The other night I came across an article where a group of so called literary experts gave their opinion on what they considered the great American novel, and their reason as to why. The article was interesting enough, but after sometime I got tired of the pretentiousness. My main issue with academia is that sometimes they get too caught up in their own thesis and critical thinking that they can’t see that everything is not a social/political metaphor. Sometimes things are merely face value, and there’s nothing wrong with a story being merely entertaining.
Some people get upset over lists like Great American Novels, when their favorites aren’t included. The fact is there is no default list of any kind for this sorta thing. It’s all very personal, and any one trying to proclaim one novel being superior to another is ludicrous. Novels are art and just like some music, poetry, or painting appeals to some folks, there’s sure to be another camp of people that prefer another school of painting, or group of poets. In the end I think lists like The Great American novel are great because it provides an opportunity for new readers to encounter some books or authors they’ve never read or heard of before. It also stimulates the mind into wondering just what makes for a great novel.
After reading the article it got me to thinking as to what I consider to be great novels. I probably could discuss it all day, but the ones that stand out to me are listed below. I won’t call them ‘Great American Novels’ since not all of them are written by Americans. But to me they’re novels that have had a tremendous impact on me both as a reader and as a writer. The order in which I’m listing them is not a ranking system but simply the random order they fell outta my head as I type this…
Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. A lot of people associate Kerouac merely with his epic On The Road. But for me Dharma Bums is my personal favorite. At the time I first read it I was just starting to get into Eastern Philosphy. Add to that and my already strong love of the outdoors and this made for a fantastic read. Dharma Bums takes place in California during the 1950’s around the time that Kerouac himself starts getting into Buddhism. Kerouac also spends time working as a fire watcher up in the massive towers in the remote wilderness. His views on nature and man are splendid as well. The spirtual nature of the book is what appealed to me most of all.
At The Mountains Of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. The thing that really appeals to me about Lovecraft is that although he dealt with bizarre creatures, elder gods, and etc he managed to weave it all into contemoprary events and history to make it seem almost plausible. Lovecraft perhaps peaks with this ability in his novella At The Mountains of Madness. Not only does he take advantage of a remote and desolate setting as Antartica but the science of palentology. Lovecraft’s creatures and themes may be absurd but by he manages to present them in a way that seems plausible. Lovecraft’s tales don’t scare me so much but rather they burrow into my mind and set me on edge. Not very many writers are capable of doing that. Perhaps Richard Masterson was one of the few others to do so. At The Mountains of Madness is great as well because it blends contemoprary science with the Elder Gods. Lovecraft was much more about science then he was about the occult, and At The Mountains of Madness is a prime example of this theme.
V.A.L.I.S. by Phillip K. Dick This is a hard one to describe, but essentially it is a quasi autobiographical novel about a main character called Horselover Fat, (which turns out to be an alias for the author. The name Phillip actual translate to ‘horse lover’ and Fat is the German word for Dick. I could be wrong about the German but Fat is Dick translated into another language.) Anyways, Horselover and his friends are on a spiritual quest that involves pink laser beams that transmit messages from God, God being a satelite orbiting the earth and TV evangalists. Its a twisted somewhat schizophrenic novel that at times is thought provoking and other times bizzarely funny. Its a bit mind boggling at times when I first read it and realized that the main character was the author, a fact he reveals in the narrative. It appealed to me because it managed to weave together, and at times mush together, religion and science fiction and paranoia. It is not an easy read, but overall it is brilliant. It is sci-fi for those that prefer to a thinking man’s approach to sci-fi rather then boobies and light sabers.
Imagica by Clive Barker Other then Lovecraft, Barker has been a big influence on me. Much like Lovecraft, Clive Barker is capable to weaving his fantastical themes into an utterly believable reality in his novels. Theology and sexuality are major themes in Barker’s work and in Imajica he manages to blur the lines of both, taking them in directions no one else has done so before.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson If Kerouac is comprable to the Be-Bop jazz musicians he adored in the 1950’s then Thompson is the literary equivlant of a jack hammer. I read this in college, prior to the movie, and it quickly got passed around amongst my friends in the dorm. Everyone loved it, including myself. Fear and Loathing is brilliant because it is like a roller coaster ride through a mental war zone. What appealed to me about Hunter’s style is that it was very much ‘automatic’ writing of the Beats but it was dirty and gritty. Hunter bashed the keyboard and soaked the pages with whiskey. While the Beats had a poetic soul and eloquence to their prose, Hunter’s was raw and broken. He was a divine savage. At times he can be utterly repulsive and abhorrent in his behavior and thoughts. Other times he could put down words that cut to the core of Truth with the precision of a scalpel. His views of government and society weren’t always easy to handle, but at their heart there was passion and a deep rooted love for America in what he said and did. It’s that raw and primordial passion that drew me to Hunter and why to this day I continue to admire and adore his writing. I wouldn’t have wanted him for a neighbor but I sure as hell would’ve loved to spend one day with him.
Pet Semetary by Stephen King I used to read a lot of King back in the 1980’s and 90’s. Pet Semetary stands out to me the most in part because of the influence of Lovecraft as well as that it taps into one of the deepest fears that we all have – that of death and putting a unique twist on it that is very disturbing.