The Great American Novel in Transition and Translation
I am 36 years old.
According to Wikipedia, I am on the upper end of the age range for Millennials, which means I am young enough to navigate my iPhone successfully, post to Instagram and Twitter, and have a healthy suspicion of Wikipedia that doesn’t prevent me from using it as a source. This also means I am old enough to have processed negatives in a dark room, to remember when phones had cords, and to have accessed the internet through a cranky dial up modem that only worked when it was in the mood to do so.
I learned about the American Dream in high school at the hands and letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. I once dreamed of writing the Great American Novel until I lost thread of it when the attacks of September 11 changed the complexion of my senior year and the world I was about to inherit.
Now, amid endless screaming headlines, social unrest, and an America more divided than we’ve been in a long time, I wonder if writing the Great American Novel is still possible.
As a high school English teacher who has consulted Wikipedia, I know the Great American Novel is supposed to be written by an American author who has captured America’s character in a story that pursues the American Dream.
There are many who hold The Great Gatsby as the prime contender for the title. Fitzgerald, who published the book in 1925 to very little critical success, wasn’t among them. He died in 1940 before The Great Gatsby found true popularity and became a staple of American high school English classes.
The eponymous Jay Gatsby lives out a rags-to-riches tale in which he turned a dirt-poor existence into the life of a successful businessman. As related by Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby bought a mansion in West Egg across the bay from Daisy Buchanan. Everything Gatsby did was designed to earn his place in among the “old money” society of East Egg and become worthy of the debutante Daisy. Marriage to Daisy would have been the consummation of Gatsby’s American Dream.
With Daisy as his bride, Jay Gatsby would have had it all: a wife, a house, a car, and money. This is the quintessential American Dream, and if it sounds generic, that’s because it was. The prosperity of the early 20s eventually gave way to the Great Depression, during which Herbert Hoover supposedly claimed he would provide “a chicken in every pot and a car in every driveway.” As is perhaps fitting, the American Dream was partially born in a debate between presidential candidates. What became the American Dream was born of a country united by economic hardship and two world wars. It was rooted in the same idyllic national identity that gave rise to Superman in 1938, a hero who fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
If the notion of America as an ideal nation in which such dreams are possible sounds patriotic and glorious, that’s because it was. It was also superficial and shallow and placed a great deal of racial tension left over from slavery and a Civil War that still existed in living memory on the back burner to boil over decades later.
Almost a century has passed since Gatsby hit the shelves. Change happened quickly. We advanced from propeller-driven planes to walking on the moon, from telegrams to text messages, and from a white-centric ideal society to a nation that is finally, albeit in painful fits and starts, taking the first steps to becoming woke.
With so much change, why do we still accept the idea of a Great American Novel rooted in the past? For that matter, is writing such a novel even possible?
Haruki Murakami seems to think so.
Murakami is an internationally famous Japanese author who is known for peppering his novels with references to western pop culture. As a Japanese writer whose stories take place in his home country, Murakami is not eligible to write the Great American Novel by the traditional standards.
Set in Japan, Murakami’s most recent novel, Killing Commendatore, focuses on a portrait artist whose marriage has failed. Bereft of love, he seeks solitude in a remote house, only to be commissioned by a rich businessman to paint a portrait of a young girl. The businessman, Menshiki, was living across the valley from the girl, whom he strongly suspected was his daughter. He arranged the portrait so he could meet her by chance, much the way Gatsby threw epic parties in hopes of meeting Daisy again.
If this homage to The Great Gatsby wasn’t enough, Norwegian Wood takes the idea farther. Noru Watanabe, the humble protagonist of Norwegian Wood, is a Japanese student who reads The Great Gatsby through the course of the novel. Watanabe is in love with Naoko, an emotionally unstable woman who is forever beyond Watanabe’s reach. Watanabe struggles to make his peace with the idea that he and Naoko can never have their happily ever after, and the story ends in tragedy on par with Gatsby’s eventual murder.
Both of Murakami’s protagonists were seeking a sense of normalcy, of home and family, and of peace, which is just a more poetic way of saying “a chicken in every pot.”
In Killing Commendatore, Murakami wrote the Great American Novel. Norwegian Wood is worthy of being in the conversation for the title, but of two, I would argue Commendatore has the strongest claim.
