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Though John dos Passos hasn’t retained the fame of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, his America trilogy still feels like a landmark work of the Jazz Age, a sprawling, panoramic documentary of the US of the early 20th century. Like his contemporaries, Dos Passos writes in a common, everyday vernacular, with an eye and ear for realism, but also mixes in more experimental, modernist passages, such as streams of newspaper headlines and song lyrics, short biopics of various public figures, and the impressionistic, Joyce-ian “camera eye” sequences, which seem to recall scenes from the author’s own mind. Though this flipping-through-the-radio technique has been much-copied, it still feels innovative, especially in audio format. Reader David Drummond, I would add, does a commendable job with a wide range of voices and deliveries -- including the singing.
The main narrative follows several different characters as they make their way through their lives between the turn of the century and World War One. As fiction goes, it’s wandering, nearly plotless stuff, but I found the window into another time fascinating. Along the way, we get an immersion course in cultural attitudes, historical events, people’s daily concerns, and the not-unfamiliar tensions between different layers of society. Then there are all the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, impressions, and emotions of the time -- the raw, intimate, illuminating human stuff that a present-day writer looking back couldn’t hope to replicate.
Yes, some of the themes are dated -- for example, there are no significant non-white characters, and the idea of people having sex (*gasp*) *before* marriage was no doubt more edgy in the ‘30s. Dos Passos seems intent on a soul-baring of his generation through his characters, who are caught between grand ambitions and selfish desires, seemingly unable to make any decisions of lasting consequence. They desert their families and their employers in search of some unknown better thing, and are buffeted about by the indifferent forces of history. Members of the Millennial Generation should read this novel and stop letting older people lecture them with phony-baloney mythology about how everyone had their s--- together back in the day, and America was just honest, happy, patriotic, and swell. It’s a lie.
In fact -- and maybe it’s because I don’t read enough old fiction -- I was taken aback by how many aspects of the world of this novel seem not to have changed much in a hundred years. The way society was divided between the haves and the have-nots -- and the way half of the latter group was sure it would soon be in the ranks of the former, and resented the other half. The same media-fed anti-socialism paranoia. The same naive, flag-waving patriotism around the big war, and the same undercurrent of cynicism that it might have all just been a big scam. The desire for a comfortable, white-picket-fence life versus the fear of selling out. Constant worry about how to pay the bills. Otherness of foreigners. Dating (apparently, the phrase “let’s just be friends” goes way back). Loneliness. Desire. Groping in the dark.
Obviously, a novel of this era and style won’t appeal to all readers, but for those who can embrace its unblinking camera reel view of life, it’s brilliant and definitive. The final chapters generate a palpable atmosphere of anger and unrest, as the US enters the Great War, and the anti-war and pro-war factions square off in New York City, yelling the usual cliches at each other as riot police march in. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
- Ryan "Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good."
Advent of the American Century scruitinized
Using 4 different types of narrative devices: biography of famous people, news clipping, streaming consciousness descriptions, and intervening fictional characters to scrutinize the advent of the American Century. Somewhat difficult to get use to at the start, the novel weaves and slides in and out of my grasp, but eventually the brilliance within sank in.