously Great American Film), the preachiness which laid the shaky spiritual foundations of America was exposed for the quackery it was. Yet Americans of all stripes keep flocking to the exhausted, drained-of-all-meaning Word. They inflate it with emotion, conflate it with reason, end up committing treason to one of the many Americas they straddle. Language has reverted to the call of the wild to distinguish itself amid so much vying verbosity.
I never much cared for American literature. It seems to feel an inner compulsion to dazzle and perform tricks. Where it is explicitly intellectual, it tends to resort to the crude labelling of concepts by way of exposition. Where it is purportedly poetic, it confuses reticence and economy for profundity. That said, American writing is vastly superior to British writing in most instances (most notably in the field of journalism).
The Great American Novel, ever a work in progress, has its work cut out. America’s moral compass, which historically wavered but always ended up pointing to the next Klondike, is duped by mendacious magnetism. The north-south axis and east-west divide no longer mean a thing. There is rich and there is poor and there is a panoply of besieged identities in between. It is no coincidence that identity politics was born in America, where the fabled homestead now takes the form of a rickety selfhood. It is a country whose raison d’être is to endlessly redefine itself. America is an unprecedented experiment in identity fuelled by a culturally sanctioned rapacity and underwritten by Great American Novels. Cioran wrote that Russia poses itself as a universal problem; America, in its voraciously wordy way, poses itself as a universal question.