The Current:
Spring 2007
Death and Resurrection: The American Social Novel
Walker Rutter-Bowman

The social novel is dead. Or, so declared Jonathan Franzen in a 1996 essay. For those of us who were ignorant of its existence, the social novel's departure from the literary realm went unnoticed. But Franzen's complaint is not new. Since the advent of television and radio, writers have lamented their medium's decrease in social influence. In Franzen's own words, "Television has killed the novel of social reportage." Why read when you can gather the same information from the Internet or from television? Because people could get along just fine without reading, Franzen complained that the novel no longer functioned as a means of social communication. Despite this despair, Franzen still entertained ambitions to compose a novel that would accurately capture the state of society. The result was monumental. Franzen's The Corrections won the National Book Award and earned him a reputation as the social novel's savior. Someone reading The Corrections can look in on the prescription drug world, student-teacher relationships, foreign investment, and dysfunctional American families. But Franzen's success did not end the search for the new social novel.

Other writers took up the task, some using quite unconventional methods. For, while The Corrections marked a rather straightforward return to social commentary, the works of other aspiring social novelists have challenged the very boundaries of American fiction. Drawing inspiration from comic books, and infusing their novels with this most American of serialized literatures, they have managed to resurrect the social novel for a new generation.

The serial novels of nineteenth-century England are often cited as the most successful social novels. The serial novel dominated society at this time, and reading was more than just entertainment. Serials provided readers with a shared identity, and taught readers how to think about their social setting. Franzen writes: "In the 19th century...the novel was the preeminent medium of social instruction." Not only did these Victorian serials interrupt the monotony of day-to-day life, but they also provided a reference point for social interaction. A great number of Britons read Dickens and Thackeray, in the way that Americans of our day might have watched Seinfeld or Friends. The very act of reading was a social rite. Readers would come together to speculate on future installments or reflect on the absurdity of past issues.

But the serial form now seems like a quaint curiosity of literary history, and the end of the serial era brought the social pertinence of novels into question. Some notable attempts to serialize novels have failed to start a trend among modern American writers: Armistead Maupin presented his Tales of the City in serials in The San Francisco Sun throughout the 1970's and 1980's; Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities appeared incrementally in Rolling Stone before it was published as a complete novel. Wolfe also helped his case as a social novelist by calling for a "new social novel," one that would embrace journalistic techniques and return to American realism. In his view, the decline of the socially relevant novel came in the 1960s, when writers began to embrace avant-garde methods and international influences such as Latin American magical realism. Other writers have shied away from Wolfe's antagonism but not from his assertion that the social novel is lost. They attribute the decline of the social novel to an inability to understand and write about America. As Philip Roth put it: "For a writer of fiction to feel that he does not really live in his own country—as represented by life or by what he experiences when he steps out the front door—must seem a serious occupational impediment."

Although America does not have a serial literary tradition to rival England's, it has something not far off: comics. By attracting readers with an ongoing story that conveys a sense of cultural identity along the way, comics accomplish a task similar to that of serial novels. Americans readily identify comic books as an American staple. Initially, comics targeted a young audience and were known more for their common popularity than for artistic value. Although they presented compelling stories, these early comics lacked the seriousness to address pressing social concerns.

With the advent of the graphic novel, a new medium emerged that had both the appeal and the maturity to serve as the American social novel. Indeed, many of the graphic novels that have appeared and continue to appear in serial form communicate the anxieties and problems of modern society. Alan Moore's Watchmen satisfies this purpose most completely. Taking its title from the Roman poet Juvenal's famous question: "Who will watch the watchmen?", the graphic novel captures a sort of moral complexity that many comic books choose to ignore. Set in a future in which the world teeters on the edge of nuclear war, Watchmen's superheroes must deal with their own personal problems and moral failures. This seriousness earned the graphic novel its legitimacy as a serious art form; Watchmen is the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine's 2005 list of 100 best English-language novels since 1923, alongside classics by Nabakov and Faulkner.

Other works that appeared after Watchmen proved equally capable of confronting serious social issues through the medium of the graphic novel. Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Art Spiegelman, tells the story of his father's captivity in Nazi concentration camps and the subsequent challenge of navigating unbearable memories of the past. Spiegelman embraced the perception of comic books as a juvenile form by portraying different groups—Jews, Poles, Germans, Americans—as animals hostile to one another. Like Watchmen, Maus was first published in serial installments for an adult audience. It rejected the prejudice against comics as a low form of art and demonstrated the dexterity necessary for analyzing complicated issues. The success of these graphic novels validated a prediction that John Updike had made years before, in 1969. "I see no intrinsic reason," Updike wrote, "why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece." These artists' success presented a remarkable possibility for American fiction by promising the potency of a social novel in the rather accessible form of the comic book.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the comic book's culmination in the maturity of the graphic novel, however, is its appropriation by a number of contemporary writers for their novels. Writers have recently adopted the comic book as a foundation for novels that strive to discover a meaningful cultural identity.

