It is rare that we get to meet our literary heroes, but in 2010, a young German-Swiss writer, Benedict Wells, approached John Irving at a reading in Zurich. More than a decade prior the 15-year-old Wells, feeling adrift at boarding school, picked up a copy of Irving’s enchanting coming-of-age novel The Hotel New Hampshire. Swept up in the great wit and charm of Irving’s writing, and deeply drawn to characters he couldn’t help but relate to, Wells found a direction for his own life and, after graduation, moved to Berlin to write. He landed at Irving’s same publisher and, eleven years and two published books later, took the night train to Zurich to hear Irving read. When the two met for the first time, Wells could barely speak with excitement, and as the years have passed, the writers have kept in contact.
On the eve of the U.S. publication of Wells’s internationally bestselling The End of Loneliness, he and Irving connected again, on the page, to discuss the merits of longhand versus typing, how fear plays into fiction, and why authors have to be outsiders.
John Irving: Lieber Benedict, I remember when we first met—it was at a reading in Zurich. You had just published your second novel. You told me how much you liked reading American novels. I see there is a suitably melancholic epigraph from Fitzgerald at the beginning of The End of Loneliness. Now your fourth novel is the first to come out in English. Tell me what this means to you. Is a little bit of the melancholy in The End of Loneliness coming from your reading of American novels?
Benedict Wells: Dear John, F. Scott Fitzgerald was indeed very important for me while writing The End of Loneliness. However, I would almost say it the other way around: the melancholy, that you find in the book, does not come from the American novels I have read. But rather I read and searched for such American novels because I carried this melancholia inside myself. And I found it in works by Fitzgerald and McCullers, but also in books like The Cider House Rules. English-speaking literature has influenced my writing from the very beginning, and I felt drawn to it, unlike for instance to German literature. That is why it has been a dream of mine that one day one of my books would be translated into English. And it is even more surreal and amazing that this story has now found its way to America.
JI: Halfway through the book, Jules—the main character and narrator—thinks: “A difficult childhood is like an invisible enemy: you never know when it will come for you.” The plight of children—in particular, of orphaned children—has often been my subject as a novelist. The importance of a formative childhood friendship—especially, for such children—has often been my subject, too. Where do these themes come from, in your case?
BW: They come from my own childhood and youth. When I was six, I was moved to a home and spent the next 13 years in boarding schools, not least because one of my parents was ill and the other one was self-employed and because of financial hardships had to work around the clock. This childhood far from home, in dorms and later on in single rooms, this loneliness, surrounded by other people, but also the solidarity among one another, has shaped me. From the very beginning it made me look for a language for all of it—a first step towards writing. And I never regretted anything because, besides all the problems, there were always moments of love and feelings of security. So, in my youth I found everything I needed to tell stories. Even today everything I write comes from the feeling I learned back then, that it is important to see other people and put yourself in their shoes.
JI: In my case, these themes are more in the nature of obsessions than themes—maybe in your case, too?
BW: That changes from book to book. However, after five books I cannot deny that loneliness is my major topic, that melancholic melody accompanies every story…Where did these themes come from for you? What would have happened with your writing if you had grown up differently or hadn’t had wrestling for instance?
J.I: I’m not sure that loneliness is a theme—a theme sounds like a subject you choose, intellectually. I think loneliness is a perception, an awareness—the loneliness might be someone else’s or your own. With writers, we’re observing as much as we’re experiencing. You ask, “if you had grown up differently or hadn’t had wrestling…” Well, there would still have been my mother, a nurse’s aide. I got my sexual politics, my social conscience, from her. She taught me to see and sympathize with sexual minorities, beginning with the understanding that women were treated as if they were sexual minorities. From seeing—through my mom’s eyes—how women were treated, I could see for myself that more vulnerable groups—gay men, lesbian women, transgender men and women—were treated worse. And if it hadn’t been wrestling, it would have been another combat sport. I was small, I got picked on, I fought back. My mom knew the wrestling coach; she introduced me to him.
