American Writing Abroad

The first impression of United States fiction seen from abroad—especially if you compare it with the space occupied by writers of other nationalities in bookstores and publishers’ catalogs—is that it’s everything. The eternal classics (the enormous road that begins with Hawthorne and arrives at John Updike), the quality best-sellers and the generation made up of names like Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem, Heidi Julavits, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Mark Costello . . . they’re all on Spanish shelves. The same goes for Paul Auster (a best-seller in Spain and France and Buenos Aires) or James Ellroy (one of Roberto Bolaño’s favorite writers, after Philip K. Dick) or Pynchon, Denis Johnson, DeLillo, Paula Fox, Jim Shepard, Didion, Ford, Baxter, or Wolff. This doesn’t prevent a more expert reader from detecting incomprehensible absences, like those of Ann Beattie or Stephen Dixon or Ben Marcus, or, until very recently, John Cheever—who had disappeared completely and now is enjoying a revival of influence in the Spanish-speaking world.

It’s clear that in the US today the very lively and substantial ghosts of John Cheever and Donald Barthelme can live together without any problem—sometimes even inside the same writer. If the avant-garde impulse toward constant forward progress has been lost, it is because one can now write moving in all directions at once. Digression is like a creed. When I think of a further evolution of books as objects, or of the novel as a genre, I always remember what Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favorites) wrote about the books of the alien inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore:

They were little things . . . Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out—in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. . . . “Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

One other thing is clear: North American literature continues to be a great world power and possesses an energy and an influence that other incarnations of the American Dream no longer exhibit. I’m referring, for example, to a lot of “Made in the USA” cinema, or to the integrity of certain presidents.

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