But how? How can Murakami, a foreign author who lives in another country in a culture incredibly different from our own, write the Great American Novel?
Having seen echoes of my literary culture in Murakami’s works, I’ve come to believe it is because we can no longer point to a unified American identity. A century ago, we hung our hats on baseball and apple pie, on truth, justice, the American way, and in patriotic country songs that have largely faded from popular airwaves. The old ideal was largely white and male. It’s worth noting that Fitzgerald belonged to what I tell my students is the “old, dead white men canon of literature.” The American literary canon is largely male and white, yet that has never been all America was made of.
The Black Lives Matter movement has taken up the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The arrival of immigrants, both legal and illegal, to America is still a hotly debated topic even as we build a wall to separate us from those who are seeking a better life. We are a nation built on the notion that all men are created equal, yet we’re only just beginning to tear down statues honoring slaveholders who lost their war of rebellion more than 150 years ago. We are a nation of immigrants, and we love Chinese food and Mexican cuisine, yet we often treat those who bring those tasty dishes to us as second-class citizens and demand they speak a language we’ve never made official.
Our political forum has devolved into a partisan free-for-all empty of compromise. Where we once debated ideas, we now viciously attack people. It’s enough that our candidates oppose each other. We don’t need to know where they stand or what policies they support. They come pre-packed in red and blue wrapping, and that’s all most of us need to know how to vote. I once read the average American citizen couldn’t pass the citizenship test, and I believe that solely for the mess we’ve made of our political culture.
If you asked me to point to a national identity, I couldn’t do it. At the moment, I’m not sure anyone knows who we are as a nation.
If you asked me to describe the American Dream, I couldn’t do that, either. I could tell you what it was. My life is shaped around it. I have a wife, a home, two cars in my driveway, and a chicken in my pot whenever I want. I’m not rich. My wife and I still live paycheck-to-paycheck as we pay off mounds of school debt and all the other debts that come part-and-parcel with the classic American Dream.
We inherited a world constantly on edge amid the War on Terror, and the Great Recession of 2008 turned our 20s into an uphill battle economically. The Class of 2020 is inheriting a global economy tanked by the COVID-19 pandemic. What does the American Dream look like for them?
I have no idea.
Murakami, however, seems to have found an answer. From the outside looking in, Murakami discovered the thread of the Great American Novel that I lost as an aspiring writer 18 years ago.
Gatsby, you see, dreams of belonging, of being a part of the moment, of whatever it meant to be American in the 20s, and he longs for Daisy. Gatsby famously wants to repeat the past, and he never gives up hope even though he had to know such a task was made impossible by the very nature of time. Menshiki dreams and hopes for a happy relationship with his daughter even when he knows this cannot be. Watanabe dreams of a life with Naoko when everyone and everything tells him this isn’t possible.
The common thread that binds Gatsby to Menshiki and Watanabe, and Fitzgerald to Murakami is simple: the inherent hope of dreaming.
The American Dream should be different now than it was a hundred years ago, and we need to recognize that the old standards no longer hold true. Perhaps we must abandon the idea of a unified American Dream entirely and revel in each unique, individual American Dream as it is invented.
I write this as a middle-class white man who has had the privilege of living a life free of discrimination and the luxury of thinking this was the way things are. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted me to examine my own privilege, it should be prompting all of us to examine the movement as an embodiment of the American Dream. The movement seeks racial equality, to belong somewhere comfortably and without fear. If that isn’t at the heart of the American Dream, then we have to question whether or not the dream is even worth pursuit.
Our national identity cannot be what it was, and we should be willing to lay it to rest and move on to what comes next. I do not think it is possible at the moment to define that identity; it may not be possible for years. Perhaps like history, we need time and distance from the moment to understand who we will become, and the stories we create along the way will become a cultural treasure map to this hindsight. Just as our future identity will hopefully be one of cultural acceptance and equality, we must also be open to the idea that the author of the next Great American Novel may not even be American.
All of this, of course, is easier said than done. Change is never easy, but it is possible. We can dream, and we can hope.
Hope is the common thread of Murakami and Fitzgerald, and it is the essence of whatever shape the American Dream and the Great American Novel will eventually take. The shape of the dream, after all, isn’t what is important. It is the act of dreaming that matters because so long as there is a dream, there is the hope of it coming true.