I just finished two novels that I read sort of simultaneously (’cause I’m lazy, I left one in the kitchen and one on my nightstand), and I enjoyed them both, even if they’re not the sort that I’d usually like (I guess – I have not idea what that kind of statement means anymore). The two are a visit from the goon squad by Jennifer Egan and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, and they fit well in some ways, so well that I occasionally got characters mixed up, or forgot which novel I was in.
I found both of them hard to put down, especially when Egan drowns one of her pov characters halfway through, but I also started thinking about a conversation that seems to creep into conversations among English professors, one that I didn’t use to think about because I didn’t think it mattered, but one that now seems to matter only in the sense that it defines how we think about lit.
The contest is for the greatest American novelist, and it’s always been one that I sort of just assumed went to a specific kind of brilliant, long, emotional-yet-intellectual tome, written by a white guy, and is one of a series of great novels written by this same guy. In grad school I had a couple of friends who used to argue back and forth between Gaddis and DeLillo, and recently Frantzen has been named in this conversation, and all of them are brilliant, writing novels that occasionally make me shiver with some sort of delight at being in the presence of someone able to make me feel all this stuff through words on a page.
And yet I didn’t care, mostly because I never really sat down and read everything by anyone (beside maybe Tolkien when I was a teenager, and there wasn’t nearly enough of his stuff). But if I would make the argument now (even as I chuckle at the fact that I suddenly am considering this at all), I realize that I’d pick someone like Colson Whitehead or Jennifer Egan instead of Frantzen or Pynchon or whomever. Suddenly, the question doesn’t feel as facile as it once did, for the on-at-least-one-level ridiculous reason that the possibilities aren’t all white guys.
Anyway, Egan’s novel tells a series of interlocked stories, joined by characters from the post-punk NYC scene in the mid-80s, with the relations between characters seeming natural and not forced in a oh-look-what-I-found sense. She even has the confidence to do about 75 pages of graphics, telling the story of one of the characters after the action in the beginning, through the eyes of her kids. It’s powerful, compelling, and about the relationships far more than the music, which is the reason I picked it up originally. I read her novel The Keep earlier, and I find the way she crosses generic boundaries impressive and brilliant.
Semple’s novel is another sort of thing altogether. She tells the story of a genius architect who (not coincidentally is a woman in a field notorious for dick-swinging) creates works of sheer genius with materials from ruined sites. She’s the ultimate found-artist, but she eventually goes a bit nuts as she loses her way after moving and suffering several miscarriages. She finds herself on a trip to Antarctica, although the novel isn’t nearly that precious.
Joe Billy Bob Briggs says two thumbs up, way up!