Adding to The Canon: Great American Novels
The LA Times has recently asked their critics at large, a community of writers and professors, to pick their choices for the "great American novel." There are some great titles on the list, including an oddly compelling idea that Thomas Pynchon has been writing one long meta-novel for the length of his career. There isn't much on that list I wanted to refute, but I thought that there were a few novels that could also easily qualify for the title.
American Gods - Neil Gaiman gets a lot of credit for his epic run on Sandman that reinvented fantasy horror comics, but American Gods is the big serious book that made people outside the genre areas take him seriously as a capital-W Writer. What could be more American than a road trip across America exploring an array of tourist traps and roadside attractions? The battle between the old gods and modern culture seems just as suited to the idea of an American Novel. It's obvious that Gaiman has quite an affection for the US, which is probably why he moved here in the first place. This is a fantastic book dense with references to mythology, but it still reads like a thriller.
Neuromancer - William Gibson didn't invent Cyberpunk per se, but he is the writer most synonymous with the genre. Unlike Gaiman, who is an American via immigration, Gibson is an expat. He ran for Canada during the draft and has never moved back. Considering that Cyberpunk was born as a reaction against the square-jawed science fiction of the post-war years, it fits nicely into the narrative of the sixties. Often overlooked because its status as a genre classic, Gibson should get credit for just how well written this is. Taking cues from Harlan Ellison, Gibson is just as inspired by literary fiction as pulp classics. All of his sentences are polished and smoothed until the book almost sings. Case is a hacker, Molly is a mirror-eyed samurai, and they're on a mysterious mission. If it sounds cliche, it's because this novel has birthed hundreds of imitators. Not just books, but video games, movies, and TV. This book has a long shadow on genre fiction; it's well worth a read.
Dharma Bums - On the Road might have inspired writers and travelers alike, and it's still on of my favorite books. There's a good argument that it should be any list of Great American Novels. The Dharma Bums contains a lot more of Kerouac's soul and is much more personal than On The Road ever managed to be. The Dharma Bums still sits in the same framework as On The Road, Kerouac travels around and meets with his friends. If you complain about the aimlessness of On The Road, The Dharma Bums is all about the conflict between our base and spiritual selves. Based loosely on the time Kerouac spent with Gary Snyder, the novel explores Kerouac's early forays into Buddhism. He also feels the pang of conflicts between the lure of the city and the peacefulness of nature. It's another novel of its time, and it set the early stages of the countercultural battles of the 1960's.
Blankets - Craig Thompson could probably never make any comics after Blankets and still be a grand master of the medium. This is a ten-pound graphic novel that tells the story of Thompson growing up in a repressive home in the Northwoods. Equally filled with wonder and claustrophobia, the book will suck you in pretty easily. It's not a happy story, but whose adolescence was? This is a deeply personal story, but one that doesn't pull any punches.
I could probably dig into my boxes and shelves of books and find more, but these are a few books I feel are worthy of attention.