Friday, February 04, 2005

The Great American Novel: What’s it gonna be then, eh?

What does the Great American Novel mean? Is it a book that quintessentially defines America and is therefore Great? Or can it simply be a masterpiece of storytelling written by an American?

After a small yet serious amount of thinking, my two choices for top spot in 20th Century novels and, by extension, the Great American Novel, are Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

On the Road is the classic outsider story, the classic road story as told by a seeker manic for truth and kicks and adventure outside the quickly solidifying strictures of post-WW II life. It's also a classic buddy story, a romance if you like, and the rollercoaster of ultra-highs and lows that only the road can bring. It has influenced generations of writers and pushed many -- including yours truly -- to head West to seek fortune and glory.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger was originally published in 1982, with a revised (mostly to the good) manuscript published recently. It's an epic story, a fantasy Western with iconic characters and wonderful narration. It's finely written, a haunting tale of the search for salvation and for the redemption of all worlds. It's funny and strange and frightening and magical and wonderful. I've read it at least half a dozen times and never get tired of it. It's a wonderful extension and interpretation on grand storytelling in the tradition of Dickens and Tolkien, and it's one of the reasons I became a writer.

I realize that my selections are, to say the least, controversial. I fall far to the “genre” or “pop fiction” side of the fiction spectrum (as opposed to the literary folk, who will be calling out DeLillo and Franzen and… others). Generally speaking, I seek out one thing and one thing only from a novel: a good story that captures and keeps my interest.

As a writer, I've always wanted to be "better versed in the classics." I feel as though my writing is as much informed by pop culture (cartoons to video games) as High Literature, but not having as great a grounding as possible in some of the above has caused me mild anxiety from time to time.

What are your Great American Novels? What are your all-time classics?


The Sore Loser said...

I haven't read in a real novel in a quite a while. But digging deep into my past I'd give the best American novel to Nabokov's "Lolita", and perhaps the best non-American novel to Dostoyevski's "The Brothers Karamazov." But I might change my mind if I reread these, or if I still read literature. And then there's always the possibility that "Possible Ends" might change my mind.

Eric Berlin said...

I have an annotated Lolita on my shelf that I've been meaning to read for years (it was one of the chief topics of discussion in a writing class I took years ago).

I actually listened to an unabridged audio book version of The Bros K during a long ago stint doing boring-as-ass clerical work in a dusty, depressing Oakland law office. I made little cheat sheets on post-it notes to keep all of the characters straight. I enjoyed the story very much -- and Dostoy... however you spell his name... writes with a rich, deeply cynical and surprisingly funny style that I enjoyed very much. I got through about half of Crime & Punishment and was enjoying it before I got side-tracked.

Eric Berlin said...

And it's Ball Out now, not Possible Ends!

It likely won't go into anyone's Top Books list, but it will hopefully be a good time and a good read.