Hunting down the Great American Novel

Aaron Bady is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, specialising in African and post-colonial literature. He is editor-at-large of The New Inquiry, an online cultural criticism magazine, and he also blogs there regularly via Zunguzungu. Aaron talks to us about his essay ‘Zero Dark Geronimo’, which is featured in the latest issue of Overland.

You mention that the quest for the Great American Novel (GAN) is ideological and represents that American desire to ‘make sense of dissensus’ and ‘bring the nation together’. Can you give an example of how this might correlate with American foreign policy?

That’s such a hard question, because it’s a huge leap, from home to abroad. But maybe that’s part of the work that these kinds of texts do: they bridge the gap or make it feel like it could be bridged. After all, the actual things that actual governments do abroad – stuff like invading Iraq or sending drones out to Yemen or even just materially supporting an Egyptian military regime – it’s all so detached from the way we talk about those things, especially when we frame it with words like ‘foreign policy’. US military strategies right now are heavily dependent on drone warfare, but there’s only very recently started to be a public discussion about the ethics and politics of it, and not a very good discussion at that. Our foreign policy embraced the technology long before our foreign policy debate even started to address it. And that seems symptomatic of a broad disconnect between ideology and practice, between what we say about ourselves abroad and what we do.

When we talk about ‘American foreign policy’, after all, we talk in a very metaphoric language, filled with abstractions like ‘the rise of China’ or ‘the clash of cultures’; the danger is that unmanned aerial technology might ‘destabilise’ the AfPak region, or impede efforts to ‘win the peace’. If you listen to the presidential foreign policy debate, for example, the things that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were saying had such a tenuous relationship with the actual stuff that our government does abroad; it was all clichés and slogans and broad ideological generalisations. And on some level, I think we know that most of that is meaningless nonsense, not even coherent enough to be wrong. But we also can’t do without it. Politicians have to speak in that language because it’s how Americans want to think about themselves, to imagine that the ‘we’ that we are at home is also the ‘we’ that we are abroad.

I think that a Great American Novel, or a movie or poem that does that kind of work, gives us a piece of that illusion. It promises a way of being ‘American’ in the world that lets us have our cake and eat it too: we get to believe in the version of ourselves that we see in the United States, where Americans are regular people who go to church and read newspapers or whatever, and we also get to believe that those same American values structure what our government does abroad. The GAN unifies us, so it also unifies home with abroad.

Do you think that the idea of the GAN is grounded purely in American culture and ideology, or is the Great Novel quest common in other cultures, too?

Well, what is ‘American’ culture? Is there such a thing? I don’t know that the United States is totally unique in this respect, but there really isn’t much that makes all Americans more like other Americans than like anyone else. To say that ‘Americans are X and Y and Z’ is almost always to set yourself up to be easily contradicted. And, again, this is quite true of most countries, I imagine. But the idea of America has always been about taking that heterogeneity, accepting it, and figuring out a way to manage the problem, and that narrative of the nation does seem different to me than the stories that many other nations tell themselves about themselves. France was never any more fundamentally united than the United States, for example, but French textbooks used to refer to ‘our Ancestors the Gauls’, and American culture has tended to be much more upfront about its foundational disunity. I bet you could say something similar about Germany, or Great Britain. But, of course, to make that distinction between ‘Europe’ and ‘America’ is also to point out the thing the United States has in common with many Latin American countries, nations that are also founded by immigrants and tell stories about the past by imagining cowboys and Indians. And I guess what they have in common is not so much a single culture, or kind of culture, but a similar way of approaching the question of what culture is. In the Americas, national unity is more often a utopian future possibility, a thing that will happen, eventually, not a glorious past that we are all stuck with, for better or for worse.

Are films such as Zero Dark Thirty attempts to trap us in our preoccupations with dystopia, collapse and disunity, so that we don’t hope for a better future or attempt to change the world we live in?

I doubt there’s anything as consciously thought out as that, but maybe you can never be too cynical. ZD30 was, after all, produced with a lot of collaboration with the CIA, and literally no one thinks that they were doing anything but public relations. But it’s a mistake to be too crudely instrumental about what a film does; a film does lots of things, to different viewers, and my experience watching it might be different than yours. Some people came away from watching it convinced they had seen how torture doesn’t work, and other people came away believing they had seen exactly the opposite moral.

What I would say, in general, is that Americans aren’t very happy with the status quo, even if they don’t have a worked-out narrative of why. The idea that Obama was supposed to change everything has not worked out, in practice, and even people who still support the president are often not very enthusiastic about it. They support Obama, but they’re against drone warfare and targeted assassination, for example. A movie like ZD30 lets us revel in that ambivalence; it shows us a foreign policy reality that’s not all bad, but is at least partially bad. And learning to enjoy that ambivalence – learning to be satisfied with an imperfect world – definitely can have the effect of sapping people’s desire to change things, to shake things up. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

What do you want readers to take away from your piece?

Well, I’m always my first reader. I try to figure out what it is that I’m trying to figure out, and then to figure that thing out; a piece of writing is worth writing if, after writing it, you know more than you did before. And for me, I wanted to think through the question of what relationship ‘post 9/11’ literature had with the long history of Americans writing about America. On the one hand, ‘everything’ didn’t change; the present is still an organic part of the historical past that made us. But it’s also true that the terms we use to think about our history, and our identity, have changed in some important ways since 9/11. Some of the old myths have had to be altered, adapted, and refitted to the contemporary moment. So I guess I was just trying to narrate how the cultural present and the cultural past can be both connected and yet distinct, and find a way to make that legible to people who might see a movie like ZD30 without context.


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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David Brun is a Melbourne writer, editor and Overland intern.

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