Sunday, September 19, 2010

Are we still culturally American?

Blake Morrison's review of Jonathan Frantzen's new novel "Freedom" masquerades as a cover article for this week's Guardian review. It reviews the novel in a context that is already accepting of the way the book has been received in America. Frantzen, a serious novelist who is popular, who seems to most frequently make the news for his discomfort with that popularity, has already been on the cover of Time Magazine, and "Freedom", - nine years in the writing - has already been acclaimed as not only a great American novel, but a Great American Novel. "Freedom" isn't released in the UK until 23rd September, yet is already being promoted as a phenomenon. Part of this is because of the popularity of his last book, "The Corrections", and partly because of the debate in America. Great American Novels have several characteristics of course - they are long (even if "The Great Gatsby" and "The Sun Also Rises" are incredibly short) and they are written by white men (even if "Beloved", "Another Country" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" weren't.)

Frantzen's books always sound a little exhausting to me, yet clearly they are ambitious, if, at the same time, being centred in a middle America that remains, to these British sensibilities, our imagined consumerist heaven and hell. What interests me more is the question of whether we are still fixated on America culturally. There have been a few Great American Novels recently it seems. Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke", Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn", to name two. It's a tradition that seems to go back to DeLillo's overblown "Underworld" or Tom Wolfe's even more overblown "Man in Full", where the hype of modern publishing - usually spent on honest pulp like Dan Brown - gets intertwined with the hype of American cultural hegemony to create some kind of literary monster. The rest of the time, of course, Britain steadfastly ignores most American fiction - and even chooses not to publish a good amount of it.

Morrison begins his review by talking about the whole idea of who is "number one" amongst American writers, but it settles down into a detailed, and, to be honest, quite dull review of a long book, going into detail about the plot for a novel that very few in the UK will have had a chance to yet read. One to come back to after you've read it, I guess. In contrast, I've tried, but failed to find the Guardian's review of Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna", a book that slipped out in the UK, before it made the Orange list. Frantzen is in conversation with Dave Haslam in Manchester on 3rd October, which will cost you nearly as much as the book, but should be an interesting discussion.

Yet, whilst I'm pondering the Great American Novel, I've Arcade Fire's 3rd album, "The Suburbs" playing on a loop in the background. If I found their previous two albums good, but a little bombastic, "The Suburbs", to all intents a concept album, has struck a chord. A British band's concept album about living in the suburbs would surely turn into a travelogue of cheap drugs, and quick sex, a la The Streets or Hard-Fi; British music retaining a resolutely teenage edge. Yet Arcade Fire's album hits deeply on a sense of "yearning" for a recent stable past. Middle class life is here as a given, and the music is full of the contradictions we feel when we look back on our younger selves. The stability of our homes and our friendships contrasted greatly with our fears and hopes about the future, yet looking back we see what we have lost and what we now most want to recreate - whilst still being glad to have escaped the insularity and conformity of that past. Like that great chronicler of American life, Neil Young, Arcade Fire are, of course, Canadian.

In our approaching middle age we have rarely been able to achieve the American dream-lite that so many British people crave; yet remain culturally attached to America by language, economics, consumerism, even politics. That we share little of that country's fundamentalism or its "self-evident" freedoms, means that culturally we revere its brashness and boldness - hence not only the hyping of "Freedom" but the Guardian's recent obsession with Lady Gaga's "cultural significance." As someone who has always found my cultural bearings in the U.S., particularly its avant garde and its urbanism, I look with interest - and a little scepticism - on these sudden flurries of interest around a particular writer or pop star. Yet, maybe, with 9/11, George W. Bush and even Iraq receding into memory, its time to look at America (through its culture, at least) with closer attention than we have done recently; and, to turn a phrase, understand a little more, condemn a little less.

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