By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

The Great American Novel (GAN) is likely a chimera. It’s something for which one can strive, but it’s unlikely that it is something that one can attain (or, in this case, create).

More than being a novel that has reached such rarified heights of literary merit that it should be placed in the pantheon of American literature, the GAN captures the American experience at a specific time and place in a unique and lasting manner. Novels that rise to the level of even being considered for the honor seep into our culture, and one comes to know about these books through osmosis, by watching Bugs Bunny cartoons or The Simpsons and not simply reading them in a high school English class. They are ubiquitous. When one attempts to harken back to a particular era of American history, these are the first points of reference. Some of the more classic examples include Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Grapes of Wrath. The imagery contained within the pages of books has shaped how we perceive the antebellum South, the Jazz Age, and the Dust Bowl.

Jay Fox

Furthermore, these novels tell us something about what it means to be an American. They wrestle with the questions of who we are versus who we want to be as a nation. They examine how we often fail to live up to the standards that we’ve set for ourselves and the national mythology of “America” (something that was used to buttress the ideology of capitalism and to serve as contrast to the type of communism advocated by the Soviet Union, and now serves as contrast to Islamic theocracy or the type of authoritarianism one finds in China or Russia). They are not always uplifting, nor do they always applaud the kind of people we are. Oftentimes, they challenge the notion of American exceptionalism. It’s a national psych evaluation and a portrait, warts and all.

As popular as the notion of the GAN continues to be, there seems to be a growing belief that there cannot be just one, especially if one is writing about contemporary America. This is likely tethered to the belief that life in the United States has become too fractured and multicultural, and that the existence of a national character or a shared ethos has largely evaporated. There is no one story that can capture how the many pockets of culture that exist throughout this country experience an event or our current era with any degree of veracity. The metaphor of the country as a “melting pot” is not as accurate as it once, and to say that any one narrative is the “American experience” is simply not accurate.

Rather than a melting pot, we’re more like a stew. From far away, we look uniform—a solution. Close up, each person or culture maintains some degree of autonomy or individuality even if we are entirely immersed within and saturated by a larger culture. Some of us are more immersed than others, particularly those who have only recently arrived or those who have been marginalized because of the long list of institutional-isms that need not be recounted here.

For those who believe that the experience of the individuals on the margins have diverged so dramatically from one another and from those who are in privileged positions, describing a book by an individual from any group as a GAN would seem to give more gravitas or credence to one of those narratives. For example, if Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) were to be given consideration for the title, some might argue that the book could become the viewpoint of record to which future generations return when learning about the 1990s in the United States, effectively whitewashing other concurrent experiences from the time. They would note that it’s rare that a book has even been considered a potential candidate for the honor unless it was written by a white man. Even the best novels not written by people who fall into this category get special labels, thereby making them less universal and suggesting that only white men have the power to speak the language of universality. For example, if a gay woman who emigrated to the US from Ecuador wrote a novel that was arguably the GAN, it seems likely that many critics would describe it with additional identifiers—the Great Latinx American Novel, the Great Gay American Novel, the Great Immigrant American Novel, and so on.

I’m sympathetic to this line of reasoning. Canonizing a novel may inadvertently grant the perspective of the author or the perspective contained within the book’s text a certain level of ownership over whatever era or place is described. This can be problematic when that perspective comes from a privileged place and contains numerous blind spots or caricatures of types of Americans, as is the case with Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy.

However, to suggest that every blind spot must be filled and that every type of American be given adequate time and attention to express how their personal identity intersects with the notion of Americanness is not feasible. No novelist in their right mind sets out to claim that their book contains all of America (except for maybe Dos Passos), and no novelist currently writing would think it possible to create one character or series of characters capable of speaking with nuance for all Americans. We’re a confederation of states and territories spread over 3.8 million square miles with a population of more than 325 million. There are more than 350 languages spoken in this country and one of the professed virtues of our culture is individualism.

Consequently, the GAN cannot concern itself with telling the whole story of America because it is simply doomed to fail. The same can be said of telling the entire history of the nation. While novels that are epic in scope or follow characters through a portion of the history of America—as was the case with something like Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy or DeLillo’s Underworld or Morrison’s Beloved—are clearly not precluded from consideration because they do no tell the whole story of our history. Such a journey is not necessary to paint an accurate picture of what it means to be American, which is ultimately what the GAN seeks to, if not answer, then at the very least explore. If executed well, a novel of limited scope that focuses on a specific set of characters in a time and place can accurately depict what it is like to live the American experience and unveil the myriad contradictions of the American character.

Laila Lalami’s fourth novel, The Other Americans, comes very close to accomplishing just that. It places you in a small town in the Mojave Desert in post-9/11 America and recounts the events surrounding what appears to be a hit-and-run on a dark stretch of highway in front of the Pantry, a diner just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. The victim is a Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan American who immigrated to this country in the late 1970s and was the owner and operator of the Pantry. To tell the story, Lalami enlists nine narrators, including the man who was killed that night, his two daughters (Nora and Salma), his wife (Maryam), a police officer and former high school classmate of Nora’s (Jeremy), a detective (Coleman), an undocumented immigrant who saw the car speed off that night (Efraín), the owner of the bowling alley next door to the Pantry (Anderson Baker), and his son (A.J.).