BW: I often have to think of a quote by Erich Kästner: “Someone without fear has no fantasy.” It rings true to me. Fear can paralyze me, but it also fires up my imagination, opens doors, and creates images I have at my disposal when I tell stories. At the same time writing is the opposite of fear, because unlike reality I can control everything … Do you feel the same? I remember at the reading in Zurich you said that as a father you mainly wrote about your fears.
JI: There’s an element of fear in all my fiction. I’m always imagining a situation that I wouldn’t want to be in; I’m trying to create circumstances that I wouldn’t want anyone I loved to be in, certainly not my child. I’m a worst-case scenario writer. I’m not always writing a political novel—maybe only half the time. But even when the subject isn’t political or social, something will go terribly wrong. I didn’t make up this idea. I read it. Greek drama, Shakespeare, the 19th-century novel—not many happy endings.
JI: These so-called formative childhood friendships have a way of compensating fictional characters for the loss or absence of parents—at least, in my case. Perhaps this is another related theme (or obsession) we seem to have in common?
BW: Yes, definitely. As an author and as a reader I love that kind of lifelong friendship that can run deeper than many family ties. In the book you find that especially with Alva. For Jules she fills the gap that his parents and at times also his siblings have left behind more and more. Similar to how important Melony became to Homer Wells. Or Owen Meany to John Wheelwright after the death of his mother…
Speaking of them: You have created a multitude of great literary characters, many of whom as a reader you care about more than some acquaintances. Has the opposite ever happened to you? That you had a character that you secretly didn’t like but couldn’t change anymore and now had to “work with” reluctantly until you handed in the novel?
JI: I like creating characters I don’t like. But if you simply hate a character, you can’t expect your readers to care. The Steerforth character in David Copperfield taught me a lot. He’s such a cruel guy; you think you hate him. He torments young Copperfield; he seduces and abandons Copperfield’s dear friend, Emily. When Steerforth’s body washes ashore, you would think we wouldn’t care. But the way Dickens describes the body—it’s a first-person novel, in Copperfield’s voice—makes us realize that Copperfield also loved Steerforth or might even have been in love with him. Which makes Steerforth’s cruelty crueler, but it adds a dimension to Steerforth—one this reader never saw coming. Dickens writes, “I saw him lying with his head upon on his arm, as I had seen him lie at school.” You have to love your villains, at least a little.
JI: I grew up as a faculty child on the campus of a boarding school. Before I attended the school, I lived in dormitories with all these older boys who’d been sent away to school. I felt like a foreigner among them; they must have felt like foreigners among themselves. But maybe writers grow up feeling that we are foreigners, wherever we are?
BW: I like that image very much. I always had the feeling that constant observing—which is essential for writing—relegates you to the fringes. You don’t participate completely and are always creating a second level, that already reflects and categorizes events. But the true dilemma for me with writing is that I escape to parallel worlds that are invisible to other people until publication. And while friends and family finally see where you have spent the last few years when a book is published, you are already living in the next lonely parallel world, your next novel … Do you know that feeling? Do you sometimes fear that by writing for decades you are missing out on real life, or do you think that it has in fact helped you understand life?
JI: I absolutely feel that we writers are outsiders—we are detached. Loneliness is what we do. I’m speaking to you as an American who lives in Canada. More than three years ago, I went through the immigration process in Toronto. In various waiting rooms, I was occasionally the only adult applicant for Permanent Residence who spoke English. I helped other applicants fill out their immigration forms. Just a few times, I saw families who’d been granted Protected Persons Status by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. I worked with the children; they understood English better than their parents. I remember a girl—she was 12. She was worried about my immigration story. “What about you, Mister?” she asked me. “What are you running away from?” Only last fall, as the number of refugees from war (and other human rights violations) continued to rise, the Trump Administration capped refugee admissions in the U.S. at the lowest level since 1980—not to mention, President Trump’s idea of a wall. And this girl—I’m guessing she and her family had been running for their lives—was worried about me. Well, this is our job as fiction writers—not attending to our real lives, but imagining the lives of characters who’ve had a harder time than we’ve had. Good fiction is imagining (truthfully) what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.
