Thu
Feb 26 2009 12:18pm

Is there any such thing as the Great World Novel?

Nancy Lebovitz asked a very interesting question on her livejournal today. She wondered:

whether there are any good nominees for the Great World Novel, and whether it’s viewed as a worthy artistic ambition.
Obviously, you can’t fit the whole world into a novel (you can’t fit America in, either, and if you’re really paying attention, you’ll realize that you can’t even do full justice to Lichtenstein), but it isn’t crazy to think that a long novel could have a decent range of geography, time, and sub-cultures across the whole planet.

The Great American Novel is a joke everyone has heard at this point. But in case you haven’t, the idea is that the novel would encapsulate the American experience, not just be set in the USA. As Nancy says, hard to do even with somewhere the size of Lichtenstein. As for a Great World Novel—what would it be like? I can think of lots of great novels set in particular places. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is a Great Indian Novel and so is Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. S.P. Somtow’s Jasmine Nights is a great Thai novel. But it’s hard to think of anything that has enough of the planet in it to meet Nancy’s requirements.

To answer Nancy’s first question, no, I don’t think this is something people are especially trying to do, or we’d see more possibilities. I think it would be an interesting thing for people to try to do. I can’t think of anything at all that qualifies if you need characters coming from lots of different countries. It’s hard to think what sort of plot you could have. I suppose one of those sprawling plots where people meet somewhere and then meet up again somewhere else much later and things have happened to them? But you’d need to know so much about so many different cultures. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable writing outside their own culture, because no matter how much research you do you’re bound to get things wrong, so that’s going to limit attempts.

If you allow things with protagonists all from one place wandering around the world, I have some thoughts.

The first thing is Jon Evans Dark Places. It’s a thriller, and the protagonist is a Canadian who starts off in Nepal, with a history in Africa, and during the book travels to Europe, North America and other parts of Africa. The sequel Blood Price starts in Bosnia and visits lots of places including South America. If you take both books together they might qualify.

Then there’s Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. These three books are set in the seventeenth century, and while large chunks of them are set in England, characters also visit Africa, Japan, the American Colonies, France, Germany, other parts of Europe, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and I’m sure I’m forgetting somewhere. Their only disqualification would be that they’re historical novels, so they show a lot of the planet, but a long time ago. Also in historical fiction, Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo books get around most of the discovered planet at the time they were set—Iceland to Timbuktu.

For a more contemporary picture, there’s Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. This has largely American characters, but is set in California, the Phillipines, Australia, England, Shanghai, Princeton and assorted other places. I’d think it qualified. And it’s just as well, because what else is there? Seth’s brilliant Two Lives might qualify, if it were a novel rather than a memoir.

To go back to the translation thread, there may be lots of brilliant things out there that qualify but which I don’t know about because they’re not translated. But most of what I can think of that is translated is trying to be the Great Novel of its own culture, not a Great World Novel.

In SF, there’s Stand on Zanzibar, which has the US, Britain, France, Africa and Indonesia. You’d think SF, which does acknowledge that Earth is a planet, would try harder to set stories there. But I can’t really think of anything that does—again, lots of stories set in one place. Maybe people want to preserve Aristotelean unities?

So, any more suggestions for Great World Novels, in any genre? Remember it ought to be great—and it also has to have a “decent range of geography, time and sub-cultures” which I’m thinking means at least four countries on at least two continents, at least two of them not English-speaking.

17 comments
Robert Daeley
1. Celsius1414
Well, it's called the Great American Novel, not the Great America Novel -- i.e. a story that captures the essence of Americans, and one that by necessity doesn't show off the entire country. Huckleberry Finn would have been a much thicker novel had it followed Huck into the Indian Territory as he declared he was going to do. Then he heads to California? Alaska? Back to the east coast? Thicker and likely not a Great American Novel. If geography is the only consideration, then a James Bond novel qualifies.

So, Great Earthling Novel, perhaps, not Great World Novel? What about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Moby Dick?
Bob Bruhin
2. bruhinb
I think Neil Stephenson has been busily working on exactly this idea for the past ten years or so at this point.
Jenny Davidson
3. Jenny Davidson
Yes, I think Moby Dick is a legitimate contender. Carlos Fuentes's "Terra Nostra"? Roberto Bolano's "2666"? "War and Peace"? The world novel is perhaps a stronger tradition for Spanish- and German- and Russian-language authors than for English...
Jenny Davidson
4. Nicholas Waller
How about David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas? It takes in an American in the Pacific in 1850, an Englishman in Belgium in 1931, a journalist in California in 1975, someone in Britain about now, a fabricant in Korea in a dystopian future, and people in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.

I have read it, though for the purposes of this comment I got those details off Wikipedia. Even so, it is kind of Western-centric - not much Africa, South America, Central Asia etc.
Leigh Butler
5. leighdb
If the Baroque Cycle counts, perhaps also Naomi Novik's Temeraire books? They take place in England, Continental Europe, China, Africa, and at sea, with bits in Turkey and somewhere else I'm forgetting. Also, the next novel is apparently going to Australia.
Jenny Davidson
6. dulac3
I have to agree with Celsius1414 @1: does the "Great World Novel" simply need to be a travelogue that hits as many countries as possible? It makes more sense to me that it addresses the human condition in as wide a way as possible. This is the goal of all literature, isn't it? The 'Great American Novel' is what it is because it supposedly uniquely addresses the concerns of America/Americans and is in that sense rather insular.

