Literary Fiction

The Great American Novel? Yes, please

Last week in Salon, Julia Ingalls used Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior, as a jumping-off point to ask the question, “Is the Great American Novel still relevant?” Leaving aside how many times that question has been asked, and whether there is any clear definition of the Great American Novel to begin with, the essay-cum-review is so full of question-begging I couldn’t resist tugging at the strings of Ingalls’s tightly bound package of doom and gloom.

Ingalls opens with a theme she will harp on throughout, that “we live in an era when social mobility is passé, and everything hinges on a two-tier system.” Her evidence for this is meager at best; she conflates the two different sets of wages and benefits for new union hires in Detroit with telecom pushes against “net neutrality,” diffential tuitions at a community college, and the uneven placement of tolls between New York and New Jersey as evidence for a “class division.” Something tells me should wouldn’t object to, say, a two-tier tax system—except to say that it should be more divisive than that.

More than anything, Ingalls’s complaints seem bizarre. She claims that American politicans’ “consistuents think ‘forklift’ refers to a movement preceding the salad course”—what would actually be “shocking” is if anyone thought that. And if she doesn’t think people are still happy to leave the “Old World, and all of the ingrained prejudices and inflexible lifestyles that it implied” to come to the US as a land of opportunity, well, she should probably get out more.

None of that is to say that we should look at the country through rose-colored lenses, but avoiding sunglasses indoors is probably warranted. I have not read Flight Behavior, but many of the descriptions of how culturally stunted its milieu is give pause. “[S]et in rural Appalachia…[t]his is a place where basic cable sets the cultural high-water mark” and “[a]side from television, all of [protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow] exposure to culture is limited to the local papers and the low-grade bitchery of interfamilial politics.” Rural America may encompass the least wired parts of the country, but 85% of adult men and women use the internet, including 61% with no high school diploma, 80% of high school grads without further education, and 75% of those making less than $30,000 per year. How much culture does Ingalls suppose was available in rural Appalachia at the time of her Great American Novel heroes like Gatsby or Huck Finn? As Ingalls laments the perceived irrelevance of college to many in Dellarobia’s town, did she stop to wonder about whether a sheep farmer really does need a BA, or whether that might not be the best investment? Or how many more people go to college now than ever before, with its accompanying drop in the value of a degree and increase in the number of college grads employed in relatively low-skilled jobs—with student loans to pay off? No, the internet and mobile phones are not universal, but the idea that our “world is only getting smaller” is a stretch. Horror of horrors, Dellarobia has never been on an airplane! (According to Gallup, just over half of Americans have flown in the past year; lifetime unique passenger data has proved hard to come by, but we can be confident that Dellarobia is far from alone.)

The college thing grates most for Ingalls. For her, it “reads like a death knell for the novel and a free society in general: the idea that higher education is somehow an option, an unnecessary and ego-bloated expense meant only for a pre-selected few.” The idea that not everyone wants, needs, or should go to college is taboo; institutionalized higher education is a must, no matter the cost (or benefit), and to consider it a luxury a sign of being in a walled-in, reified class, never a thoughtful rejection of elite cultural norms. That the “free society” we currently live in was constructed by people who had no notion of contemporary tertiary education would seem obvious, and the reveal that Dellarobia does, indeed, break out of her small world—because she happens to want to—ends up answering Ingalls’s Great American Novel question in the affirmative.

I can’t help thinking, with Phillip Roth’s recent announcement that he will no longer be writing fiction, of another Great American Novel, his American Pastoral. The New Jersey Roth’s characters grow up in is no bed of roses, and the two-tired religio-cultural stratification they experience is much more immediate than questions of whether Comcast is going to meter your Bit Torrent downloads. Just as Ingalls concludes:

[I]t’s vital that we never write ourselves off just because of our perceived class. That spirit of adventure, that embrace of chaos, the refusal to give up on our dreams—oh, hell, being “American”—should never go out of style.

But how much hand-wringing is necessary along the way? We all have obstacles to overcome, some much greater than others, and no, “[t]here are no guarantees.” When have there been? Just as Huck Finn’s troubles were different from Gatsby’s, Gatsby’s different from Swede Lvov’s, and Lvov’s different from Dellarobia’s, the Great American Novel evolves to address what it may take for contemporaries to make it, no matter how many tiers there are and how high the walls between them.