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William T. Vollmann
The great American novel? What's that?
The great American novel? What's that?

Can we finally get beyond the Great American Novel? It’s the fantasy of an earlier America, like Manifest Destiny. And yet, to read Harvard professor Lawrence Buell’s “American Literature’s Holy Grail: Franzen, DFW and the Hunt for the Great American Novel” in Salon over the weekend was to experience a cognitive dissonance, as if the shaggy monster he portrays were somehow real. Buell’s essay is excerpted from his book “The Dream of the Great American Novel” (Harvard University Press: 584 pp., $39.95), and it’s unwieldy for a variety of reasons, not least its essential lack of inquiry. He seems to take it as a given that the Great...

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