China’s rise and the Great American Novel – Asia Times

China's rise and the Great American Novel - Asia Times

We were born

Born to be wild

We can climb so high

I never wanna die

– Steppenwolf

The Great American Novel (GAN) is the Super Bowl of world literature. Every February, America showcases its most dazzling display of athleticism. But the rest of the world barely knows who’s playing. Of course, Americans are similarly underwhelmed every four years when foreign countries hold a tournament for a sport they also call “football.”

Solipsism has been a feature, not a bug, of both the NFL and the GAN. If Americans had to play with others, the Super Bowl would be less than half the spectacle – no forward pass, no bone-crushing tackles, no halftime show, no cheerleaders in skimpy outfits.

Yes, Russian, French and British writers churned out some pretty good novels, even great ones, but they are no longer reaching for the brass ring (which was always an American thing anyway).

People talk of great French novels or even the greatest French novel, but nobody talks of an abstract “Great French Novel” whose pursuit is not only still possible but necessary for the existence and renewal of the nation. Between Proust, Hugo and Flaubert, it’s just about all done and dusted.

New GANs, in contrast, must be canonized every decade or two with Schumpeterian ruthlessness. The American experiment is always in flux and its chroniclers are chosen as much by the times as for their talent.

Ralph Ellison’s novel of black alienation was as necessary for canonical relevance as are the two Roths’, Henry and Philip (unrelated), chronicles of the immigrant experience and Jewish American anxiety.

And now, here we are. For the next 10, 20… maybe 30 years, only Chinese Americans can write the GAN. This isn’t so much a commentary on the literary merits of Chinese Americans, of which we should seriously put in more effort, but on the march of history.

Nobody else knows. Other Americans are not standing on the requisite vantage point to see clearly. They do not know that they do not know. Apologies, but that’s just the way it is.

I reached this epiphany about 20 years ago shortly after 9-11. Since then, the American zeitgeist has gone from heartbreak to anxiety to anger to maniacally unhinged. This change can only be fully understood by Chinese Americans. To be even more precise, only fully assimilated Chinese Americans of mainland birth are capable of both inhabiting America’s heartbreak and inducing its neurosis.

The interpretive powers of Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, ABCs or some other extraction of the diaspora in America will be refracted at less consequential angles. Only mainlanders can hold a looking glass above America, backlit by the white-hot ambition of 1.4 billion people on the make.

As China’s rise warps America’s long-assumed prerogatives, who else can look directly into the sun without averting their eyes? Who else is impervious to this heat while tracking the fires it lights? As Tom Wolfe would say, who else can “walk amongst the flames, pointing at the lurid lights?”

While Jonathan Franzen writes prose of piercing intelligence and David Foster Wallace produced thrilling pyrotechnics, they are still… a couple of dumb white boys. Franzen’s canvas is limited to bland Midwestern sensibilities while Wallace lit Roman candles inside his head and self-destructed.

As smart as they are and were, they could not escape. Multiple attempts at the GAN over decades and Franzen was still stuck in the Cold War – Lithuania, a toe touch in Iraq and then East Germany? East Germany! Has this guy read a newspaper since the early 90s? China has been bearing down on his freedoms and his purities and this numbskull could not make a correction?

To his credit, Franzen knows that he does not know, once lamenting that “maybe I’m doomed as a novelist never to do anything but stories of Midwestern families.” It’s a shame. I actually love Franzen. There is brilliance and pleasure on every page. If only his parents could have been surnamed Liu and operated the Webster Grove Chinese takeout rather than being the genial Franzens who kept an immaculate lawn.

Jonathan Franzen is still stuck in the old Cold War. Image: X Screengrab

But even this fantasy falls short given historical realities. Franzen is 64, having fully traversed middle age. The mythical Webster Grove Liu family of the 1960s would have been Hong Kongers (Lau) or Taiwanese (Lieu) and whatever literary progeny they produced would have been just as hidebound by Midwestern sensibilities with the added baggage of an identity crisis which they would spend their hoary careers excavating.

Could anything have saved Wallace? He knew everything in 1996 and by 2008 the ennui of knowingness did him in. In the twilight of empires, irony stalks all its artists.

Wallace fought off irony by selflessly performing over-the-top stunts for his readers, once saying, “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies… in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader.” It was ultimately self-defeating – you can only light your hair on fire so many times to impress checked-out Americans.

If he were 15 years younger, Wallace would have lived long enough to find his audience unworthy of pyrotechnic self-sacrifice. With China breathing down its neck, America shouldn’t be entertained, it should be straightened out! Instead of dying for his readers, he would be smacking them upside the head, screaming, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

The late Harold Bloom, lamenting the resentment warriors infecting academia, once stated that “My best students are Asian Americans. These students will work and will brood about literature and will think about it at night and will take care to write very well.”

