First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

The ‘Great American Novel’ is a redolent term that reviewers tend to use towards a certain kind of book: a thick doorstep of social realism, wide in scope, ambitious in theme and literary in style. We’re talking Jonathan Frantzen, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. The essential quality of the novel is that it must capture the spirit of the age, and say something significant about the experience of being American in the contemporary world and the present moment.

Funny, then, that I should find myself thinking about the possibility that the great American novel has an unusual cousin, a long-lost relative from the backwaters who has a quirky, some might even say, eccentric take on American life that might be every bit as truthful and potent as those fat mainstream novels. The ones I’ve read have all been written by women, they concern themselves with the fraught dynamics of family life and they contain a heady dash of magic realism.

For a nation that disapproves of the passive voice, magic realism with its essential unaccountability, its bright-eyed embrace of the fantastic, is always going to be a hard sell. You won’t find the challenging extremes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here, or the brash playfulness of Angela Carter. But when it appears, it often salutes rural wisdom, the inherited knowledge of generations, or a simple but vivid case of altered perception. I’m thinking of Alice Hoffman, basically, and the candy-sweet voice of Sarah Addison Allen, and further back in that lineage, closer to its mainline and altogether darker, Toni Morrison.

The Moon SistersTherese Walsh’s new novel, The Moon Sisters, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It’s a simply told tale of two warring sisters, who must find a way to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, despite their differences. Jazz, the elder, is rational, distrustful of sentiment and pragmatic. Her response to the sudden loss of their mother under disturbing circumstances is to get herself a job at the funeral home. Olivia, by contrast, is the flighty, dreamy one, homeschooled, imaginative and synaesthetic. Her response is to stare at the sun for so long that she just about blinds herself. And then, in this debilitated condition, she decides that the only way to assuage her grief is to make the long trip to the Monongahela glades and see the will-o’the-wisp phenomenon her mother longed to witness. A failed writer, their mother could never manage to finish her novel until she’d seen these fairy lights, something that was always unlikely to happen, given her depressive state. When she is found dead in the family kitchen, Olivia believes it was just an accident with the gas stove; Jazz has no doubts it was suicide.

An so off Olivia goes, infuriating Jazz, who finds herself once again obliged to protect her ditzy younger sister and embark on a trip she has no desire for herself. In no time at all the sisters run into trouble and fall in with a group of train-hoppers, whose motives for helping them are distinctly unclear. Told in alternating chapters, the narrative whistles along smoothly, the trick of inhabiting each sister’s viewpoint brings the urgency of their desires into relief alongside the vexatious nature of each sister’s response to the other. Olivia can’t bear Jazz’s anger and contempt, her insistence on attempting to lay down the law which makes her react subversively against it. And you cannot help but feel for Jazz who does not understand her sister’s emotions at all and sees only reckless self-harming behaviour. It’s a very good, convincing portrait of the love/hate that binds siblings together, pushed to an extreme because of a family crisis that no one knows how to deal with. A variation on the buddy road trip narrative, they will eventually be forced to come to terms with their differences and understand that what binds them together is stronger than the characteristics that pull them apart.

And what of the spirit of the age embodied in such a narrative? For me it was tied up in a throwaway remark that Oliva remembers her mother saying, when Jazz has spoiled her belief in Santa Claus: ‘my mother pulled me onto her lap and reminded me of one of her life truths: It was okay to believe in things that others didn’t believe in. It was okay not to believe, too.’ When the parameters are set so wide, what couldn’t fit in there? A few will-o’the-wisps are nothing. Olivia’s synasthesia is hardly radical. Yet in the very battle between straight-minded Jazz and hippy-dippy Olivia there’s a nation’s struggle at work between logic and liberality. Between the puritan pursuit of hard work and the desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of expression in whatever form it may take. That’s why this kind of fiction intrigues me: beneath its easy-read surface lies a complicated tangle of ideology. No wonder a little magic is needed to make it all come right.

