about the author

Ian Sanquist lives and writes in Seattle. His work has appeared in various venues including Juked, > kill author, Mobius, and Word Riot. Visit him at morepostexistentialistbullshit.blogspot.com.

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Great American Novel

Ian Sanquist

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I don’t remember who told me this story. Someone who wanted more rugged features, I guess. I told him to spend time in the desert, I think, or maybe I said something about buzzards. That made him laugh, I mean it made him laugh his head off, until he was laughing so hard he was crying, and I was afraid he was going to choke on his tongue or take a drink and end up choking on the ice in his glass. The next time I saw him he was feeling better, I think. He said he’d done what he’d come to do and he could go home now. I asked him where was home, and he just started laughing his head off, like some maniac marionette. I think he was mostly fucking with me, but I don’t mind. I was already drunk by the time he came around. Anyway, he said he had something he knew I’d be interested in. He said he’d written the great American novel, and he had it up in his room if I wanted to see it.

Maybe someone had told him I work for a publishing house. Maybe he just figured it out by the sort of people I was always talking with, and the sort of things we were always talking about. I don’t know, I laugh a lot, I clap people on the back when they say things I like. I’m not a hard person to see through, I don’t mind not being a cipher or a constant wellspring of unease. It’s not like when you were younger, and the only moods you could produce were taciturn or stormy. It’s not like I ever feel much dread over the man I’ve become, and I don’t spend time ruminating on it when I start to. Anyway, the great American novel, that’s what he said, and I was in the mood to laugh, maybe even laugh my head off.

He took me up the stairs to the room he’d rented in that hotel. It was on the top floor, a narrow flight of stairs, I had to pause for breath on one of the landings. Hurry up, he said, hurry up. What’s the hurry? I asked. The great American novel’s not going anywhere, I said, the great American novel can’t be growing stale. No, he said, no it’s not, but even so, hurry up.

So he opened the door to his room and of course the place smelled terrible. Old newspapers all over the floor, plates of half-eaten eggs. I’ll admit, I thought it was as good a place as any for someone to write their great American novel. And that’s what I think I said, and I think he laughed, but he didn’t laugh his head off, and then I asked what he was waiting for, show me the goods, and he said OK, and he opened this other door to the room where the bed was, and there was this girl tied to the bed, maybe eleven or twelve years old, her arms and legs were tied to the bedposts and she was naked, and there was lipstick and powder all over her face, like a whore’s makeup.

The great American novel?

He told me he found her walking home from school one day. He told me she liked playing games with ropes.

I asked if he’d raped her. He said he didn’t care for words like rape, unless they referred to metaphysical rape, as in the rape of a culture, or the rape of someone’s soul. It seemed like a tenable opinion to hold, at least so far as literature is concerned, so I asked him if I could see his manuscript, if there was one. Sure, he said, sure, sure, there’s a manuscript, and he shuffled together some papers from a table and handed them to me. It was a thick document, at least three hundred pages, and I opened it to the middle, where I found myself embarked on a chase through the desert in dune buggies, with the text somewhat haphazardly jumping repeatedly into a certain character’s thoughts to emphasize or highlight his obsession with gold. I flipped to another section where two men are riding on one horse, talking about their old girlfriends’ sexual fetishes. In another part that I read, a newspaper editor is being told by his wife that she’s leaving him for a movie star, and that she’s leaving him with the kids.

What do you think? he asked. I told him it seemed as though it shared elements common to the great American novel, although I quickly pointed out that the phrase “great American novel,” is essentially in disuse by now, a term that would get you laughed out of most literary punchups, unless of course you used it trenchantly, or with irony, or to refer to someone else’s book, although even then it should be used with irony, to save yourself from appearing crass or patronizing or simply out of touch. Or what I might have said is that no matter how good your book, in the twenty-first century it is categorically impossible to unironically write the great American novel, particularly if you insist on using that definite article. Look at Franzen, I said. God knows he searched for his masterpiece, but I don’t know if even he was thinking about a great American novel. I don’t know if even he was leaning for that, or if he just felt most at ease in a perfect replica of Updike’s casket. It doesn’t matter if it takes you ten years, or if it takes your whole life if you write the great American novel. Even minor dispatches turn relevant in the search for the great American novel, even stray phrases and the costumes you’ve worn, both in public and in private. It’s a cumulative process, I said, it’s a level of stature you have to attain. It’s possible this is a great American novel I’m holding, sure. It’s possible Franzen’s done it, I don’t know, I only read the first two chapters of Freedom, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t jealous. What a writer that man is. What a great, luminous magazine writer.

The girl on the bed was waking up, I think, and he went over to stroke her hair. He asked me if I’d ever seen anyone so beautiful. I don’t know, I said. Maybe on a billboard. How long have you had her like that?

Just two days, he said, she told me she only wanted to be tied up for two days or three, so I’ll let her go tomorrow.

I watched him stroke the girl’s face and thought about a plot or two for a novel. A detective story, maybe. Something involving oil, or minerals, or an underground pornography ring. Some unmarried department store girl who has her life turned upside down by a tall dark stranger. Some rich man gone desperate, some damaged man looking in a mirror for redemption. A briefcase of money or diamonds, a counterfeit wife, a stolen limousine with a chauffer who knows more than it seems like he ought to know and maybe gets murdered in someone’s driveway near the dénouement. I don’t know. It wasn’t a great American novel. It tasted like pulp, maybe, or bubblegum.

We went back down to the bar together. I let him buy me one last round of drinks before I called a cab to go home. The next evening, I sat around in the bar for a few hours, I talked to the usual people I talk to. I didn’t see him again. I don’t know if he told me or not, but if he did, I can’t remember his name.

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