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eReviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc: Why Are We Obsessed With the Great American Novel?

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Cheryl Strayed and Adam Kirsch try to get to the bottom of our long-running obsession with the Great American Novel.

By Cheryl Strayed

The idea that only one person can produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole is pure hogwash.

In 1868, John William De Forest published an essay in The Nation titled “The Great American Novel.” In it, he argued for the rise of fiction that more accurately reflected American society than did the grand, romantic novels of the time, whose characters he thought belonged to “the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality.” In the course of making his case, De Forest considered, then cast aside, the likes of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne before landing on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was, in De Forest’s opinion, if not quite the Great American Novel, “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon” of a book that captured what was, to him, America — a populace of “eager and laborious people, which takes so many newspapers, builds so many railroads, does the most business on a given capital, wages the biggest war in proportion to its population, believes in the physically impossible and does some of it.”

That De Forest was arguing in hopes of not one Great American Novel, but rather the development of a literary canon that accurately portrayed our complex national character, has been lost on many, as generation after generation of critics have since engaged in discussions of who might have written the Great American Novel of any given age, and writers have aspired to be the one chosen — a competitive mode that is, I suppose, as American as it gets. It’s also most likely the reason that the idea has persisted for so long. To think that one might be writing the Great American Novel, as opposed to laboring through a meandering 400-page manuscript that includes lengthy descriptions of the minutiae of one’s mildly fictionalized childhood (pushing a bicycle up a hill on a hot Minnesota day, sexual fantasies about Luke Skywalker), is awfully reassuring. I have a purpose! I am writing the Great American Novel!

Or so one can tell herself until one day an austere portrait of Jonathan Franzen shows up on the cover of an August 2010 issue of Time magazine alongside the words “Great American Novelist.” As I beheld it, I could all but hear the wails and curses of 10,000 novelists across the land — a sizable fraction of whom are also named Jonathan, as it turns out — each of them crushed and furious over the fact that they weren’t deemed the One. Never mind that Franzen is indeed a great American novelist. Never mind that a lot of other people are too. Never mind that this idea — that one person, and only one person, in any given generation can possess the intellectual prowess, creative might, emotional intelligence and writing chops to produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole — is pure hogwash. Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time with that age-worn, honorific phrase beside his solemn face either rattles or reassures us because we’re American. It’s in our national character — which is to say, deep in our bones — to believe that when it comes to winners, there can be only one.

But art isn’t a footrace. No one comes in first place. Greatness is not a universally agreed-upon value (hence there’s no need to email me to disagree with my admiration of Franzen, or to offer advice about whether I should include Luke Skywalker in my next novel). America isn’t one story. It’s a layered and diverse array of identities, individual and collective, forged on contradictory realities that are imbued with and denied privilege and power. Our obsession with the Great American Novel is perhaps evidence of the even greater truth that it’s impossible for one to exist. As Americans, we keep looking anyway.

Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller “Wild,” the New York Times best seller “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and the novel “Torch.” Strayed’s writing has appeared in “The Best American Essays,” The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Salon, Tin House, The Rumpus — where she wrote the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column — and elsewhere. The movie adaptation of “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, was released in December. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and their two children.

*****

By Adam Kirsch

The more deeply a novel lays bare the darkness in American society and the American soul, the more likely it is to become a classic.

Early last year, the publication of Lawrence Buell’s study “The Dream of the Great American Novel” gave critics a chance to ask whether that dream is still alive. For the most part, their answer was no. The GAN, to use the acronym Buell employs (taking a cue from Henry James), represents just the kind of imperial project that contemporary criticism has learned to mistrust. What writer, after all, has the right, the cultural authority, to sum up all the diverse experiences and perspectives that can be called American in a single book? To Michael Kimmage, writing in The New Republic, the “dream of the GAN” appeared “silly and naïve and antiquated.” Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, observed wryly that “nothing is more American than our will to make the enormous do the work of the excellent. We have googly eyes for gargantuan statements.”

