Friday, June 28, 2019
June 28, 2019: 21st Century Lit: Five Great (American) Novels
[In honor of my about-to-conclude grad class on Analyzing 21st Century America, a series on great recent literary works, with the same Af Am lit through-line that I brought to the class!]
Five recent novels that stake their claim to the title of Great American Novel.
1) Behold the Dreamers (2016): Imbolo Mbue’s stunning debut novel is a historical novel about the 2008 financial crisis and recession, a multi-generational immigrant saga of a young family from Cameroon, a novel of manners about class and inequality in contemporary New York, a bittersweet romance, and a moving depiction of the promise and limits of the American Dream. Among other things!
2) Lovecraft Country (2016): It might be enough just to note that Jordan Peele’s first project after his Oscar-winning Get Out will be to produce an adaptation of Matt Ruff’s supernatural historical novel for HBO. But if I need to say more, I’ll note that Ruff’s gripping page-turner combines John Bellairs and Ralph Ellison, among many other influences (including of course the weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft and his peers), to produce something entirely new. Some critics might argue that genre fiction can’t also compete for the Great American Novel crown; those critics would be wrong, as Ruff illustrates perfectly.
3) Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017): I’m not gonna lie, I haven’t yet had a chance to read Jesmyn Ward’s acclaimed new novel. So I won’t pretend otherwise or say too much here, other than that anything Ward writes is to my mind an automatic contender for any and all accolades, and that from everything I’ve read Sing takes her talents to one more level still. You’ll be the first to hear when I do get to check it out, dear readers!
4) The Sympathizer (2015): As Philip Caputo (one of our foremost authorities on the Vietnam War) argues in that hyperlinked NYT review, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel offers a strikingly new lens through which to read Vietnam (in relationship to the United States and the world, and on its own complex terms). That’d be enough all by itself to make this a crucial and great American novel. But Nguyen’s book is also funny and moving, engaging and challenging, and utterly unique from start to finish.
5) What is the What (2006): I know I’m stretching the meaning of “recent” a bit with this one, but I don’t believe Dave Eggers’s novel has gotten the attention it deserves. Perhaps that’s because of its unsettling genre ambiguity: Eggers’s book is defined as a novel, but is written in the first-person voice of a real person, former Lost Boy of Sudan Valentino Achak Deng (just to add to the ambiguities, the book’s subtitle is The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng). I get the potential landmines of those choices, but to this reader the blurrings of genre and voice are part and parcel of this book’s unique identity and greatness, and its engagement with some of the most pressing 21st century issues (refugees and international crises, cross-cultural identities, war and violence, history and hope). Like all these contenders, at the very least What deserves to be read and responded to by as many American readers as possible!
June Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other recent literary works you’d highlight?