20 thoughts on “First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

  1. I haven’t heard of this one (so many thanks for reviewing!). It seems lately that magical realism is having a small resurgence again in the US, which I will gladly take. These were the stories that originally drew me in as a student writer and which I happily wrote myself. It’s so funny that you mention Angela Carter, because I was just thinking of her today and put a book of hers on hold at the library. I don’t know what it is with American readers. When I was at the high point of my magical realism student days, people just had a hard time accepting narratives outside of solid realism (generally, I think audiences like concrete solutions and explanations). However, I think this is changing for all the better.

    • I don’t know whether it’s got anything to do with it, but most classic magic realism arose in countries with profound social and political problems – dictatorships, big disparity between rich and poor, ideological coercion, the rise of a hostile regime, those sorts of things. It may need the experience of constraint to be written and understood. Personally, I really like magic realism and find it a fascinating narrative technique, but like you, I know a lot of people who don’t get on with it at all. Angela Carter, btw, is a writer I absolutely love.

  2. Somehow I have never been able to come to grips with magic realism in any of its forms. There is much in what you say about this novel that appeals to me but I’m fairly sure that I would hit the magic elements and be unable to come to terms with what it did to the logic that always seems to pervade my mind. I am, however, always intrigued by novels that deal with synasthesia because it is such a part of my life that I find it fascinating when other people write about it as if it isn’t the most normal thing in the world, so maybe for that reason alone I will take a deep breath and give it a go.

    • This really is magic realism-lite. The blurbs describe a ‘sheen’ of magic realism, which may mean that it is written in a slightly more poetic tone than most! The synasthesia is essentially the most of it, and you might find the relationship between the adolescents intriguing. But I quite understand if it doesn’t work for you – taste is just one of those things that we all possess differently and that’s a blessing, not a problem.

  3. I received a review copy of this and I’m struggling, to be honest. I find the tone much more like Sarah Addison Allen whom I don’t like than Alice Hoffman and the eye thing (you know what I mean) repulses me (I know, an unkind reaction but I can’t help it). But then again it has moments in which it reminded me of Jeanette Walls’ books (less dysfunctional) and those are really good and very American. So, I’ll finish it eventually.

    • I know what you mean about the eye thing – that was the part that struck me as the most daft and unsympathetic part too. And yes, it is closer on the spectrum to Sarah Addison Allen. I did like it but I can certainly see it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea! I’d love to know what you feel by the end.

  4. Heh, it sounds like she captures the older sister/younger sister relationship perfectly! My younger sister isn’t ditzy but she is emotional and impulsive and react against authority. How many fights the two of us had with me telling her to get over it and she telling me I had no heart. I’m not sure I’d enjoy this book, might be a little too close to home on the sibling front!🙂

  5. Sounds like Sense and Sensibility USA. I’ve always found the concept of the Great American Novel an oddity once it reached the late Twentieth Century. First it is the preserve of male authors, which seems odd, given in Britain it would have to include Dickens and George Eliot, just as one example. Secondly I can’t see how America can be truly encompassed, especially in recent decades. Really I think we are getting an impressive set of novels about one part of the American experience now, that of the dominant culture in American letters. Just my view, of course!

    • I know just what you mean, although I suppose I think those things – the impossible nature of the task for example – are very bound up with the whole concept, which makes it kind of interesting. I suppose these sorts of concepts are, to my mind, things you play with in the awareness they’ll never fit their own outlines (like Zola and Naturalism, or Existential novels), and that’s the best part. I do agree that what’s happening recently is different, and too close up for us to see very clearly. Always enjoy hearing your take on these things!🙂

  6. My first reaction was a bit like Bookboxed’s. My second, though, is to think that someone outside your own country often has a less clouded view of its national character, so there might be something in that mirror worth seeing.

    • It used to be a popular literary trope – the traveller in a foreign land who sees the culture from outside the ideology – and sees his/her own culture more clearly too from the distance and contrast. Whether it’s true or not is up for grabs, I don’t doubt! But I do like playing with the ideas of these things.

  7. I have this half read–the publisher kindly sent me a copy and then I got so busy with work it ended up on the back burner along with most of my other books–now I look forward to picking it up again! I actually like magical realism–I like that little stretch. And quirky characters are always interesting–now that I read your post these sisters remind me of the sisters in Jojo Moyes book, Me Before You.

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