In his book, however, Buell reminds us that the term “Great American Novel” has seldom been used unironically. Almost from the moment it was coined, by the novelist John De Forest in 1868, it has been used to mock the overweening ambition it names. Buell quotes one post-Civil War observer who compared it to such “other great American things” as “the great American sewing-machine, the great American public school [and] the great American sleeping-car.” When Philip Roth actually wrote a book called “The Great American Novel,” in 1973, it was, inevitably, a satire.

It might be hard today to find a critic, especially an academic critic, who would accept the idea of the GAN or even of its component parts. Greatness, Americanness and the novel itself are now concepts to be interrogated and problematized. Yet somehow the news of this obsolescence has not quite reached novelists themselves, who continue to dream about writing the big, complex book that will finally capture the country. There is nothing subtle about this ambition: When Jonathan Franzen wrote his candidate for the GAN, he called it “Freedom”; Roth named his attempt (sincere, this time) “American Pastoral.” These are titles that call attention to their own scope, in the tradition of John Dos Passos, who titled his trilogy of the-way-we-live-now novels simply “U.S.A.”

And the response to “Freedom” and “American Pastoral” — two of the most successful and widely praised literary novels of our time — shows that readers, too, have not given up on the promise of the GAN. The thirst for books that will explain us to ourselves, that will dramatize and summarize what makes Americans the people they are, is one manifestation of our incurable exceptionalism. Of course, we could learn from Tolstoy or Shakespeare what human beings are like, but that does not satisfy us; Homo americanus has always conceived of itself as a new type, the product of what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.” This conviction, which can be traced in our politics, economic system and foreign policy, cannot help influencing our literature.

Yet as Buell also emphasizes, the novels that we now think of as canonical GANs are by no means patriotic puffery. On the contrary, the more deeply a novel lays bare the darkness in American society and the American soul, the more likely it is to become a classic. “Moby-Dick,” the most obvious GAN candidate, is centered on a vengeful megalomaniac; “The Great Gatsby” is about a social-climbing fraud; “Beloved” is about slavery and infanticide. Even “The Catcher in the Rye,” a book whose modest scale and New York focus might seem to keep it out of the pantheon of Great American Novels, is at heart a naïvely passionate indictment of American phoniness and fallenness.

Perhaps what drives these books, and drives us to read them again and again, is the incurable idealism about America that we all secretly cherish, and which is continually disappointed by reality. “America when will you be angelic?” Allen Ginsberg demands in “America,” which belongs in the much less discussed category of Great American Poems. As long as the question makes sense to us, our novelists will keep asking it.

Adam Kirsch is a columnist for Tablet. He is the author of two collections of poetry and several other books, including, most recently, “Why Trilling Matters.” In 2010, he won the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism.

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eReviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc: ‘Whipping Boy’ by Allen Kurzweil

When a middle-class Jewish boy from New York enrolled at a Swiss boarding school in 1971, the lessons in swordsmanship and elocution were hardly the strangest things he encountered. Unchaperoned boys were often sent with minimal supplies on expeditions into the frozen Alps for multiple days.

Younger boys, barefoot and without gloves, cleaned pubic hair and dirty gunk from the drains of the common showers (which dispensed cold water). And once the doors in the dormitories closed each night, supervision, minimal as it was, ceased.

Even faint rumors of the behavior in the anecdotes from Allen Kurzweil’s new memoir, “Whipping Boy,” would trigger lawsuits today. Kurzweil’s roommates forced him to swallow painful quantities of hot sauce; they whipped him with a belt while playing “The Thirty-Nine Lashes” from “Jesus Christ Superstar;” they hurled his most treasured possession, an irreplaceable family heirloom from his deceased father, out the window of their fifth-story room. The worst of the bullies threatened to throw Kurzweil out the window as well.