Ha! Sounds familiar. I barely attended my engineering classes but slaved over electives in the Comp Lit and English departments. I turned the heads of a few professors. I like to believe I would have impressed Harold Bloom.

My proudest academic achievement was a note written on an essay by my Comp Lit TA, “Don’t go into business.” And so, I went to Wall Street. It was stereotypical Asian American lack of nerves. We rushed the Ivy League, wrestled deeply and rigorously with the Western canon, impressed a generation of professors and then went to Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

Western music conservatories would have collapsed without the Asian diaspora. The West had long ago abandoned classical music to monastic orders tasked with its preservation. For whatever reason, the Asian diaspora is highly inclined towards Benedictine musical service. Rockers are nonexistent among us (isn’t there some guy in Linkin Park? And the cellist in Smashing Pumpkins?).

Asian Americans do not crash the music scene; we work up the classical music ranks. That’s why classical music sucks. Literature, however, is more like rock and roll. You either crash the party or don’t party at all.

Why did I lack the nerves to try to crash the literary scene in my twenties? Because China had not yet risen enough to warp America and all I could do then was retread the tiresome careers of Asian writers with racial axes to grind. Ugh. Gross. I would rather lead a life of quiet desperation in soul-sucking Wall Street than suffer that indignity.

After a couple of decades, I can tell you investment banking is about as soul-sucking as you imagined and some ax-grinding might have been fun. No worries. It is not such a great loss; there are too few of me (Gen-X Chinese American of mainland birth) to make much of a difference anyway.

But millennial and Gen-Z American mainlanders exist in vast numbers. Vast. If they get their act together, many will be crashing the canon for decades to come. Asia Times’ David Goldman declared his distaste for fiction, the novel in particular:

When I reject “fiction,” I do not mean all imaginative prose, but only the kind of prose that is supposed to give us profound insight into character and help us work through our own existential quandaries by proxy – the sort of fiction that is supposed to help us grow as human beings, extend our empathy with our fellow human beings, and similar rubbish. You don’t stumble upon an identity by falling in love, running with the bulls in Pamplona, murdering a pawnbroker, or suffering along with the retreat from Moscow.

Goldman believes “the cult of High Culture” is a poor substitute for religion and family, leaving Western civilization misguided and unmoored. He probably has a point but talk about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. In any case, we are here to help.

Over a century ago, Zhou Shuren abandoned his medical studies to “save China” through literature. He succeeded. Today, we know him as Lu Xun. The Great American Novel (and novelist) has had to bear this burden once before with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Since then, American novelists have been relieved of any national responsibility besides singing and dancing for the “cult of High Culture.”   

The American novel has become indulgent and frivolous, obsessing over BIPOC (google it) representation and stylized prose, writing itself into blind alleys of self-absorption. Solipsism has long since become a bug and not a feature. Chinese American writers now have a civilizational responsibility. The American dumpster fire is currently careening into a China beyond its comprehension.    

At this moment in history, God forbid if any of us are still writing identity crisis drivel when a national intervention, if not a thorough ass-kicking, is called for. In the spirit of Lu Xun, we must rescue America by beating the solipsism out of an increasingly deranged nation.

Two years, 113,000 words, 150 agent queries, one manuscript request, since ghosted. Han Feizi considers his part done, his responsibility met. Called for jury duty, showed up but not picked.

Chinese American Gen-Xers hold the key to the next Great American Novel. Image: Twitter

Hang Feizi is still a citizen in good standing. It’s a numbers game and, given historical realities, there are only a handful of Gen-X contenders and we will quickly become a spent force. Millennials and Gen-Z, it’s really up to you. Too young to remember triumphalism, you were hardened by endless wars and the great recession. You can look calmly into the abyss. And you have the numbers.

And I know exactly who you are. You’re the insufferable poser who wrote college papers of cock-sure erudition. You’re the chancer grifting his way through young adulthood. You’re the tattooed dropout with a gambling problem. The well-read wallflower who is barely keeping it together.

The cubicle hack who puts in a half-assed effort gaming KPIs – and no one is the wiser. The golden child whose infinite promise was disrupted by an unexplained downward spiral. Come on people, you were always too ambitious for Wall Street and Silicon Valley. And now you have a nation to save. It is from your ranks the Great American Novel will emerge in the coming decades.

But do Chinese Americans have a special responsibility to take on this project? Yes. Because we have specialized skills. Because our powers of observation are unmatched at this moment. Because we can write penetratingly in English but, unfortunately, cannot do the same in Chinese.

Because art needs to survive. Because rock and roll is the highest form of music. Because a professor once loved our essays. Because Wall Street and Silicon Valley are wastelands. Because canonization means immortality. Because only we can.