Emirates Literature Foundation Blog (ELF)

Oh Say Can You Read! 6 Books That Could Be The Next Great American Novel

By: Gurmeet Kapoor

The United States of America prides itself as a nation of modern ideals. And over the last two and a half centuries, these “modern ideals” have been upheld and pushed forward in literature by novels that we in the 21st century now consider to be classics. Whether it be the post-war disillusionment of the Lost Generation in The Great Gatsby, or the foresight of anti-slavery attitudes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, many of these books, written decades and centuries ago, tell the story of a different America than we encounter now, virtues and foibles included.  Since then, the nation has changed and modernised and the literature being produced today reflects that growth. With that in mind, here is a list of books for this Fourth of July that paint a picture of the United States and all its sins and glory as we know them now — thus making a case for them to be considered the Great American Novels of recent times. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

In the tradition of other great novelists before her, Ward weaves a tale of a disjointed and troubled family in the American South — but adds her own twist by using ghosts to tie together the past, present, and future. In doing so she details the struggles they face while also slowly uncovering the secrets that remain hidden, threatening to tear them further apart over the course of a road trip across the state of Mississippi. Despite a varied and interesting cast of characters — many of whom take turns narrating various chapters — the character at the heart of the novel is Jojo, the 13-year-old biracial son of the drug-addicted Leonie and the formerly-incarcerated-but-recently released Michael. Ward’s gorgeous, lyrical prose adds an ethereal quality to the story, amplifying Jojo’s ability to hear the many ghosts that haunt him and his family; a symptom of wider America. Ward’s use of stories and songs speak to Black people’s resilience in the face of the many racist systems they face, while also creating a revealing portrait of a country still wrestling with its own past, present, and future. 

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a post-apocalyptic novel in which a ather and a son must navigate a United States that has been destroyed by some cataclysm. Over the course of their journey, they must deal with all kinds of people, a majority of whom, because of their sheer desire to survive, have become cannibals, creating an almost neverending hopeless state for both the father and the son. McCarthy’s tale digs into both the horridness of humans and what makes them tick, in a way that celebrates our humanity. There are many times in the novel, especially with the son, where he decides to believe in the best of people, even though he doesn’t have any reason to. This aspect is arguably what the creation of the United States of America is all about; that even in the face of ongoing despair with no end in sight, hope can still shine through, as well as a hope for a better tomorrow. 

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Adapted into a feature film in 2006, this international bestseller is a tale of two generations of immigrants, first following the story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli as they immigrate from West Bengal to America, then continuing with their son Nikhil who grows up there, answering only to his pet name “Gogol.” A second-generation Indian American herself, Lahiri deftly navigates Gogol’s own struggle against his Indian roots, while attempting to assimilate into the culture he’s growing up surrounded by, both an outside and an insider at the same time. At the same time, she captures the nuances of both Bengali traditions, and the Ganguli’s attempts to keep them alive despite being separated from their families by distance. This constant duality is at the heart of the novel, and one many readers will relate to as the world grows increasingly globalised. But it also touches on an experience that’s common to many Americans now, with several calling the country their home, despite the countries their parents still feel connected to. It’s as modern day American a tale as you can get, making it a perfect modern day classic.

The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon

Another modern American masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay delves into the Golden Age of the Comics, with post-War America as its backdrop. The novel tells the story of Josef “Joe” Kavalier, an escapee from Nazi-occupied Prague and Sammy Klayman, his cousin who lives in New York City. The duo team up, with Joe as the artist and Sammy as the writer, to create comic books that do eventually become famous.  At the same time, the cousins are preoccupied with their own personal lives; Sammy with the exploration of his sexual identity, and Joe with his attempts to bring his own family to New York City from Prague. Their personal obstacles in the land of opportunity they have created for themselves reveal issues that not only pertain to them on a personal level but also those related to social life in America as a whole. Like the rest of the novel, the ending also mirrors real life as it culminates in the end of the Golden Age of Comics, with a hearing that investigates the potential promiscuity of the content in the comics the cousins wrote together, as well as the potentially harmful effect they could have on children. It’s an entertaining and emotional look at what it means to be American, and what America itself means, through two characters who have varying perspectives.

Holes by Louis Sachar

Published at the turn of the 21st century, Holes is a quintessential American novel that uses stories from three generations to reflect on the history of the United States and the ideals it espouses, as explored through the themes of luck and fate in the events that surround three families and an outlaw. The tale culminates in the present day with Stanley Yelnats, whose generational curse on his family brings them nothing but bad luck. However, through hard work and a bit of fated luck, as well as friendship, Stanley is able to rid his family of the curse, while also bringing hope and justice to those involved. These are the exact ideals that America is said to have been founded on. The story also touches on interracial relationships in the pre-Civil Rights Era. Not only does this relationship provide the crux of the part of the story set in the present day, but it also allows the story to grapple with how systemic racism continues through generations. So, Holes by Louis Sachar not only details the wrongs of America but also ends the story on a positive note, keeping in mind that America itself can improve towards what it’s founders claims  of a “more perfect union.”

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give is a strictly 21st-century story, but it discusses issues that have been plaguing America since its independence. The book follows the story of Starr, an African American teenager who witnesses the shooting of her friend Khalil, after a police officer stops them on the way home from a party. This incident causes a chain of events that will be all too familiar for readers following the news, as Starr must both grieve the loss of her friend’s life, while also dealing with the media coverage that follows and the friction it causes between her and other students at her predominantly white school. Angie Thomas started this novel in 2009, but sadly, since then the events depicted in the novel remain all too common — despite the March For Our Lives protests that followed the death of George Floyd. Much like To Kill A Mockingbird before it, The Hate U Give is one of those novels that will regularly be revisited as a checkpoint in order to to see if America has changed in the time since.

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Gurmeet Kapoor has been writing since he was 16 and reading since he was a child. He thoroughly relishes reading historical novels, science fiction, as well as non-fiction books relating to World War I and II. He particularly enjoys his social sciences; history, psychology and philosophy, making sure to add a touch of these to his own work. In his free time, he likes to watch movies and watch cricket. He is a die-hard Manchester United fan.