“Boys will be boys” doesn’t capture the gravity of their behavior; “boys will be sadistic little monsters whose victims suffer lifelong trauma” is more precise. Suffice it to say that boarding school made a lasting impression on Kurzweil. He was a middle-class Jewish kid from New York, but his peers were the sons and daughters of bankers, aristocrats and heirs to vast fortunes. He was soon nicknamed “Nosey” in sneering tribute to his Jewish roots.

This might make Kurzweil’s memoir sound like the typical fare publishers favor: a work that wallows so happily in childhood misfortune that sympathy slowly gives way to suspicion that the author is secretly thrilled by the chance to relate such infinite suffering. But the alpine agonies of the 10-year-old Kurzweil occupy only the first 50 pages of the book. What follows is something much stranger and more interesting than an ordinary woe-is-me story.

After a year at the Swiss boarding school, Kurzweil returned to the States and grew up to be a successful author and journalist. But hot sauce and songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar” still prompted painful memories of his chief tormentor, a boy aptly named Cesar Augustus. Encouraged by his wife and experienced in sleuthing as a journalist, Kurzweil decided to research what became of his old bully.

He learns that Cesar, full name Cesar Augusto Viana, played a vital role in an international fraud scheme involving associates implicated in acts of deception, forgery, fraud and assassination. In short, his old bully seems to have behaved with all the unscrupulous and ravenous ambition befitting his imperial name. “Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to unearth such exquisite corroboration of childhood villainy,” Kurzweil writes after a key discovery.

The fraud scheme itself is a fascinating demonstration of the power of prestige. Some of the details are pure Hollywood. A group of disingenuous men claimed the titles of minor European royalty, dressed in silk ascots and tailcoats, and made liberal use of a Maltese lapdog and a gold-handled cane. This regal paraphernalia helped them swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars from prospective borrowers who were constantly criticized for their lapses in etiquette and their tastelessly casual clothing.

Those duped were not necessarily naïve — they included a powerful television executive and several lawyers at one of the most prestigious firms in Manhattan. The combination of brazen lying and subtle manipulation fooled the worldly and gullible alike. Eventually the group was prosecuted and its principals found guilty of fraud. The trial generated a massive paper trail that Kurzweil tracks with a doggedness bordering on obsession. But his research is rewarded with appalling and hilarious revelations about Viana and his fellow con men.

Certain features of the hustle are suspiciously evocative of the Swiss boarding school that Viana and Kurzweil attended. The crest of the invented loan consortium resembles the logo of the school, and an emphasis on ornamental displays of rank is central to both institutions. A deeper continuity runs between Viana as a 12-year-old bully and an adult con man: He inflicts material and psychological damage with the same callous cruelty in both incarnations.

Kurzweil’s book is a captivating hybrid of investigative journalism and memoir. His tone is more often comic than aggrieved or vindictive, but the stakes are serious. Viana inflicted real emotional anguish and financial loss on many people. When Kurzweil confronts Viana in person at the end of the book, he’s not simply settling a private score; he’s standing up for anyone who has ever been bullied.

eReviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc: ‘Amnesia,’ Peter Carey’s novel about cybercrime

Halfway through Peter Carey’s new novel, “Amnesia,” I began to worry I was suffering from it.

Who wrote this tedious mess?

Where was that two-time Booker winner who gave us such spectacular novels as “Oscar and Lucinda” and “Jack Maggs”?

Readers may have trouble remembering the jacket copy, too, which describes “Amnesia” as a cerebral thriller involving cybercrime and international intrigue. That’s true for about 20 pages. Carey, a former advertising executive, knows the importance of a great hook, and the opening of “Amnesia” couldn’t be more relevant and exciting:

“It was a spring evening in Washington DC; a chilly autumn morning in Melbourne; it was exactly 22:00 Greenwich Mean Time when a wormCar entered the computerised control systems of countless Australian prisons and released the locks in many other places of incarceration, some of which the hacker could not have known existed.”