BW: For me the key to telling a story is empathy. It is even more important in these worrying times when right-wing parties are winning elections around the globe. Good literature is the opposite of building walls, rather it tears them down by showing individual humans, in whom we recognize ourselves. If you read the story of the 12-year-old girl that had to flee to Canada with her family, you would automatically put yourself in her shoes. You would understand the girl and feel with her. Also strong, touching films like Roma can achieve this; they give me hope.
JI: Perhaps, in my case, the atmosphere of the boarding school—all these boys away from home—gave me that feeling (of being a foreigner) before I was one of them. I was 20 when I went to Vienna. I’d been writing since I was 15, but it was in Vienna where I began to feel that I actually was a writer. And of course I was an actual foreigner there—a genuine Ausländer. Was going away a kind of trigger for you to start writing?
BW: What you recount about Vienna, I felt about Berlin, where I moved after school to become a “real writer.” I had written before that, but only then did it really count for me as I consciously decided not to study and instead put all my energy and attention into books. I was 19 at the time, the rents in Berlin in 2003 were ridiculously low and the city was like the wide-open entryway to a slightly run-down flat. Here everyone who wanted to get something of the ground and had an idea was welcome. Back then I lived in a one-room flat that had no heating and electricity only on occasion. The shower was in the kitchen and in winter my breath would turn into clouds. But for the first time I felt freedom. In the daytime, I would do odd jobs and at night I would write. Of course, things didn’t work out for years and I received one rejection after another. But I never became desperate, because at least I was failing with something I loved.
JI: You weren’t only away in boarding schools; for several years, you lived in Barcelona, where you were also a foreigner.
BW: That time abroad was something I didn’t look for as an author but as a person. Because I only worked and wrote in the years after school there was something crucial I was missing: A kind of student life and living with others. But there was another reason I thought that living abroad was great, it meant that in my mid-20s I could start from scratch once again. I didn’t speak Spanish, nobody there knew me and for the first time I was a dark horse to everyone else. An exciting feeling, I enjoyed being a real foreigner. The years in Barcelona, living in a shared flat with a lot of people from around the world, was maybe the best decision I ever made.
What brought you to Vienna back then? You said that you lived in Canada for three years. Where did the wish come from to live abroad again, and why Toronto?
JI: I felt right at home, as a foreigner in Vienna. There was a gloominess there; the city was so much older than I was. And the suspicious looks you got as an Ausländer—perfect! My wife is Canadian. She was the Canadian publisher of The Cider House Rules when we met. I’ve lived as many as four or five months of the year in Canada, since the 1980s. But, in 2015, I became a full-time resident of Toronto. Sometime this year, in 2019, I’ll become a Canadian citizen—a dual citizen, actually, because I intend to keep my U.S. citizenship. (I pay U.S. taxes, I vote.) But I love living in Canada. I love Canada, but I’m also at home with the foreignness I feel living here.
BW: You have always had strong female characters in your novels and you have always been a very liberal, political, and progressive author. In In One Person an important figure is transsexual, but already in 1978 in The World According to Garp with Roberta you have a man who becomes a woman. In A Prayer for Owen Meany you write about the Vietnam War and in The Cider House Rules about abortion. Do you have the feeling that the American society has become more tolerant and open over time or do you think it has regressed again, at least partially?
JI: The World According to Garp is a feminist novel. It’s about sexual hatred, and sexual violence. A woman will be killed by a man who hates women; her son will be murdered by a woman who hates men. The novel begins with a sexual assault. Garp’s mother is assaulted in a movie theater. No one believes she was sexually assaulted. The Trump Administration recently put a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, someone who’s been accused of more than one sexual assault. And Trump has publicly mocked and ridiculed the women who’ve accused this judge. In the U.S., abortion rights are in danger; LGBTQ rights are being compromised, even scorned. Trump’s narcissism may be somewhat new, but his xenophobia, his homophobia, his fascism are familiar. My mother taught me: If you’re going to be intolerant of something, try being intolerant of intolerance. My old teacher and mentor, Kurt Vonnegut, always said that the U.S. should give socialism a try. The U.S. is looking more and more like a plutocracy—government by and for the wealthy. Right now, it looks like the plutocrats are in charge.
BW: Do current political events influence what you write?
