My American Novel

About ten years ago, a female publishing co-worker accused me: “You never read anything but dead white men.”

At that time, I conceived such narrow constructions of my identity based on gender and ethnicity (myself being female and Asian) as an intrusion on my inner-life, and in the midst of the furor over gender questions brought to the forefront with the overgenerous acclaim of Franzen’s work, I still hold the same viewpoint.  Although I don’t plan to read Franzen’s new novel, having read a novel apiece by Franzen and Jennifer Weiner, I can easily say that I’d rather read Freedom over another of Weiner’s chick-lit if only the two authors were on a bookshelf.  Yet, if I had free range of any novel to represent my inner-life, it would most likely be Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady.

Who should dictate to reviewers and readers where alliances of sensibility be made?  And how have such choices become so crude as to be a checklist of categories — as though one were filling out a census form — rather than a representation of nuanced thought and subtleties of personal history?

What my co-worker said of me was not entirely true.  By the time I entered publishing, I had read what literary works were available by Asian Americans as well as the few Asian-American histories available in the early 1990s.  I studied African American literature in college along with early American literature and could trace the literary influences that shaped Phyllis Wheatley’s poems alongside that of  Thoreau’s essays.  Yet, as moved as I was by Carlos Bulosan and John Okada, neither represented my internal perception of American life.  (Possibly, it had to do with the fact I didn’t live on the West Coast.)

Not surprisingly, Franzen’s representation of American life in the suburbs also doesn’t jibe much with my childhood in various cities.  Review after review claim that Freedom is the great American novel.  To which I ask: which America?  I think most likely the college educated and affluent suburban America, or a very small percentage of America.

Of course, my idea of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady as American novel is no more representative.  But then, my claim isn’t that Portrait of a Lady is THE American novel, but my American novel.

Isabel Archer, the central character, is haphazardly educated by traveling parents.  Such a background ill-suits her to the subtleties of European courtship, made paradoxically more perilous when her well-meaning cousin, Ralph, persuades his dying father to make Isabel an heiress.

What struck my sense of empathy upon reading the first description of Isabel is that cobbled education.  Never having lived continuously in one city for more than four years my entire childhood, I felt very much cobbled — joined pieces here and there with some concrete patching together the ill-fitting pieces — by the time I went to college.  And I made the somewhat disastrous choice of going to a pastoral liberal arts college rather than a university in a city.   As foreign as European mores were to Isabel, so too were the social mores that dictated the mostly suburban and WASP milieu of my college classmates (possibly my old college classmates might feel that Franzen represents their America).

There are other reasons why I love Portrait of a Lady so much, including its finely constructed sentences, the nuances of Isabel Archer’s thoughts as brought to the page, the description of Ralph, the good and consumptive cousin, as well as the ironic twists of good and bad fortune, neither seeming to be what they appear.   Therefore, I do not press too hard on the notion that I would love a novel for its representation of my inner life — there are many reasons to love a particular book.  However, I do think we should each rebel against the notion that a novel should be representative of our selves by only the dictates of gender and race.


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  1. I like your thinking here, Soo Jin, and your refusal to be limited in any way.

    Your post also started me wondering about what my American novel would be. I’m much more an Anglophile in my reading than an American, so I’m tempted to be cheeky and plump for Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which, for all its interwar setting and upper-class milieu, feels more real to me in its representation of changing relationships over time than any other book I know.

    But of actual Americans? Maybe William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which gets small-town Midwestern life just right,and whose prose reminds me of what I aim for in my own writing. Or maybe Gary Indiana’s Do Everything in the Dark, which, though its characters and setting couldn’t be farther from my experience, feels, in the way that Powell does, more like a real, empathetic chronicle of the way that friendship and love change over time than almost any other American novel I know.

    And then there’s Moby-Dick, which I never tire of re-reading.

    Posted by Levi Stahl | September 27, 2010, 3:07 am
  2. Levi,

    Your comment is a treat since I haven’t read most of the novels you mention. They are a few more books or fifteen to add onto my list.

    Your comment about Moby Dick reminded me of Dan Beachy-Quick. There’s a writer/reader who documents the self-incorporation of a book.

    Posted by Soo Jin Oh | September 29, 2010, 2:19 am
  3. Soo Jin,

    I was immediately drawn to your note when I saw that you chose James as representative of “your” American novel. Of course, that’s up to you, but what pleased me was the fact that you chose James rather than a contemporary novelist. I’m convinced that James, more than any American novelist, more than most novelists of which I’m aware, is able to delineate how complex thought takes place in social interactions. I mourn the fact that most novelists seem to have no real sense of this, or else are compelled to flatten the inner life for the sake of just those generic “externals” you mention (gender, race, age, etc.), and for only what is spoken. James can evoke all that rides on even minimal communication because he is truly “one on whom nothing is lost.” And the fact that his grasp seems lost on most people is their loss.

    Posted by Donald | October 1, 2010, 3:01 am
  4. Donald,

    I am always happy to meet a fellow James reader. I was intrigued by your blog post on Proust and connecting the “one on whom nothing is lost” to both James and Proust. Both are writers who can present the outer world in rich detail because the inner thoughts are shown as thick with meaning. I think Proust’s description of the envelopes used with the pneumatic tube system in Paris is a good example of that. It’s not merely an envelope but an envelope redolent with meaning and anticipation. There is very little that is only a gesture with these writers. I do miss this in many contemporary writers whose writing can seem flatter. I do not presume to know whether this is because they cannot equal Proust’s and James’ abilities or because they are not interested in the same ventures of experience as Proust or James. The one novelist who I think comes closest to a similar experiential approach is Amit Chaudhuri. I thought The Immortals was a beautiful novel.

    Posted by Soo Jin Oh | October 3, 2010, 6:24 pm

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