As I’m writing this post, news is swirling about the death of Osama Bin Laden. And in the hours after this news, national fatigue, doubt, and anxiety gave way to spontaneous cheering in Washington , New York, and, most likely in private residences throughout the country. We feel a collective sense of pride and a sigh of relief this morning, but I have to wonder at what will remain—how citizens will construct meaning from this decade long mission and what the American identity will look like in another ten years.
I begin with this, because I’m continuing to be confronted by these questions in literature. It seems that nearly every novel I pick up lately is infused with a sense of anxiety that is distinctly American. Jonathan Franzen captured it beautifully in Freedom , but he’s not the only novelist thinking about this issue. A recent title that has received many comparisons to Freedom is Carol Edgarian’s Three States of Amazement . What George W. Bush and the Iraq War were to Freedom, Barak Obama and the economic meltdown of 2008 are to Three Stages.
Three Stages of Amazement begins on the Eve of 2008 in San Francisco, where Lena Rusch is throwing a New Year’s party on credit. Lena and her husband Charlie want to mark the end of the lousiest year of their lives—a year that brought the premature birth of twins—one of whom died, the other who survived but with serious physical and cognitive delays. Charlie has recently moved his family to the Silicon Valley to pursue a start up venture that is running on fumes. Charlie and Lena’s marriage is, likewise, running on fumes, and this situation isn’t helped by Charlie’s constant absence and Lena’s role as sole caregiver to Theo and the surviving twin, Willa.
The economy tanks, seemingly-invincible people get sick, an old lover shows up, and some amazing cracks in Charlie and Lena’s relationship appear. There’s something profoundly American about Edgarian’s novel. Lena’s throwing a party on credit seems the perfect metaphor for the willful ignorance and unabashed optimism of this particular time in United States history. Before you think this novel is meditation on American Exceptionalism, it is not. As in Freedom, the setting and place are secondary to characters. At its core, this book is about a marriage, and any description of place and time serve only to amplify what is going on in the inner and outer lives of each of the novels beautifully drawn characters. The personal is political. As Edgarian writes, Charlie and Lena were “as ordinary as two people wanting more.”
I know that I will be reading many more novels with similar themes, as fiction is often the best way to understand the truths of our world. If you’re interested in these themes, I would also suggest:
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Privileges by Jonathan Dee
Sunset Park by Paul Auster
Union Atlantic by Adam Hasslet