JI: There’s a chapter I’m writing now. If the chapter title stays the same, it’ll be: “Sexual Politics, a Fire, Jealousy.” That sounds familiar. Near the beginning of the chapter, there’s this passage. “In America, we don’t appear to notice when or where the politics start—we just wake up one morning, and everything is political. In America, we’re not paying attention when those things that will divide us are just beginning.” That sounds familiar, too, unfortunately.
JI: I believe writing is rewriting. I think you know what I mean. I’ve heard that you worked on this novel for seven years; that you first wrote it in the first-person voice; then you changed it to the third person, and back again to the first person; and that, during this process, you also cut the novel by half. How much of your writing is rewriting?
BW: In my case it is also a lot. The finished book is just the visible tip of the iceberg, and the giant invisible rest is revision. But it is also what I enjoy the most, while writing itself—filling hundreds of white pages with half-finished thoughts and scenes—often causes me a lot of anguish. Improving an existing text however, rewriting scenes, tweaking dialogue and the language, putting yourself in the characters shoes and get closer to them over the years—that I love. With The End of Loneliness it was important to me to narrate as densely and as thrillingly as possible. I often thought about where I should make cuts in a 35-year-long story. What should I specify for the reader and where can I leave gaps, often many years long, that they can fill themselves? Ideally, I wanted there to be a book beside the book that only existed in the readers mind.
JI: Does the rewriting necessarily (or always) make the novels lighter? (In my case, the rewriting usually shortens an earlier draft, but occasionally I discover that I’ve made more inserts than cuts.) To many people, seven years seems like a long time to spend on a novel—especially on rewriting a novel—but I also take a long time. My novels are all about what happens in the rewriting.
BW: Usually my first two drafts are particularly long. I try to write like a child, boundless and intuitively. Quasi with the “id.” Later on, the intellect, the “I” revises it. During revision a lot of new scenes get added because often it takes years for me to understand what is missing and as I get to know the characters better. At the same time, I try to get rid of scenes that might no longer be needed or I condense what I’ve already written. Then again, I would also love to write a long novel of a thousand pages that you can get lost in for weeks.
BW: I’ve heard that you write your first draft by hand. That has always fascinated me. I only write on the computer and I like that I can type about as fast as my subconscious can formulate something. This can lead to me finding sentences in the manuscript after hours of working that surprise me at first. They sometimes seem foreign or too hard. And then I realize that while I’ve never consciously thought like that, I must have always felt like that inside. A kind of dialogue with an invisible self. Do you have moments like that? And what is the reason for you consciously writing the first draft by hand?
JI: I used to write only first drafts in longhand. Now I write every draft in longhand. My mom taught me to type when I was 13 or 14. I’m too fast on a keyboard. Writing by hand makes me slow down. I go at the right pace if I’m writing by hand. Of course I write emails to my friends and family, but I write novels, screenplays, and teleplays in longhand.
JI: Do you know the end of the novel—I mean, when you start writing? I need to hear the final tone, the sound of the voice in the last sentence, in order to write toward it. What about you? What matters, of course, is not if you know the ending before you begin, but that your readers are given this impression when they get to the end. (You give me that impression.)
BW: Thank you! Funnily enough with every book I write I have to think about what you once said, that you need to write the ending first in order to know what kind of tone your story needs. I can understand that completely and I could never start writing a book without knowing how it ends. For me everything is about the ending, the last, final tone and my whole story is determined by it.
JI: The passage of time, as I’ve said—“the trajectory of a long life, from childhood, through the adult disappointments, through parenthood: this is what novels do best.” Do you agree?
BW: Yes, that is also something I love, whether it is in Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Stoner by John Williams or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon—or of course again and again in your novels. To span a whole life in your head and tell it has always fascinated me. In the same way I appreciate the opposite, for instance just a summer in Summer Crossing by Steve Tesich or a year in Looking for Alaska by John Green.
JI: I know you’ve had some experience as a screenwriter for movies based on your novels, as I have had. (I’ve also written some original screenplays, which have turned into novels.) I love what films can do, but I believe that novels do the passage of time best. What are your thoughts about the passage of time in storytelling, in novels, and in movies?
