The Great American Novel

Read a few novels on holiday and three of them were American. Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms, Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener, and Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic. They’re pretty different and while Ellis and Haslett’s are pretty new out, Maupin’s is a decade old. I read them for three quite different reasons. There’s no really convincing way of talking about them together, except that they all, to one extent or another, aspire to being literary novels. 

Why did I read them? I read the Ellis because I always do and I find him, in some ways, more and more interesting as his work seems to deform and become more baroque, more horrible, less ‘well written’. I read The Night Listener because I was interested in the hoax on which it was based (and in which Maupin became involved). I read Adam Haslett’s novel after coming across it in a list of 10 Books on the Financial Crisis and thinking it sounded it was in the mould of Bonfire of the Vanities, a kind of vast, Dickensian, multistranded story that I always find sumptuously and uncomplicatedly pleasurable.

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The Night Listener is potentially very interesting. It’s a story about a celebrated writer who is facing a mid-life crisis as his (gay) relationship falls apart and he finds himself blocked creatively, and plagued with doubts about the durability of his talent. He reads a manuscript by a 13-year-old boy who has survived years of abuse by his parents and a ring of paedophiles. He is thrilled by the manuscript and begins a quasi-paternal telephone relationship with the boy. But doubts begin to be sown about the reality of the story, even of the existence of the boy, and he goes on a quest for the truth.

What makes the story interesting is that it is an exploration of what we demand of writing, what stake we have in its reality. This is nicely adumbrated in this roman à clef which is partly real and partly fictionalised and so the exercise of writing the novel in itself becomes a formal and narrative exploration of authenticity and its others. On the way it also becomes a story about fathers and sons, ageing and need. In this way, it shows its aspirations to address serious matters and to do so by exploring the nature of fictions and our engagements with them.

But Maupin’s writing really isn’t up to it. The intensity of the story required a very sophisticated style and perhaps an embrace of some of the darker motives that draw us to these stories of horror (it’s a book that predates the 2000s’ obsession with the misery memoir). But Maupin is a very cosy writer, ultimately; when he needs darkness, he is drawn to thriller genres, rather than darkness itself. He dislikes straying from narrative convention. The only exception is the end, where he seems to want the kid to exist and not to exist; but rather than profound ambiguity it looks like indecision. The central puzzle in the original hoax, and which surely drew Maupin as much as me to the book, is why someone would want to lie like this. What is it about our world that some people long to have the kind of sympathy, inspire the kind of horror and fascination, as someone who has experienced abuse, torture, a genocide? But ultimately, Maupin can’t go there, won’t go there. He is a decent man, but the book shows a failure of imagination. He leaves us with a mystified portrait of a blank person, whose heart is as cold as Maupin’s is warm. It’s a portrait of a sociopath, drawn by a sentimentalist.

Bret Easton Ellis has no trouble with the dark side. This book, a sequel to his breakthrough novel, Less Than Zero, follows the same protagonist, the numbed, curious Clay, who has now become a numbed, affectless adult, a screenwriter in Hollywood. He’s returned from New York and a doomed relationship and hooks up with an actress who has auditioned for a movie being made of one of his scripts. He knows she won’t get the part but he strings her along. Through the course of the novel he begins to have suspicions about her life and comes to believe he is being followed. He is constantly on the point of uncovering a sinister prostitution ring and a murder cover-up but never quite gets there. The denouement tells us that despite to dark emptiness of his soul, there is still someone who believes he has the gentle heart he had as a teenager.

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Bret Easton Ellis is an immensely brave writer. Not only is he vividly prepared to explore the most vertiginous emotional cruelty and nihilism, but he is also prepared to put his own writing personality on the line; he does not let us off the hook. He allows us to think that he, the writer, may be as cruel and cold and brutal as his narrator. There is no corner of the novel that reassures us of the work’s humanity - and even in American Psycho, there is that reassurance (the plainly satirical interludes of rock criticism). This book is closer to Psycho than any of the others; the coldness, the alienated, affectless descriptions of parties and people as so much noise, and colour, and meat. He does talk of emotions, but they are always his own. Towards the end of the novel, he describes, lingeringly, a marathon sex and torture session with two prostitutes, a boy and a girl. The sequence exhausts the reader’s capacity to empathise because as each act crests and falls, a new financial arrangement allows it to prolong, to get worse and the narrator tells us not enough of the two for us to care engagingly. We can imagine and empathise, but we know how mockingly Ellis and Clay would regard our desperate and empty compassionising.

(Bret Easton Ellis is writing increasingly like Dennis Cooper and that’s by no means a bad thing, since Cooper may be the greatest prose writer I have ever read.)

It was interesting to compare his use of genre with Maupin’s. For the latter, there’s a big-hearted enjoyment of narrative convention, as a way of organising story. Here, Ellis has seen that in the hard-boiled detective novel of Cain or Chandler, there is a dark heart, an absence, no centre to the maze. Here, genre becomes a way of disorganising story.

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Finally, Union Atlantic. It is a multi-stranded novel, but focusing on two neighbours in a semi-affluent North American suburb. The one is Charlotte, a history teacher, passionate, liberal, unfairly sacked under pressure from the parents not to teach negative images of US history, reduced to offering hourly tutorials to local kids at risk of failure, and on the brink of sheer craziness, hearing her dogs talk in the language of an Old Testament preacher and Malcolm X. The other is Doug, a Gulf War veteran-turned-banker. He has built his enormous and imposing new house on land bequeathed by his neighbour’s grandfather and she is determined to challenge this acquisition and see him off. But he has other problems: one of his Far East operatives has run up enormous debts for the bank, betting badly on the Japanese markets and it is only a matter of time before his life collapses around him.

It is not a reflexive novel; it is omniscient in narration and Adam Haslett is a quiet, reflective presence in the novel, who lets the story step forward. But, boy, it’s beautifully written. The story is panoramic, capturing something about the nature of America’s contemporary ideological conflicts )(the deep confusion over the credit crunch, the crushed history of the Liberal left, the shattered approach to sexuality). There is one chapter, I think it’s chapter 9, that tells the story of Charlotte’s one brief but disastrous relationship that is unbearably sad and beautifully, profoundly written. Really extraordinary writing and the chapter could stand alone as a short story in itself (Haslett’s one other book so far is a short-story collection). It’s not as challenging or daring as Ellis’s book but the technical assurance is astonishing and the delicacy of feeling and observation, the tautness of description, are maintained throughout without ever becoming precious or cloying. There are moments too of broad comedy, even of crude spectacle (I think of the sheep stampede), that manage to erupt into the book without ever quite spoiling the tone of careful precision.

The latter two suggest the classic opposed view of what constitutes the Great American Novel. The bold, Big Authored, modernist, experimental fiction or the large, realist, National, American Epic. Since novels aren’t really at the centre of my creative passions, I can take and recommend them both.