While the police believe that the death is nothing more than an accident, the victim’s youngest daughter and the novel’s primary protagonist, Nora, remains skeptical. Though she has moved to Oakland to become a composer and left the rural community in the Mojave behind her, only infrequently returning since leaving for Stanford ten years beforehand, she remains somewhat suspicious of many people within the community. The family regularly experienced not only the quiet kind of racism, the kind that consists of slights and murmurs, but also the kind of racism that is overt and violent. Driss’s previous business venture, Aladdin Donuts, had been burned to the ground by an arsonist, while Nora had her locker vandalized by A.J. in high school following 9/11. When she returns to mourn and to sort out her father’s affairs, she gets the impression that little has changed in the community.

Her relationship with A.J. is particularly fraught and this is accentuated brilliantly in a chapter where Nora enters the bowling alley owned by Anderson to play a game. At this point in the story, tensions between the Guerraouis and the Bakers are running high. She is clearly not in friendly territory. However, Nora is determined to bowl a game and, in a larger sense, prove that she belongs. She rents shoes and eventually finds a ball that is light enough for her to use. She then puts on her bowling shoes despite having no socks, and then begins to bowl. Overshadowing this process is the watchful glare of A.J. Nora knows that he is watching her, that he is studying her, and that, eventually, he will approach her.

Predictably, she is a terrible bowler. In two frames, she only manages to strike one pin. Before she can begin the third frame, A.J. approaches. He’s nearing 30, composed, and ostensibly successful. While he’s not the bully he was in high school, there continues to be something minatory about his gaze. When he reveals the Celtic cross tattoo on his shoulder elsewhere in the novel, it’s clear that he decided to get it for reasons beyond celebrating his Irish heritage.

“You’re doing it all wrong,” A.J. said in a measured voice. “You need to straighten your wrist. Let me show you.”

He picked up a bowling ball and placed it in my hands, maneuvering my fingertips into the holes, first my thumb, and then my ring and middle fingers. The resin was dry and as he pushed my fingers into the ball, it scraped my skin painfully. Fear and revulsion raced inside me. “The trick,” he was saying as he gripped my hand and mimed swinging the ball, “is to keep your hand straight, otherwise when you pitch the ball, the arc is off.” He was so close I could feel his hot breath against my neck. My pulse quickened. I managed to free myself from his grip and, with all the power I could muster, I pitched the ball down the lane. It hit four pins.

After the fallen pins are cleared, A.J. picks up a fifteen-pound ball and sends it whizzing down the lane for a spare. “He turned to me. ‘Like that.’ Then he smiled. ‘Enjoy the rest of your game.’”

On the surface, everything about the incident seems polite and well-intentioned. Looks are deceiving, of course. What is taking place is a demonstration of a power dynamic. In high school, the scrawling of a racist epithet on a locker was A.J.’s desperate and overt attempt to announce and assert his place at the top of a power structure’s hierarchy as much as it is an attempt to exclude or subordinate Nora, a perceived outsider. The scene at the bowling alley is far more covert but seeks to accomplish similar goals. It is most certainly not a tutorial on bowling; it is a demonstration of power meant to announce A.J.’s dominance and to remind Nora of her otherness, the fact that she is not passing.

This sense of otherness permeates the novel, as is fitting given the title of the book. Nora not only feels out of place in the bowling alley or during high school or at a prestigious music festival to which she had received an invitation. She feels herself a stranger wherever she is. This is as true in the United States as it is in Morocco—a country to which she travels only once in her youth and has no real connection because she was born in the US. A similar thing can be said of her sister, Salma, who was born in Morocco, but has been in the US long enough to be mistaken for an American while the family is visiting Casablanca.

The remaining characters grapple with this sense of otherness, as well. It’s not always a meditation on the immigrant experience (Efraín, Driss, Maryam, Salma, Nora) or the black experience (Coleman) or the experience of being a woman (Coleman, Maryam, Salma, Nora) or the experience of being a cop and a veteran (Jeremy). Lalami also explores how some feel estranged from the country of their past (Anderson, Driss, Maryam, Salma), how some feel estranged from an illusory past or the life to which they feel they are entitled (A.J., Salma), and how one feels estranged from the persona they present to the world (ostensibly everyone). This latter point is perhaps what makes the novel speak in the language of universality.

Unfortunately, to wear this sense of estrangement on one’s sleeve is not possible for someone who is trying to fit in. One must wear a proverbial mask to interact within a culture that demands or at the very least values what it considers to be normality. Eventually, these masks become the personae many characters strive to be. Similarly, the characters often feel both guilty for failing to live up to the persona and experience a certain thrill by rebelling against it. What seems to be most insightful about Lalami’s book is not that this sense of estrangement or desire to please/avoid the critical eye of the Other is internalized. Rather, what is unique about Lalami’s perspective is that the Other is a certain construct that exudes American-ness and that one’s relationship with this imago is a necessary feature of life in America. The notion of Americanness is a chimera, but a chimera that we all regard as real.

More than simply being about the resurgence of overt racism or the immigrant experience in post-9/11 America, The Other Americans ruminates on our estrangement from a perceived singular identity, suggesting that this may actually be a core component of the American experience.



Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.