Monday, May 15, 2006

Seeking The Great American Novel

When the editor of the New York Times Book Review:
... sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years" -
- Toni Morrison's Beloved emerged as winner. The runner's up were Underworld by Don de Lillo, Blood Meridian by Cormac Mc Carthy, John Updike's Rabit Angstrom: The Four Novels and Philip Roth's An American Pastoral.

The complete list is here with links to the original NYT reviews of the books. (Also well worth reading is A. O. Scott's essay about the search for the Great American Novel.)

I'm dreadfully badly read in American fiction. I've read other novels by Toni Morrison (most recently Jazz) but not Beloved. I have read no Philip Roth (though I accidently watched the film of The Human Stain on TV and thought it had a great cast but was clumsily handled).

I have had Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses (which also apparently received multiple votes) sitting on my to-be-read shelf for a couple of years.

I read the first two books in the Rabbit tetralogy when I was in my teens (more than three decades ago - ouch!) and far too young to appreciate them.

It's interesting looking at the reader reviews on Amazon - great literature is not always the most popular reading. Underworld is particularly controversial. Readers love it or hate it totally. Give it one star or five.

I thought this story of ordinary lives lives in the shadow of the cold war one of the most satisfying books I've ever read.

Like the film The Red Violin or Annie Proulx's Accordian Crimes, much of the plot comes from the passing from hand to hand of a physical object - in this case a baseball. But otherwise there is no real plot: scenes and incidents fit together like a chinese puzzle and the reader is left to discover all the interconnections.

But I've never come across a book that was harder to get into. (The opening section describes a baseball game and you just have to imagine that you are the eye of the camera panning around the auditorium.)

You know, I've never met anyone here in Malaysia who has managed to read Underworld, so if you have, let me know. And if you are a determined reader who loves a challenge, go for it!

Meanwhile, I have to go hunt out Philip Roth ...

Postscript:

The Elegant Variation argues that "The absence of literary bloggers from the list of consultees has much to do with the staid nature of the results."

Related Posts:

The 100 Greatest Novels (23/10/05)
1001 Books You Must Read (19/4/06)

19 comments:

Sufian said...

Almost done with Underworld. After three tries. The first time I hated it - because of the baseball game. The second time I loved it , strangely, because of the baseball game (but I got bored with the next chapter).

FBT said...

strange - I tried to read Underworld (I almost never bother with any contemporary American writing), but was put off by the baseball game. I remember thinking that I was sick of bloody Americans banging on about baseball as if it meant the slightest thing to rest of us.

bibliobibuli said...

forget about the baseball!

just run it through the projector behind your eyes as quickly as you can - it's a movie and the camera eye pans round and round to capture the crowd

and looking back on the novel it's one of the parts i love the most because de lillo brings together a whole microcosm of american society

Chet said...

Toni Morrison rules!

dreamer idiot said...

Beloved is definitely beyond a doubt one of the best novels I have ever read (not that I have read many books). This is the first and only Tony Morrsion novel I have read so far. I wept the first time i read it...and still cried on the second time. It's just so achingly and hauntingly heart-wrenching that it tears your heart... Worthily voted as among the best in the last 25 yrs.

Toni Morrsion and Don Dellilo (have Underworld, but haven't started yet) are two novelists whose critical literature runs to the hundreds to thousands. There are both hugely complex authors, whose works are very layered, hence worth reading more than once. For Morrison, there is even a tome titled 'Encyclopedia on Morrison's themes and influences'!

Chet said...

I found Morrison increasingly hard to read from Beloved onwards, which I never did finish (but will try again), but persevered for Paradise and was hugely rewarded for it.

Her earlier works before Beloved include The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby.

dreamer idiot said...

Chet, thx for the info, but prob have to travel to KL to get the books or borrow it from you, perhaps..Haha. Yes, read the novel again, it's worth it.

Anonymous said...

Good. Now send out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of fiction published in the last 25 years that did not originate in the US" and then watch them hemm and haw :)

Ron said...

It's interesting how different we all are in the books we like. I have tried to read Beloved more than once but have got bored fast and stopped - perhaps I should perservere.

Chet said...

Ron - have you read any of her other books?

I didn't get bored - just distracted. I need to take it up again.

bibliobibuli said...

i enjoyed 'song of solomon' thought 'jazz' amazing but it wasn't an easy read ... look forward to 'beloved'

Chet said...

bib ... er, I mean Sharon - yes, Jazz wasn't easy. It just got harder after Beloved.

Are we on this weekeend for book cafe sussing?

bibliobibuli said...

sunday it will have to be - saturday is hectic ... brunch??

Greenbottle said...

i don't understand why people love toni morrison. i read the first forty pages or so of 'tar baby' several years ago and got quickly bored with it. and never have the urge to read any others anymore; 'beloved' included.and i won't read it just because 'some prominent writers, crtitics...' say it's the best american book in the last 25 yrs ... .

Stephen said...

were you dropping "Saturday" as a book-reference? In response to an earlier post, of course the yanks publish such lists: could anything be more "American" than "The Best"?
But there is some truth to the notion that today many of the "big" novels are from the states, whereas commonwealth writers are known for "consistency"-- Ondaatje, McEwan, Barnes and others-- have produced many outstanding books

Stephen said...

sorry; i hit the wrong key... As for the above named writers, my faviorite is Dellilo, with McCarthy not too far begind. I was moved and impressed by Beloved, but confess to being more interested in Dellilo's "subjects." Which is one big reason we over here admire him: he is the novelist of modern terror, and fascinating on the effects of commerce and technology on individuals and "crowds" (a favorite image of his). So read him; read other novels by him,esp. Mao II, The Names, White Noise, and (unless another popular american sport, football, would irritate you) the classic "Endzone," a briefer relative to Underworld's submergence in the cold war era. I for one am looking forward to On Chesil Beach-- save for Amazon.uk, ya'll are so lucky over there to get the book two months early!

bibliobibuli said...

hi stephen - not sure what you mean about dropping "Saturday" as a book-reference?

i take your point about bigness vs. consistency - nicely said

i must read the other de lillo novels and in fact several others are waiting patiently on my bookshelves, but i keep getting review copies butting in (inc. "on chesil beach")

would probably be less put off by a book about american football as it isn't a thousand miles away from rugby which i like very much

Stephen said...

well great bibi, then try Endzone: it is a bit dated "geopolitically" but still great and like many dellilo novels it is very funny at times.

I'm not sure myself what I meant by "dropped," certainly intended no disrespect... thought I liked Saturday, but in the end I guess I decided that the cooler reviews were deserved.

Now, I'll "post" this if I can just remember my username. Do you ever have that problem?

bibliobibuli said...

thanks for the recommendation and i will certianly look out for 'endzone". "falling man", his latest, sounds very interesting too