One of the high privileges enjoyed by those of us who expose our opinions to public ridicule is that of appearing to debunk the prevailing silliness on the one hand while contributing to its perpetuation on the other. Of late this has been done to amusing effect by a gentleman named Steve Erickson, whose fulminations on the subject of the "Great American Novel" have been cropping up in counterculture newspapers from coast to coast.
Erickson begins his long article with a whoop and a holler: "The Great American Novel is the sucker punch of our culture; it's like Jesus. It has promised to sum up the sins of our literature and expiate them in a great fell swoop--at which point everything else from then on is delivered." No, I'm not sure what that means either, but, man, you've got to admit that's writing. In fact, Erickson writes himself up a storm. Not since Rolling Stone magazine was in its Haight-Ashbury days have I encountered such exuberantly gassy prose:
"America has presented itself as the last work on human hope, and the Great American Novel is its aesthetic equivalent. And in the same way that America the country fails its intentions, literary America has never written its one great bible or come through on any of its proclaimed messiahs; we bury them in droves, wait 72 hours, and sit around the hole of the tomb in anticipation. Five, six, 10 days later, no lively corpse has danced out from the dark. Only a funny smell, wafting past us."
If that doesn't satisfy your appetite for bizarre metaphor and windy twaddle, consider Erickson on "Huckleberry Finn" and its author:
"The book rages, in subversively slapstick fashion. And from its completion on, Twain's pessimism widened its gaping jaws until it swallowed him whole; he waited in its belly 25 years to be spit up on shore, realizing only at the last moment he'd been consumed for good, when the juices of the leviathan's intestinal tract began eating at his toes."
As a practitioner of the Look-Ma-I'm-Writing! school of composition, Erickson naturally has a preference for fiction as extravagance. Having gone on record with the judgment that the Great American Novel is a "nebula" (I think the word he really wanted was "chimera," but that's neither here nor there), he nevertheless proceeds to define it: " . . . the Great American Novel would not be perfect. It would be too wild for perfection, a book on the rampage, in defiance of pristine frameworks of critical thought." And of course Erickson then proceeds, in the grand tradition of journalistic pother, to jump right into the very cesspool he has just gone through the motions of cleaning out: He presents us with his own list of "the best" American novels.
Having committed a similar list in the recent past, I am not about to attack him for doing so; I merely point out that his article contains a certain internal inconsistency. But the fellow should be given his due. Hidden beneath the murk of Erickson's prose are some nuggets of good sense and some judgments with which, as it happens, I agree. He points out, for example, that the prevailing literary consensus is substantially the manufacture of the professoriat, and that it has a vested interest in those books that can be packaged for the classroom: "Professors . . . appreciate packages, and they teach books not in terms of what the writer has delivered, but what the professor can intellectually manage . . . "
This is not entirely accurate, but it contains too much truth to be ignored. Erickson is a trifle unfair to Hawthorne when he dismisses "The Scarlet Letter" as "the perfect example of novels that English teachers love because, simply, they're easy to teach," but the basic point is sound; and it is refreshing to hear from someone who, though the ink seems fairly fresh on his diploma, has come through the mill of academe with a healthy disrespect for its pomposities and evasions. There's a similarly refreshing impertinence in his characterization of the fiction of John Barth, which "so conveniently embodies everything that's disastrous about modern American fiction." Anyone whose list of "overrated" American novels includes "On the Road," "The Naked and the Dead," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "A Farewell to Arms" is okay by me.
So, too, is anyone who describes "Light in August" as "the greatest American novel ever written," though it's a mystery why Erickson felt moved to append that "ever written." As opposed to "ever sung"? Or "ever danced"? It's a mystery, though, that his Top-10 list includes "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," "Tender Is the Night," "Of Time and the River," "The Long Goodbye" and (!) "Tropic of Cancer"; my suspicion is that there's a bit of daring to be different going on here. There is, in any case, no accounting for taste, and Erickson is as entitled to goofy judgments as are all the rest of us.
But the important point about the mythology of the "Great American Novel" is the one that Erickson fails to make with sufficient force: That the very idea of it has had deleterious effects on American literature. Since the '20s and '30s and their tempestuous literary rivalries, American writers have been obsessed with writing the novel that sweeps away all the competition, that Says It All within the pages of a single volume. What this has resulted in is the diversion of small but worthwhile talents into the construction of large and empty books; it has also resulted in broken dreams and shattered psyches and, in more than a few cases, self-destructed lives.
The "Great American Novel" is, it goes without saying, yet another manifestation of our longstanding national romance with everything that is outsized and exaggerated. To be sure, it has given writers something to reach for, and the very presence of this chimera in our literature is a reminder of the American drive to accomplishment; thus "The Great American Novel" can be dismissed, but not lightly, because it represents a vein of ambition that runs right to the heart of the national character.
But Steve Erickson is right in saying that "in the same way that only a place like America could conceive of something as compleat sic and large as a national novel, so it was also the one place that could never be summed up by such a work . . . " I only wish that he had kept his imagery under control. It is very difficult to trust the judgment of one who writes, as Erickson does of Faulkner: " . . . he's going for the black hole of the land's dream, and the inferno on the other side; and so he roars across purgatory in a gale of blood." Wow.