Slate begins its Fall Fiction Week here. At first glimpse, The Novel, 2.0 seemed like a promising riff off some of my own thoughts, but upon closer examination I'm doubtful. Let's start with the proposition: "What is the role of fiction in the age of the Internet?"
Oh! Oh! I know the answer!! Pick me, pick me!!
Um ... to tell a story?
"*bzzzt* WRONG! Submitted answer is not esoteric enough to be given serious consideration. The correct answer will seek to determine why there hasn't been a Great American Novel since DeLillo's Underworld, and attempt to provide helpful clues that might point the way forward for po-mo literatis confined to a limited range of sleight-of-hand parlour tricks."
Right, then. Say, have I mentioned how much I enjoyed James Lee Burke's penultimate Dave Robicheaux novel? Nothing happens in Crusader's Cross that regular readers haven't come to expect from Burke -- Robicheaux remembers a painful episode from his impoverished past, digs around a bit in the corridors of power, snaps and loses it big-time, struggles to regain his equilibrium while everything around him gets thrown off-balance, etc. The eleven herbs and spices are all there, in other words, but Burke tweaks 'em just enough to sustain my interest (I note, with gratitude, that Clete Purcell doesn't perform the usual "break the logjam" function here as he does in other novels).
I love the white heat of Robicheaux's (and, I assume, Burke's) moral outrage. I love how they have to choke it down while struggling with common grace. I love how much it bugs Robicheaux to spot a virtue within an otherwise damnable cretin. And I love how the cretin always suffers before he takes the Three-Day Journey. Love it, love it, love it. Next to A Stained White Radiance, this is my favourite Robicheaux novel.
As for Whither American Letters, I'd say the problem is there aren't any ex-pats. Or if there are, the publishing machine is geared to ignore them. Even with the world-wide charms of the Internet, without exile and cunning, well ... good luck finding and promoting the American Joyce (or Kundera or Milosz).