The Great American Novel is, without a whisper of doubt, literature's most elusive (some even say mythical) beast. For 150 years, since the novelist John William De Forest first coined the term, the argument over what constitutes a GAN has rumbled on and on.
For De Forest, the job of the GAN was to “paint the American soul” and provide a “picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence". For Norman Mailer, it should "seize the temper of the time and turn it". For Lionel Shriver, rather more cynically, it must “capture the nation’s zeitgeist … a massive doorstop of a book that implies a thunderous message and all-encompassing world view ... always written by a man.”
Of course, capturing the “essence” of any nation is like capturing a colony of rats in a single trap. Plus, in an era of cultural as well as economic globalisation, what does “American” even mean nowadays? For that matter, in the age of Donald Trump (or “post-Trump” now), reality TV and fake news, the word "fiction" itself seems to have more than one meaning.
Whichever way you skin it, the Great American Novel has come to represent a figurative literary yardstick of what defines America in a given era. There is no definitive list, no stone-set criteria for what constitutes a GAN, just opinion.
But, at the very least, it should be a fabulously written story with a wider comment on what it means to be American. Or, as heavyweight critic A. O. Scott put it, it is a “hybrid … crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism.” It should, in other words, get under the skin of the American Dream and feel about for its vital organs.
So, in the spirit of feeling about in the dark, here are 10 of our favourite contenders.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1925)
“[I am] now reading the great American novel (at last!),” wrote the writer Edith Wharton to a friend in 1926, “and I want to know … if you know the young woman [who wrote it], who must be a genius.”
The genius in question, of course, was Hollywood screenwriter Anita Loos, whose novel about a far-smarter-than-she'd-have-you-believe “flapper” (a New York party girl of the 1920s) who bounces from sugar daddy to sugar daddy like a full-time job was fast becoming the second biggest-selling novel of 1926.
It wasn't just a great read (James Joyce, his eyesight already failing, is said to have “reclined on a sofa reading Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for three days”). With the kind of acid wit and irony few fusty critics of the time believed a woman could muster, it skewered a patriarchy obsessed with looks, sex and money, positively reframed the image of free-wheeling female youth, and helped to define America's Jazz Age for ever.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011)
Less a novel than a post-modern collage of interweaving stories, Jennifer Egan's epoch-surfing masterpiece dances through time and place – from the 1970s San Francisco punk scene to suburban New York in the 1990s to the 2020s (the future!) – in an unforgettable pageant of pure, uncut, high-grade Americana.
It is a reverberating satire about love, life, thwarted ambition, regret, hope, family, success, failure, the music industry, materialism, capitalism, the American celebrity industrial complex and, above all, the remorseless march of time (aka the titular “goon”).
It provoked a cyclone of critical and commercial praise that swirled around it's release, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and a reputation as one of the great American satires of the early 21st century.
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