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Writers on the Storm

In an Increasingly Diverse Society, It's Becoming Apparent That It May Well Be Impossible to Craft the Great American Novel--Even as the Works of Four Literary Lions Blow Into Bookstores

May 12, 1997|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the most reassuring things about walking into a bookstore is how little the stock changes from day to day. Sure, the new titles and displays revolve constantly, but once you get among the shelves, the world seems largely fixed. It's as if, somehow, literature is a stable universe where new material gets added, but nothing is ever really taken away.

That sense has been heightened this month with the appearance of new novels by four of our most famous literary lions--Norman Mailer's "The Gospel According to the Son" (Random House), Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" (Houghton Mifflin), Saul Bellow's "The Actual" (Viking) and Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" (Henry Holt). In the words of Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again.

On a certain level, this bit of publishing synchronicity is simply a coincidence, a quirk of scheduling that has little to do with anything other than these writers' ability to persevere. Still, the near simultaneous reemergence of four such iconic novelists is worth noting for the questions it raises about American literature and how it has or has not changed. Is this, in the words of Brian Stonehill, professor of English and media studies at Pomona College, "an important moment in literary history?" Or does it represent what novelist and critic Ishmael Reed calls "defensive white male literature, the senior citizen pantheon's last gasp?"

In other words, do these once-venerable authors continue to resonate, or are they, as Reed puts it, "dinosaurs" whose literary moment has come and gone? "Certainly, the idea of the pantheon remains valid," says novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, who served as one of the judges for this year's PEN / Faulkner fiction award. "Only the notion that it is limited to certain white male writers has changed."

Indeed, a similar convergence of prominent novelists from later generations would show vastly more variety in ethnicity, gender and point of view.

Twenty-five years ago, the subject was less complicated. Then, Mailer, Roth, Bellow and, to some extent, Pynchon stood at the epicenter of American culture, as close as this country had to a literary honor roll. Their books were large, consequential, grappling with big themes and unwieldy chunks of experience.

Although in our current landscape of aesthetic fragmentation, it's hard to imagine anyone seriously considering the notion, these writers came up in a climate where one could still aspire to bring forth the so-called Great American Novel, the definitive statement that might sum up an age. In 1973--the same year Pynchon staked his claim with "Gravity's Rainbow"--Roth actually wrote a novel with that as its title. Roth telegraphed his satiric sensibility by choosing for an epigraph Frank Norris' comment that "the Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff," though one senses his intentions were more complex.

Today, however, even the term "Great American Novel" stirs up something akin to disbelief. "It's not a phrase used by people who read," says Jonathan Franzen, a novelist who writes about fiction for the New Yorker and Harper's. "Rather, it's almost belittling. 'He's taking a year off to write the Great American Novel,' that sort of thing." Novelist and critic Nicholson Baker admits he "never really understood this particular fixation. Nobody sits around fretting about the Great English Novel."

Mona Simpson, author of "Anywhere but Here," reiterates Baker's point, suggesting that "the notion is a quaint one, the mark of a culture coming into its own. The whole idea becomes preposterous once a culture has some sense of itself, as we do now."

Even Mailer, who at 74 remains cantankerous and controversial--his new book retells the Christ story from the perspective of the savior himself--sees the idea as moot. "This is not an era sympathetic to serious young novelists," he says by phone from Chicago, where he is on tour. "In the 1940s, we used to talk seriously about the Great American Novel, but I don't think it exists anymore. Now, everyone would attack you for the things you don't know."

Mailer's point is well-taken, for there is no doubt society has changed. On the one hand, identity politics may have rendered the notion of a cohesive American perspective obsolete; on the other, literature is no longer central to the way we understand the world. In the first few decades after World War II, books possessed a kind of primacy in American culture. Literary writers regularly graced bestseller lists, and popular magazines published stories by J. D. Salinger and John Steinbeck.

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