BW: There are some great cinematic exceptions like Moonlight and Citizen Kane, but the possibilities of a novel are of course different and it is almost the privilege of the novel to be able to master this genre so well. East of Eden by John Steinbeck tells the fortunes of several people over hundreds of pages and at the same time the history of California. However, in the film with James Dean they focus only on the last third of the book, the last generation, because there is just no room for everything else. Something similar was done with the wonderful movie version of The Cider House Rules, which you adapted yourself and shortened by around 15 years…What I find fascinating in this regard is the TV-series boom. I’ve heard that you are working on an adaptation of The World According to Garp. Would you say that this is the perfect format that was missing for a long time? While reading your book My Movie Business one often secretly wishes that some of the projects had been made into a series instead.
JI: The screen work is a good companion to the fiction. I often start a story as a screenplay, which will become a novel. Surely a miniseries is a better format for a novel than a feature-length film. You lose less, overall, and you get to compose a miniseries in episodes—not unlike chapters, or acts in a play. Both the overall length of a teleplay and the episodic structure of a TV series are better suited to an adaptation from a novel than a feature-length film.
BW: With Trying to Find Piggy Sneed you released a book of short stories. Besides screenplays, have you had ideas for short novels? Are you perhaps working on one now?
JI: I am trying to write shorter novels—not short ones, but they are getting a shorter. The one I’m writing now—a ghost story, called Darkness as a Bride—is one of the shorter ones. And the next couple of novels I’m thinking of will be significantly shorter than this one—an influence, perhaps, of writing screenplays and teleplays. (I still like writing fiction better, but I like what I’ve learned from the screen work.) Yes, my novels will get shorter—after this one.
BW: As much as I love films, I found writing screenplays rather difficult in the beginning. Compared to the more intuitive writing of a novel you are bound by a lot more rules. Sometimes I found the limitations of a screen play, the implacable 100 pages, to be a mathematical riddle. But I have to admit, that I learned a lot from writing them as well.
JI: I don’t know if I accept fate, or a sense of predetermination, as entirely realistic—that is, if I see fate or predetermination at work in what we call “real life” or the “actual world.” But I know that I believe in Fate or Destiny as a fictional truth—as more than a literary device. What happens to the characters in my novels feels fated or predetermined, I hope! I sense the hand of Fate at work in The End of Loneliness, too. (As a reader, I think I was first aware of fate—and influenced by fate in literature—from reading Hardy and Melville.) In your case, the cards that you deal to Jules seem to work as a challenge to him—Jules’s fate seems to motivate him to find his place in the world.
BW: As a human being I don’t believe in fate, more in being responsible for your life. But as a writer I of course employ fate greatly, while the characters, which are at its mercy, think like humans and wrestle with their fate. Through sometimes-dramatic events they have lost their place or their home and will be looking for a new one all their life. And yet they do not accept their fate. In The End of Loneliness for instance Jules says at one point: Life is not a zero-sum game. It owes us nothing, and things just happen the way they do. Sometimes they’re fair and everything makes sense; sometimes they’re so unfair we question everything. I pulled the mask off the face of Fate, and all I found beneath it was chance.
So I guess: as a human being I sympathize with the characters and feel for them, if something happens to them—something I deliberately do to them as an author. A rather schizophrenic matter … Dear John, would you agree?
Copyright (c) by John Irving and Benedict Wells
Critical reappraisal is an essential feature of our culture, as the passage of time allows us to better analyze an artist’s or genre’s merit without the fog of hype or trends. Once scorned, impressionism eventually gained recognition as one of painting’s greatest movements; jazz went from dangerous irritant to dynamic American art form. The list of creators and creations that go from disdained to celebrated — from Moby-Dick to Chuck Close to hip-hop — seems to have no end. And to that list, one more cries out to be added: the paperback masterwork Knight Rider #2: Trust Doesn’t Rust.
Ignored in its day as a piece of spinner-rack schlock, the 1984 book, by Glen A. Larson and Roger Hill, has aged magnificently. Trust Doesn’t Rust was a novelized episode of Knight Rider, the hourlong NBC action drama that made David Hasselhoff a household name from Leipzig to Berlin. The 1980s were a golden age of such novels, from Dallas: This Cherished Land to Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Most were dubious attempts to cash in on a property’s popularity. But Trust Doesn’t Rust — much like the indomitable Hasselhoff — transcended its medium.
