November 29, 2007

The Great American Novel vs. The Death of the Novel, a progress report

Time seems to be running out for the appearance of that hopeful monster, the Great American Novel, which was a project first bruited about in the early decades of the twentieth century and never taken to heart more tenaciously than by Norman Mailer, who died recently without quite realizing his own ambitions in this regard.

I'm sure Mailer was aware that The Executioner's Song is a magnificent book, and that his own high regard for it would be shared unfailingly down the ages by those who read it. And yet in the end he felt he hadn't created the thing, the Great American Novel that every novel writer of his generation had been led to believe was out there to be had.

Well, it was always more of a goal than a destination, The Great American Novel, and it doesn't even come up much anymore, really, even in the context of some wistful plan to throw down everything and devote oneself to art. People would most likely opt for music or acting these days if it came to that. The people who make novels have their own good reasons for writing them, but I don't think many novel writers nowadays are solely motivated by a desire to make that singularly great American one that once seemed possible in the back of the mind of many, and on the tip of the lip of Mailer for most of his career.

Mailer literalized the hunt for the Great American Novel as an agon for writers with their dedicated talents jostling for its prize, competitors for the thing that just might be had, might be made by dint of the superior effort of the very best of them, just then as the era of the Death of the Novel was beginning in earnest.

The Death of the Novel has been going on for decades now and it gets more press these days than talk of the Great American Novel does. Well, of course, it's a terrible loss for all concerned, the Death of the Novel, and it's only fitting that anyone with any sensitivity at all should pause to say a few words over the corpus, which was such a fine fit art in its day, now dying off, killed by offspring, just as it assisted in its own day in the Death of Poetry. Ah, well, in all the decades since the conclusive end of the form was first discerned, many sobering words on the subject have been announced with all the niceties of thoughtfulness and remorse that the occasion requires, and many wonderful novels have been published, but mostly, it is taking so long to complete that the Death of the Novel, too, seems more likely a goal than a destination. Whether it can be reached before the Great American Novel is uttered remains an open question.

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