10 Great American Novel Contenders From the Past Decade


This morning, we woke up to a poll over at Publisher’s Weekly‘s blog, PWxyz, asking readers to identify the Great American Novel. Fun! While we have no beef with the books on PWxyz’s list, we did notice that only two of the options — Edward P. Jones’s The Known World and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — were published in the last decade. Are there no more than two worthy contenders for Great American Novel status from recent years? We think there are — at least if we take Michael Gorra’s description of the GAN as our jumping-off point: these are not just great novels written by Americans, but “novels that tell us things we don’t especially want to hear, that are restless and brave and never complacent in examining the terms of our national identity.” After the jump, our picks for ten books that should at least be in the running for that shifty, subjective Great American Novel moniker.

Netherland , Joseph O’Neill (2008)

Despite (or perhaps on account of) its somewhat unlikely premise — a Dutchman living in post-9/11 New York City who takes up cricket at the Staten Island Cricket Club — this book was much lauded for its dissection of American life, the perils of globalization, and the struggle for connection in a complex time. New York Times Book Review senior editor Dwight Garner called it “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell,” and James Wood described it as a “postcolonial re-writing of The Great Gatsby.” Even Obama read it. Can’t get any more American than that.

These Dreams of You , Steve Erickson (2012)

This dazzling, fractured novel burns through the cardboard box of conventional narrative with big ideas and sheer gall. We defer to Pawel Frelik at the LARB, who compared the book to The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and Vineland, and wrote, “For all its close and intimate focus, These Dreams of You may well be today’s Great American Novel. Not just for its portraiture of universal American dreams and anxieties; not for its social scope; nor for its historical and political topicality, in which it deals in spades, but rather because of its painful sincerity, its humble recognition of human failings, and its continued hope that it is not too late.”

A Visit From the Goon Squad , Jennifer Egan (2010)

Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning pieced-together novel is a triumph of American life past, present, and future. She expertly explores the way we interact with our culture, the people around us, and our own minds as time wends on and bends back.

Shadow Country , Peter Matthiessen (2008)

All right, this one’s a bit of a cheat — subtitled, “A New Rendering of the Watson Legend,” it’s a reworked and slimmed-down version of Matthiessen’s Watson trilogy, originally published in the ’90s. But it was legit enough to win the National Book Award in 2008, so it’s legit enough for us. Within, Matthiessen indeed tells the larger-than-life story of a real American legend: Edgar J. Watson, or “Bloody” Watson as his contemporaries in 19th century Florida referred to him (under their breath). And what’s more American than a mythic fringe cowboy, rakishly ducking the law? Nothing — or so we’d like to think.

I, Hotel , Karen Tei Yamashita (2010)

Split into ten novellas, Yamashita’s patchwork novel documents San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1960s and early ’70s, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Incorporating a hodgepodge of prose, playwriting, and art, the novel feels as multi-voiced and multifaceted as America itself, an oral history-esque study of the whole via a study of a specific group in one place and time.

The Round House , Louise Erdrich (2012)

The winner of the 2012 National Book Award, Erdrich’s newest novel is an intense look at modern racism, family, Native American life, and the coming-of-age of a 13-year-old boy after a brutal attack on his mother. “By boring deeply into one person’s darkest episode,” Maria Russo wrote at The New York Times , “Erdrich hits the bedrock truth about a whole community.” If you ask us, we can extend that to the whole country.

Tree of Smoke , Denis Johnson (2007)

If you think Great American Novels are supposed to come with both literal and philosophical heft, look no further. As the Times‘s Jim Lewis opined, Tree of Smoke “comes with the armor and accoutrements of a Major Novel: big historical theme (Vietnam), semi-mythical cultural institution (military intelligence), long time span (1963-70, with a coda set in 1983) and unreasonable length (614 pages), all of which would be off-putting if this were not, in fact, a major novel.” If not for its technical designation as a novella and the fact that it was originally published by The Paris Review in 2002, we’d also nominate Johnson’s brutal, brilliant Train Dreams, one of our favorite recent reads.

Gilead , Marilynne Robinson (2004)

As far as we’re concerned, Marilynne Robinson is a national treasure, so we felt we had to include at least one of her much-lauded works. PW nominated an earlier novel, 1980’s Housekeeping, but we’re equally fond of this one, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, the autobiography a dying congregationalist pastor in a flyover state. It’s a beautifully written personal history that doubles as a national one. Bonus: Obama lists the novel as one of his favorites on his official Facebook profile, for whatever that’s worth to you.

The Wilding , Benjamin Percy (2010)

This one’s kind of a sleeper choice, but we feel strongly about it. Percy’s debut novel explores themes as vast as America’s relationship to its own vanishing wilderness (may we venture, both literal and metaphorical?) and what happens to a man after war, and as universally private as a dissolving marriage and a father-son relationship. As Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “It’s as close as you can get to a contemporary Deliverance.”

Let the Great World Spin , Colum McCann (2009)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that more than one Great American Novel candidate written since 2003 takes on the complex concept of 9/11 — though here only by implication. McCann’s much-lauded masterpiece kicks off with Philippe Petit’s famed 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, 110 stories up, and spreads outward into the overlapping, crashing stories of the citizens of New York City, in all their glory, banality and horribleness.