For those who have somehow forgotten, Knight Rider told the story of ex-military spy Michael Knight (portrayed by Hasselhoff) and the artificially intelligent KITT (portrayed by, in Wikipedia’s words, “1982 Pontiac Trans Am”). While most of the show’s episodes focused on freeway chases and orgiastic fireballs, Trust Doesn’t Rust had more on its mind: it was a prescient cautionary tale about the dangers of technology.
Trust Doesn’t Rust’s tragic villain is KARR, a Trans Am that was, like KITT, built by Knight Industries. Unlike KITT, however, KARR suffers from a programming error that makes him unstable, dangerous, and vulnerable to exploitation. When a pair of hoods activate KARR for use in a crime spree, it is up to — who else? — Knight and KITT to stop them. The divergent paths of KITT and KARR is the poignant story of East of Eden’s Cal and Aron, retold with muscle cars.
If this sounds ludicrous, I ask: isn’t anything ludicrous when you sit down to explain it? Isn’t The Odyssey just a story about a king who escapes from an island, and there’s all these gods and things, and he’s like, “I’m gonna go do some stuff?” Isn’t The Great Gatsby essentially about a guy who meets another guy, who seems pretty cool, and the guy — the first guy, not the pretty cool one — wants to hang with him? Isn’t Fifty Shades Darker, when you get down to brass tacks, about boners and whatnot?
It’s all in how the material is handled. And in Trust Doesn’t Rust, it’s handled with the effortless grace of Michael Knight taking a hairpin turn at 110. In Larson and Hill’s gifted hands, the story is elevated from stuck-on-the-toilet pastime to something crackling with vitality. Consider the introduction of the two thieves: Tony — a “streetwise young tough” and Rev — a “Skid Row winehead” — as they creep into a darkened warehouse:
Two shadows drifted across the face of the sign affixed to the building wall. The sign was comparatively new: red letters on white metal. Red letters usually meant authoritative, intimidating warnings to keep out. Neither of the shadow figures were concerned with the niceties of trespassing. The first shadow flowed across the sign and was gone; the second stopped, blacking out the message.
Not only do Larson and Hill establish the pair’s cravenness — unlike most criminals who break into off-hours industrial sites, they aren’t “concerned with the niceties of trespassing” — they educate by reminding us of the meaning of red letters, a lesson that can never be reinforced enough. And is the blacking-out of that message a metaphor for Rev’s utter disregard for authority? Is it a harbinger of doom? Was it just something they wrote to meet the word count demanded by MCA Publishing? Master’s theses have been written on less.
And what of our hero, the “relaxed and jocular” Michael Knight, who was “arrogantly handsome in a rough-hewn, rip-cord way”? While the televised Knight was the Platonic ideal of an autonomous crimefighting sportscar’s driver, Trust Doesn’t Rust allows the character to breathe, adding yet more nuance to Hasselhoff’s characterization:
Michael woke up inside an ambulance. A pert, blond paramedic was applying a bandage to his forehead. There were dots of blood on her tunic.
Michael tried to sit up and was slammed down by pain. It felt like someone had driven a cement nail into his skull just above the left eye.
“How’s Scott? He said. “The guard?”
“Guarded condition,” said the paramedic… “Hold still for a few more seconds and give the Elmer’s glue a chance to set.”
“I’ve always admired women in uniform,” he mumbled.
In one brief, magical passage, we come to understand Knight deeply, fundamentally; like Richard Price, Larson and Hill allow pitch-perfect dialogue and pinpoint description to carry the day. We learn that Knight is tough — he copes with the dreaded “cement nail” sensation –compassionate — he asks after the guarded-condition guard — and, like Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man, always able to deliver a rakish quip, no matter his predicament. He is, quite simply, a mop-topped God of Fuck.
