In Praise of the Great Californian Novel - OZY | A Modern Media Company

In Praise of the Great Californian Novel

In Praise of the Great Californian Novel

By Sanjena Sathian

SourceSean Culligan/OZY


Rap isn’t the only East Coast–West Coast battle that California wins.

By Sanjena Sathian

The OZY Summer Reading Series: Each week we share a specially themed book list, chosen by OZY staff.

The Great American Novel, eh? Other than the thing Snoopy was always trying to write, what is this elusive beast? Nominees are familiar to most who survived seventh- through 12th-grade English: The Great GatsbyAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc. But missing from too many readers’ lit lists is the Great Western Novel. Which, you might argue, is actually the prototype of the Great American Novel.

Just ask Jack Burden, the protagonist of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Set in Louisiana, that’s a Southern novel if ever there was one. But when Jack sets out to find meaning, he takes a long drive west, because “west is where we all plan to go someday.” So whether you’re Kerouac’s Sal Paradise tripping along on the road to Colorado and California or Joan Didion laying claim to California, investigate some of the best books about the best coast. Some great stuff grew here after Steinbeck.

American Woman
by Susan Choi

Here’s a pro tip: If you want to write the big G.A.N., put AMERICA in the title. We jest. Choi’s novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer but remains distinctly underread. It’s a fictionalization of the Patty Hearst story, that media heiress kidnapped by Berkeley communist radicals. Under the influence of what some might call Stockholm syndrome but what Choi paints as seduction, pure and simple, the heiress joins the whirlwind of the radical ’60s. An additional beautiful layer to the story: The true protagonist is a Japanese-American woman who is anything but a model minority — in fact, she begins the novel planting bombs in a Berkeley building. And looming over much of the book are the main character’s father’s memories of internment. 

Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner

Bafflingly enough, very few people I meet have read Stegner in any form. Begin here, and begin now. Stegner is such a major figure in literature of the West that the creative writing program at Stanford is named for him. Call him a latter-day Steinbeck, the master of California’s deep gold hills and an expert at handling those same radical ’60s with nuance. In Repose, the main character, a man with a tinge of conservatism in a world that’s a-changin’, turns to history and digs up his grandparents’ past, reconstructing their lives as some of the initial pioneers of the American West.

The Golden Gate
by Vikram Seth

Better known for A Suitable Boy, Indian-born Seth made his way to California like any good fresh-off-the-boater — to study. At Stanford. He got sidetracked from economics by creative writing, first poetry and then fiction. This is both: a novel written in verse. But don’t mistake that experiment in form for a sign that the guy takes himself seriously. It’s playful, a story about marriage and relationships and smart people and their errors. And it’s a surprisingly intellectual guilty pleasure.

The Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka

No California novel would be an accurate one if it didn’t say something about immigration. This one — focused on young Japanese wives who make blind treks across the ocean to meet their new husbands — is a gorgeous depiction of that subject. The magic of it is all in a single pronoun: we. Otsuka tells the whole story from that collective perspective (something I’ve only ever enjoyed in one other book, The Virgin Suicides). Oddly enough, that perspective is exactly what makes the novel textured and diverse. Something we could use more of in talk of immigration today!


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