The principle pursuit of these novels resembles the traditional occupation of the social novel. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon uses the comic book to establish a social setting and to provide some insight into the psychology of its inhabitants. Joe Kavalier is a Jewish immigrant who meets up with his cousin Sammy Clay in New York, and together they form a comic-book-making partnership. The comic book industry they enter frames their experience in American society, and it is through this profession that they live out their own distorted versions of the American dream. Readers come to see that the comic books Joe and Sammy create capture their greatest fears and desires. In part, Chabon uses comic books to place the story within the context of American culture: he situates his characters in an industry that readers can easily identify as an authentic piece of American society.

Page from Maus I: A Survivor's Tale/My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman. Courtesy of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

However, Chabon also uses the comic book to complicate matters of identity. Joe's abrupt separation from his family makes him feel out of place in New York, and Sammy's poor relationship with his father produces self-hatred. Both men express these powerful feelings in their comics, taking refuge in the lives of their characters. As Chabon chronicles their years together and their various experiences with love and loss, he also traces the development of their comics. These parallel tracks allow the reader to compare the day-to-day existence of the characters with the repressed emotions they pour into their artworks. Comic books become for them a depository of secret dilemmas: moral obligations, the weight of expectation, guilt, and suppressed sexuality. Although comic books do not abide by the rules of reality, the comic books Joe and Sammy assemble are intimately related to their own lives. And for Chabon, the comic book is intimately related to his own understanding of American culture. He succeeds in creating a social novel by shaping an American identity that relies heavily on the role of the comic book.

Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude offers another influential take on the novelistic incorporation of the comic book. Set in Brooklyn, the novel tells the story of Dylan Ebdus and his friendship with Mingus Rude. Unlike Kavalier and Clay's Joe and Sammy, Edbus and Mingus are consumers of comic books, and they find common ground in this world of superheroes. When Dylan and Mingus come across a magic ring, they try to become comic book characters by performing acts of vigilante justice. But for them, comic books represent an impossible world: they can never live by the moral simplicity of good versus evil. Because he is white and Mingus is black, Dylan struggles to make sense of racial divisions in Brooklyn and fears that he and Mingus will always belong to separate worlds. He resents that his whiteness alienates him from his neighborhood, and he resents that Brooklyn cannot be his personal haven. Mingus understands this much more clearly than Dylan does: "[Mingus] couldn't bear knowing the grievance Dylan was destined to absorb, couldn't face his own inability to stem it."

For Mingus, the comic book is a fleeting escape that cannot displace reality. "[Mingus] read between the comic book panels, where Dylan failed to, and knew they were only extras in this urban scene. A soon-to-be-cancelled title." The comic books they read and the powers they possess demonstrate to Dylan and Mingus the inadequacy of the superhero world. Although Dylan tries to find comfort in comics, it only heightens his estrangement from the neighborhood. He fails to see Brooklyn for what it truly is, and he lacks the maturity to act accordingly. The presence of comics in the novel communicates the difficulties Dylan and Mingus face in this social setting. The more Dylan tries to simplify his world, the more he misunderstands it; and the more Mingus accepts the status quo, the more he becomes a tragic part of it. Although comic books constitute an important part of their cultural background, they also demonstrate the futility of thinking that life could ever be so simple. Lethem succeeds in much the same way Chabon does, as he uses the comic book as a legitimate piece of American culture to create a novel that addresses issues of American identity.

Most likely the novel will never again serve as a principle source of information. But, the novel can still convey the social relevance that serial novels so aptly captured, and it is not yet time to bewail the decline of American fiction. The comic book as a piece of Americana both responds to Roth's fear of an unrecognizable America, and adds a second dimension. Even within the novel, the comic book implores us to question our identity. We must reappraise our identity as Americans, as members of a community who share a cultural awareness of the world. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay barely separate the world they create from the world they live in. Mingus Rude and Dylan Ebdus find the boundary between the imaginary world of comics and their Brooklyn reality distinct and impermeable. In both cases, the use of the comic book proves a feasible expression of social circumstances.

For both Chabon and Lethem, understanding the American social identity is their principle pursuit. They are not as interested in illustrating complex social issues as they are in making sense of the social landscape for themselves. In some senses, what they endeavor to accomplish is ultimately selfish. Yet, they demonstrate that novels can still navigate the space between the individual and his larger cultural environment. Though it is unrealistic to hope that the social novel will reclaim its preeminence over American culture, it can still shed light on the relationship between the individual identity and its larger social milieu. American fiction, as it is being reworked and revitalized by writers such as Chabon and Lethem, can still provide readers with a sense of American society and what it means to be a part of it. Even without serialization, Chabon and Lethem have provocatively examined cultural identity, and they do justice to the social novels of old.

Walker Rutter-Bowman is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English and History. He can be reached at wr2144@columbia.edu.

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