Needless to say, Trust Doesn’t Rust’s action sequences are superb. For the climactic scene — KARR plunging headlong into the Pacific — the televised version of Trust Doesn’t Rust used footage from the film The Car, which Gene Siskel declared “The Cinematic Turkey of 1977.” Fortunately, the novel relies on Larson and Hill’s Chabonesque narrative skills:
KARR smashed into the cliffside and went end over end against the craggy rocks, its armored alloy keeping it ridiculously intact. Not even the windshield broke. Then it smacked the blue surface of the water upside down, and sank like a hammer.
A hammer — an object used to build, to construct, to create — is invoked to describe the evil auto’s demise. It is the sort of brilliant, low-key irony that Larson and Hill have threaded throughout their opus. And it is what makes Trust Doesn’t Rust an unjustly forgotten classic. So do yourself a favor: the next time you see a moldering pile of paperbacks in a Dumpster or crack-den rumpus room, dig through in search of Trust Doesn’t Rust. Immersing yourself in Larsen and Hill’s airtight prose and rousing storytelling will make you feel like one of the thieves, upon his realization that KARR could be used for ill purposes:
A limitless vista of opportunity opened up inside of Tony’s head. It was composed mostly of visions of solid food, potent booze, and — as he had said — wild, wild women. It seemed terrific.
No, Tony. It is terrific.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain
We humans love to swap vocabularies. Spend a day with someone hot on quintessential and it’s likely that in the following days or weeks quintessential will crop up in your own speech or writing.
Is this problematic? Not especially. Quintessential is a fantastic word. However, it’s good to be mindful of this phenomenon when you sit down to write, lest the words of other writers end up on your page. As the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the long-time senior reader of unsolicited fiction at Harvard Review, I am consistently up to my elbows in slush pile. Here are a handful of words and phrases that I see all too often:
Remember in The Princess Bride how the Sicilian keeps calling everything “inconceivable” and at some point Inigo is like, yeah, all of that stuff that you keep calling “inconceivable” is actually — you know — conceivable? This is the basic situation with “impossibly.”
When used as an adverb, “impossibly” means absolutely nothing and in zero cases does it make the sentiment better, stronger, or more precise.
Here are just a few examples from the slush pile, the Internet, and the novel of a woman sitting next to me on a plane:
“Sitting at the desk is an impossibly perky woman.”
“In such a short time, I’d fallen impossibly in love.”
“The sun was even higher, impossibly high”
“Lindsay was so impossibly fashionable, so together”
“They dry themselves out on the beach, using towels that are impossibly soft.”
“I used to shun migrant traditions, but now I find them impossibly moving.”
But the highest frequency with which I encounter “impossibly” is in sentences like, “He was impossibly tall.” Or, “His eyes were impossibly blue.” Or, “she had impossibly long legs.”
None of those things are impossible. They might be remarkable, extraordinary, unfathomable, fantastic, or mind-boggling, but they are not impossible.
If you catch yourself using “impossibly,” just take a moment to think about what you are trying to say and whether or not it is true that her legs were impossibly long. Were they coiled beneath her like so many yards of spaghetti pasta? No? In that case, impossibly is not the word you need.
In terms of contemporary usage, “ridiculously” is just another version of “impossibly:”
“Girls from Indiana are ridiculously sexy.”
“DeLorenzo’s didn’t accept reservations so I got us there ridiculously early.”
However, in the case of “ridiculously” there is a caveat — it is great to use when something is actually ridiculous:
“It was over. Everyone had gotten what they wanted. Ridiculously, I felt like crying.”
skit·ter ˈskidər/ verb
move lightly and quickly or hurriedly. “the girls skittered up the stairs”
draw (bait) jerkily across the surface of the water as a technique in fishing.
It is easy to understand how and why “skitter” gained popularity. It has a nice element of onomatopoeia, for starters. Unfortunately, all of our writing peers now put it to use any time something or someone goes scampering, scuttling, scurrying, skipping, bounding, tumbling, scooting or even blowing:
“The prairie grasses swayed in the breeze and little clouds skittered across the sky.”
“Another blast made Jack dive beneath the bed and the phone skittered across the floor.”
“Each season the trail south would be blockaded by ice strata the mules skittered over.”
“Lightning illuminated her face as it skittered across the darkening sky.”
