Saturday, March 10, 2007

Paper Failibility

Any serious list of candidates for The Great American Novel would have to include:

1. Huckleberry Finn

2. The Great Gatsby

3. Moby-Dick

4. The Grapes of Wrath

To which I, who lean heavily toward Huckleberry Finn, would add:

5. My Antonia

6. A Light in August, and either

7. The House of Mirth,or

8. The Age of Innocence

With sufficient quantities of the right pinot noir, I could even be tempted to add Nathaniel West's trenchant,ironic The Day of the Locust.

One trait all nine narratives share is some notable and apparent flaw. The Twain novel was going along splendidly until Tom Sawyer appeared, took over, and led the charge to perform a cruel and demeaning trick on the runaway slave, Jim. Gatsby's ascension from poor-at-the-heels Jay Gatz to a preeminent position of wealth and power was in many ways too rapid to be believed--we more or less had to take Fitzgerald's word for it. Melville and his only-survivor amanuensis, Ishmael, tell us more about whales than we want to know. Steinbeck fell increasingly more in love with the Oakies in general and the Joads in particular, to the point where he was blinded by sentimentality. Willa Cather romanticized and idealized her Nebraskan farmers to the point where they became stereotypes rather than individuals. Joe Christmas, however ambiguous he may be racially is nevertheless too good to be true. Edith Wharton was too repressed and Nathaniel West too bitter to be trusted in recording their chosen landscapes for investigation.

Those are not, by the way, my critical points (although I think Melville did go on a bit about whaling);they are the critical points raised against these remarkable works of high art. These critical points either directly or indirectly insist that we should settle for nothing less than perfection. I think this also intends the comparison to works from Russia, England, France--well, you know, Europe and things European, which takes us back on the delicious return to The Innocents Abroad,Twain's leading the charge against things European. We want what we cannot have--the appearance of Culture. But ours is never good enough. See Jack London's Martin Eden.We want perfection, which is easier to equate with Greatness because it has no blemish. So in this kind of algebra, perfect symmetry is equal Greatness.

Forget Navajo rugs, into which the weaver deliberately includes a glitch; such imperfections keep the object out of the museum of Culture. Forget Miles Davis, on whose recordings we can sometimes hear sharps or flats that don't appear to belong.

Such lofty qualities as Greatness, Resonance, Artistic Splendor all have their genesis for us in much more mundane characteristics, those of risk and transportation. Our first risk is to our own nature when we set down work: We risk the consequences of shattering our carefully acquired technique in order to be plunged beyond it. If we win, we are taken somewhere, to a terrain called Happiness. If we lose, the big HOLLYWOODLAND sign on our psyche reads Despair.

And so, to paraphrase Henry James, we work in and with the mundane, risking banishment to the Van Nuys of Despair, seeking the momentary Happiness of knowing the job is done--until the next time. Our enemies, our axis of evil, become self-doubt, hubris, relying on the solution we evolved for the last job.

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