I don’t think there is such a thing as “The Great American Novel.” No country or culture is expressible in its entirety in a single work of any kind. The character of a nation can only be expressed cumulatively, through the efforts of many writers and readers all seeking their own idiosyncratic answers to the questions of life. That said, who doesn’t love book lists? So, with all the attention The Great Gatsby has gotten recently, I’ve put together a list of books that could also be “The Great American Novel,” books you might not have read or heard of or thought about in this context, that do everything The Great Gatsby does that makes it considered “The Great American Novel.” I’m also not going to include a few of the works often talked about with Gatsby; Moby-Dick, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Sound and the Fury.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. America was built on slavery and few books communicate the emotional experience of the trauma of slavery as well as Beloved. In a sense, as a nation we are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from a couple centuries of crimes against humanity. We are still haunted by the ghosts of slavery, even if some of us mistake the haunting for a redemptive second chance. Of course, Beloved is about more than just slavery. Love. Identity. Sex. Community. Whatever other adjectives you attach to it, Beloved is a great novel.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Though it’s known for being a foundational work of detective fiction, there is a lot more going on in The Maltese Falcon than in your typical whodunit. Sam Spade is an American original, a complex character who uses an unflappable code of honor to guide him through Guttman’s murky world of deceit and betrayal. Once you take the time to really look at the prose, you’ll find the depth of metaphor, symbolism, imagery and craftsmanship usually associated with those books more commonly considered “The Great American Novel.” And the “Flitcraft Parable,” a moment where the entire plot stops for Spade to tell a totally unrelated story is one of the most fascinating and inexplicable moments in American literature.
Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egolf. John Kaltenbrunner, the hero of Lord of the Barnyard will someday enter the cultural consciousness and hang out with the likes of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab as great American characters. John Kaltenbrunner is an autodidact when it comes to farming. By eight years old he can manage the family farm to the point where he is able to keep a flock of pedigree chickens. He is the ideal self-made man, who is so good at carving his existence out of the land that he has no need for society. Of course, society and its hierarchies won’t stand for that and forces beyond his control crush every aspect of his being. Not a lot of literature confronts the classism and racism that still plague American society and even less literature explores the agricultural side of American culture. Add in its exuberant prose and great sense of humor and its clear LOTBY belongs in every discussion of great American novels.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. America is a big complicated country. As much as we like to think “America” can be reduced to a perfect image or a perfect book, odds are there is just too much going on for that reduction to be possible. But, (to try my hand at that exact kind of reduction) we have always been ambitious. Everyone dreams, but I’m not sure any culture dreams quite as big as American culture. Infinite Jest is big, complicated, and ambitious. It’s about sports and drugs, entertainment and love, addiction and recovery. Infinite Jest might not capture the pioneer spirit that defined so much of early American culture (though it might) but it certainly captures the all-consuming juggernaut we’ve become.
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. “Chinatown,” might be one of America’s most unique cultural creations. People escape hardship and oppression in their own country to find opportunity and freedom in America, but still seek the comfort of their home cultures, so they create as much of it as they can here. But the borders between “Chinatown” and “America” are porous meaning something completely unique is created. In some American cities, you can practically tour half the world. Any story that leaves out “Chinatown” leaves out a vital aspect of America. I Hotel, tells ten stories set in and around the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Chinatown, beginning in 1968. Politics, family, culture, and social upheaval are just a few of the many themes tackled by this daring and dynamic novel.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. I know, not only is Cervantes not American, there really wasn’t an “America” when Don Quixote was written, but the Man from La Mancha is the ideal self-made man, imposing his vision of the world on the world. However you value the Don’s delusions, I don’t know if there is a book that better captures the contradictions of Manifest Destiny, America’s late 19th century enthusiasm for imperialism, and our absolute “Us vs. Them” worldview of the Cold War. Furthermore, Don Quixote goes mad from reading too many works of chivalry. How much of America’s current cultural problems come from reading old stories about ourselves, from “conquering the Wild West,” to “winning WWII,” to “two cars and a fenced-in yard?” And, as I’ve noted above, America is a nation of immigrants. Our people are all imported, why shouldn’t The Great American Novel be as well.