The Great American Novel is doomed to failure not because literary writing has lost its bite. It is the politics involved that mark its downfallIt is no coincidence, after all, that DeForest links the Great American Novel to an age in which democracy has not yet taken hold. My own innate suspicion that darkness inevitably accompanies the tantalizing pull of greatness has been nurtured by growing up in the shadow of National Socialism. Not that indulging the fantasy of an all-encompassing narrative as such is wrong. But now that American greatness, fuelled by the “red blood of patriotism,” seems to channel the darkest side of European nationalism, perhaps it is time to approach the great American novel with similar caution. There is nothing particularly democratic about the idea of a magisterial vision, literary or otherwise. The sense of crisis warrants a different narrative shape.
Genre, in the end, is not much more than a system of drawers we use to file away short stories or memoirs, essays or poems. In times of crisis, those drawers start to rattle and crack in order to give way for a writing that envisages change.
Instead of magisterial masterstrokes, it is time for a writing of ferocious precariousness. After all, the very idea of ordinariness that underlies DeForest’s idea of a literary kaleidoscope of every-day American’s emotions has been whitewashed by Trump’s discourse of the ‘American People.’ To capture the meaning of being American today, literature needs to refuse to give credence to this nationalist narrative. Claudia Rankine, for instance, re-writes citizenship in response to those who are being implicitly and explicitly excluded: “Call out to them. I don’t see them. Call out anyway. Did you see their faces?” And she does so in texts that do not fit into any of the drawers of our genre categories. While Trump constructs a perverted narrative of national greatness, she exposes the moments of rupture when systemic racism breaks through the surface of 21st-century realities.