A Week in Books

American tragedies; English mishaps
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The Independent Culture

There's a moment in Curtis Hanson's darkly witty new film of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys when a burned-out novelist - played with splendid hang-dog woefulness by Michael Douglas - whines that "Books don't mean anything to anyone, any more". True or not (and I can't imagine that Douglas would have signed up to play a burned-out actuary), many American authors still treat their vocation as secular prophets with an awesome earnestness. As the US prepares for its quadrennial change of leadership with a bout of national soul-searching, the reviews on this page show that its literary Wonder Boys still aspire to write not simply about specific people in a specific place, but about America as a whole. (And Boys they all are this week, although a new novel from the equally far-reaching Barbara Kingsolver will arrive soon from Faber.)

There's a moment in Curtis Hanson's darkly witty new film of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys when a burned-out novelist - played with splendid hang-dog woefulness by Michael Douglas - whines that "Books don't mean anything to anyone, any more". True or not (and I can't imagine that Douglas would have signed up to play a burned-out actuary), many American authors still treat their vocation as secular prophets with an awesome earnestness. As the US prepares for its quadrennial change of leadership with a bout of national soul-searching, the reviews on this page show that its literary Wonder Boys still aspire to write not simply about specific people in a specific place, but about America as a whole. (And Boys they all are this week, although a new novel from the equally far-reaching Barbara Kingsolver will arrive soon from Faber.)

In a society created by an act of political will, high-concept fiction will tend towards national allegory. The very titles of Philip Roth's American Pastoral or Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy hint at their huge scope; "English Pastoral" merely sounds quaint. Matthew Kneale's Booker-shortlisted English Passengers does have that distinct allegorical edge, but it takes place in the 1850s at the absolute summit of Victorian power. As for The English Patient, the whole point is that he isn't one.

Outsiders who write about the US can buy into this amplifying power of its fiction. This week, I took part in a discussion at the British Library in which a panel argued the case for each novel on this year's Booker shortlist. My brief was to defend The Keepers of Truth (Phoenix House) by the Seattle-based Irish writer, Michael Collins. Set in the decaying industrial heartland of the Mid-West in the doomy twilight of the Carter presidency, this is a tremendously taut and eloquent blend of hard-boiled thriller and social diagnosis. I'm not sure that Collins can prevail against Atwood or Ishiguro, but he deserves to run them close. And part of his knack of connecting a murky murder in a deadbeat Rust Bowl town with a wider malaise stems from that ability in US fiction to convert an American story into the story of America itself.

There's no binding reason why a tale set amid the forsaken factories of the West Riding or the Black Country should not claim the same vast resonance. Yet, thanks to a tangled web of class, style and history, such fiction slips too easily into the depiction of them rather than us. Only in popular forms - TV series and films from Boys from the Blackstuff to Billy Elliot - has the contested collapse of our industrial base bred a comparable kind of national art-work. And if it's correct that, in Britain too, books don't mean as much as they did (or should), then part of the blame may lie with writers as well as readers.

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