“She tried to straighten her hair as she skittered across the wide-planked floor.”
As the shortlist above illustrates, while “skitter” is certainly the mot du jour, there are many other ways to capture the action. Why limit yourself?
This sentence was written in 1856 by Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) but this conceit has been used too many times — probably before, and definitely since — to count.
5. Shocks of Hair
“He was a tall distinguished looking young man with a shock of red hair.”
“His handsome head with its shock of black hair, roughly cropped.”
“The little hero of this tale has a shock of blond hair.”
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw him — the wild shock of black hair.”
“He was a long, loose-framed man with a shock of red hair and vivid green eyes.”
“Penelope was born with eyes the color of midnight stars and a shock of black hair.”
“She was an angel with midnight blue eyes and a shock of blond hair.”
“To an immense shock of black hair, he united a bushy beard of the same color.”
And my personal favorite:
“He was tall and exceptionally attractive, with piercing eyes, and a shock of white hair.”
If you Google “shock of ____ hair” and “Google books” you will find thousands more of these.
6. “…All Sharp Angles and Jutting Limbs…”
Who was the first person to use “sharp angles” and “jutting limbs?” I don’t know, but I defy you to find a contemporary piece of writing without at least one sharp-angled limb-jutting character. It’s over, everyone — done. Just delete, delete, delete and think of some other way to describe your graceless adolescent characters.
7. Slumping Shoulders, Furrowed Brows, & Flashing Eyes
These three expressions seem to come readily to writers in need of conveying defeat, trouble, and anger. It’s like they’re always on deck and begging the coach (that’s you) to put them in cold. I got this one, coach, they whisper in your ear while you’re writing. But keep these babies benched. They need to sit out a few innings:
““What did you tell her about me?” he said, eyes flashing with suspicion.”
“Cold drops of sweat stand on his furrowed brow. His hands are clenched.”
“The boy’s shoulders slumped and he began to groan.”
“I can see it in their shoulders — slumped and weighty.”
“She bowed her head and shuffled out with her shoulders slumped.”
“He found Adam leaning against the wall, his hat low over his eyes and his shoulders slumped.”
That last line is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. The novel is a particular favorite of mine. I’ve included it here to point out that these expressions (unlike “impossibly”) are not inherently useless, just common. And their commonness risks making your writing seem less than fresh.
Consider, on the other hand, how delightful “slumped” is when divorced from “shoulders”:
“On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens.” (Vladimir Nabokov, from Lolita)
So evocative! So refreshing!
8. In Conclusion
All of us are susceptible to these Trojan Word-Horses, and none of us will escape them entirely. However, for the sake of your writing — and for the patience of editorial staffs everywhere — keep one eye on what’s trending.
If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably read it somewhere before. And, believe you me, so have we.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ervins Strauhmanis.
My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county’s eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck’s brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: “From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer.” But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden’s publication, the dense farmland has become something else.
When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer’s new California epic, The Children’s Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree:
He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather.
From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable.
East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck’s most difficult work and relatively neglected — despite the scope of its ambition and the author’s own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam’s sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam’s wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck’s work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers’ hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain.
The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer’s multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer’s generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self.
Packer’s Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng’s Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen’s Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents — and the stress fractures of their marriage — have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children’s Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of “carry on” and “children deserve care” are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the “crusade” of The Children’s Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father’s oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different.
Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father’s imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his “rocklike” opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon.
Throughout The Children’s Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer’s terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust — all of it so painfully real and confessional.
In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children’s Crusade, the shift between the children’s monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken?
The Children’s Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their “crusade” to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb’s urgent desire for his father’s love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.
So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.
We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.
We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.
Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University
How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.
Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.
Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?
If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.
Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography
The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.
“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.
But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”
Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”
At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?
Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas
John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.
He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.
A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.
DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.
Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America
Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.
The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.
Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.
After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.
Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.
The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.
“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”
And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.
Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.
Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?
Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.
Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.
The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.
My only compensation?
I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market
Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum
Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.
But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.
In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.
Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.
Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.
Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.
Priscilla Wald, Duke University
When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”
The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.
Hester Blum, Penn State University
Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.
There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.
What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?
Image via Wikimedia Commons