A Elegy for the Great American Novel

Norman Mailer was the id of literature, as Leon Neyfakh tells us in this week’s issue of the Observer, but he was also one of the last writers pursuing the Great American Novel, according to The Indepedent’s John Walsh. “Mailer believed in it utterly,” Mr. Walsh wrote. “He called it ‘the big one’ and dreamed of bagging it one day, as game hunters go after ‘the big five’ of elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard.”

Mr. Walsh defines the GAN as “a single perfect work of fiction that would encapsulate the heart of the US, interpret its history through the light of a single, outstanding consciousness, unite the private lives of the characters with the public drama of its politics. It would be the War and Peace of the great plains and the Manhattan skyline.”

Where is the Great American Novel to be found today? Does anyone still care enough about writing an unprecedented masterpiece, to amaze and dismay his or her rival scribes, and offer the world a metaphor of America that will stick? There are talented middle-aged novelists around, such as Jonathan (The Corrections) Franzen, Jeffrey (The Virgin Suicides) Eugenides, David (Snow Falling on Cedars) Guterson, Jonathan (Motherless Brooklyn) Lethem and Donna (The Secret History) Tartt, all in their forties, but none has published any new fiction for four or five years.