Because those computer systems had been designed by American firms, the worm instantly spreads through the United States, too, breaking open thousands of prisons, including secret black sites in [REDACTED] where the CIA keeps [REDACTED]. On computer screens across the world, the group behind this apocalyptic amnesty announces: “The corporation is under our control. The Angel declares you free.”

Who you gonna call — James Bond? Ethan Hunt? Jason Bourne?

No, this is a job for a glib, left-wing writer named Felix Moore, “the most controversial journalist of his generation.” He’s just been financially ruined by a defamation case (his 99th), which makes him especially grateful for the support of a rich old friend, Woody Townes. Bereft of money, home and family, Felix could use a big project to rehabilitate himself, and for his own mysterious reasons, Woody wants Felix to write a flattering biography of the Angel computer hacker. “The defendant won’t talk to anyone but you,” Woody tells him. “I bailed the bloody Angel before the US could touch her.”

Her. Yes, the Angel is a young woman.

“Australianize her,” Woody demands. “Make it up, and most of all make the bitch lovable,” so lovable that the CIA won’t be able to spirit her away without causing national outrage. Because this isn’t just any young woman. She’s Gabrielle Baillieux, the daughter of a famous actress that Woody and Felix knew (and loved) in their radical student days. Writing an exculpatory biography about the young computer criminal will be an audacious and dangerous literary stunt, but it also promises to bring Felix back in touch with the girl’s mother.

This exhilarating setup is infected with all kinds of destructive malware, but for a while, the story races along Carey’s fiber-optic lines. Woody is a lot more threatening than he first appears. Young Gaby is aligned with some awfully unsavory figures, and she seems unwilling to participate in the sugarcoating of her life story. Most troubling of all, Gaby’s mother, the famous actress, is surely manipulating everyone involved. Even before Felix can figure out whom he’s really working for, he’s given miles of meandering audiotape and whisked away to an undisclosed location, where he’s ordered to start writing — fast — on a manual typewriter (the last defense against the NSA). It doesn’t take a computer genius to realize that whatever he composes is likely to get people — starting with himself — killed. But he knows, “This was the story I had spent my life preparing for.”

Truth and deception have long been adulterous lovers in Carey’s fiction. He lashed together a similarly treacherous triangle a few years ago in a svelte novel about art crooks called “Theft.” And in “My Life as a Fake,” he nested deceptions within hoaxes surrounded by monkey business to write about literary fraud. Those novels, though, no matter how much they feinted, were always fantastically engaging.

“Amnesia” may leap off today’s front-page headlines, but it quickly gets lost in Felix’s dull recreation of Gaby as a young hacker in the early days of personal computers. This teen drama — think “DOSon’s Creek” — can’t possibly compete with the chaos we’re asked to imagine is now ravaging the world’s computer systems.

It doesn’t help that “Amnesia” is predicated on a largely forgotten political conflict between Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and President Richard Nixon. Old spooks and students of Asia-Pacific politics will remember what Felix calls “the traumatic injury done to my country by our American allies in 1975”: The CIA conspired with MI6 to bring down Whitlam in a bloodless coup designed to protect Pine Gap, America’s secret listening post in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. That evil footnote in our nation’s diplomatic history received a bit of new attention in 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed that Pine Gap is now part of the PRISM program that allows the NSA to spy on almost everyone all the time. But U.S. and British fiddling with Australian politics in the mid-1970s might as well remain classified information for all its currency among American readers — and Carey’s elliptical and erratic narrative does little to draw back that veil of secrecy.

What a missed opportunity for one of the best writers in the world. With his story of the muckraker and the cyberterrorist, Carey might have given us a provocative update on Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer.” Or he could have breathed life into that forgotten coup of 1975 the way he reimagined the folk hero in “True History of the Kelly Gang.” But instead, all the potentially fantastic elements of “Amnesia” are minced and scrambled and finally overwhelmed.