The Great World novel should be something that transcends borders...not one that includes as many of them as possible.
Jenny Davidson
7. Nicholas Waller
Perhaps a better choice than Mitchell is Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt.

Again, I have read it, honest, but cut & pasted the details off Wikipedia. It covers the 600 years after 1405 in alternative-history mode and includes: Christendom, imperial China, Mughal India and the colonisation of empty Europe, discovery of the New World by the Chinese military, the Islamic renaissance in Samarqand, Native Americans aligning with the Samurai, Qing dynasty meets Islam in western China, industrialism in Southern India, Japanese diaspora to North America, a world-wide Long War, fought with 'modern' weapons, and science, urban life and feminism in Islamic Europe's post-war metropolis.

Certainly covers your “decent range of geography, time and sub-cultures” anyway.
Jon Evans
8. rezendi
Heart of Darkness? Thematically, at least. Also, Graham Greene might have written the Great World Oeuvre.

Friday is sort of a World Novel, but I'm not sure I'd call it Great. (Good, sure.) But of all the nominees to date I think I like Stand on Zanzibar best.
Andrew Mason
9. AnotherAndrew
It strikes me that the Great Indian Novels and the Great Thai Novel you mention are written by (at least partial) expatriates. Perhaps the impulse to write a novel which encapsulates a nation or culture is one that arises when one is partially outside that culture, or is in dialogue with outsiders. In that case, the Great World Novel may have to wait until we are in dialogue with people from outside Earth.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Another Andrew: That's such a cool idea. I really like that. I also like Celsius's idea that it should be the novel defining what it is to be human -- there are more contenders for that. Dying Inside comes to mind right away.
René Walling
11. cybernetic_nomad
I will mention a book of which it was once said that the world was divided in two: those who have read it and those who will: The Lord of the Rings. I'm basing myself on the idea that a journey across imaginary realm can tell us more about who we are than one across our planet.

But if we want a book that brings us places both on earth and in imaginary realms, I think both The Odyssey and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor are both strong contenders for Great World "Novel".

Taking a riff from AnotherAndrew, I will mention two Great Martian Novels: Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy.
- -
12. heresiarch
"while large chunks of them are set in England, characters also visit Africa, Japan, the American Colonies, France, Germany, other parts of Europe, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and I’m sure I’m forgetting somewhere."

India.
- -
13. heresiarch
The Baroque Cycle works so well as a Great World Novel not because its characters flit across the globe, but because its goal is to explain how everything fits together. How the flow of gold east from the New World to China drove European economic development; how the triangle trade drove the development of the northern colonies, the degradation of Africa, and the enrichment of Europe all at once. How Japanese swords were made with Indian steel. Its fundamental insight is that even as long ago as the 17th century, the entire world was linked by trade, and cannot be easily carved into this area and that. Everything affects everything else.

It seems that if someone wanted to write a Great World Novel today, the global economic collapse offers a pretty clear illustration of the same principle.
Ron Hogan
14. RonHogan
Nicholas beat me to the David Mitchell nomination, although I would propose Number 9 Dream as well as Cloud Atlas.
Jenny Davidson
15. CarlosSkullsplitter
13: "How Japanese swords were made with Indian steel."

Except they weren't. License on Stephenson's part. Wootz, "Damascus steel", of which there really was significant export from south India during the time period The Baroque Cycle is set, has a different microstructure than the steel found in Japanese swords, where the patterning in the steel is caused by repeated folding and welding, sort of like puff pastry.

Since the same guy who investigated the technological history of the one also did the other (Cyril Stanley Smith), I don't think it's a lapse on Stephenson's part, unless he's picked up some weird sword mythology pursuing his martial art.

Incidentally, there is a copy of Gemelli Careri's epic voyage around the world which inspired Stephenson online, but it's not in an obvious place: a Canadian history website as part of a larger volume of travel narratives published in the 18th century.

7: The early modern history of technology and globalization is one of my areas of interest, and from that perspective let me just say that The Years of Rice and Salt sucks. It might have other redeeming qualities, although I myself didn't find them in the plot or the prose. It is ambitious, though.
Jenny Davidson
16. DanielHarper
Thomas Pynchon's AGAINST THE DAY would qualify. From Wikipedia:

"The narrative takes place between the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the time immediately following World War I and features more than a hundred characters spread across the United States, Europe, Mexico, Central Asia, and "one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all," according to the book jacket blurb written by Pynchon."

Of course, it's fantastical historical fiction, and critical response at the time of its release was somewhat mixed, but I'd argue that it is certainly a Great Novel, at least a novel written by one of the Greatest Novelists.
Jenny Davidson
17. Jim Henry III
I'm surprised no one has mentioned David Brin's Earth. Greg Bear's Slant might qualify too; they're both similar in style and structure to Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar.

I'll second the recommendations of earlier posters for Cloud Atlas and The Years of Rice and Salt, and mention David Mitchell's Ghostwritten as well, a set of ten linked novellas, each of which shares at least one character with the previous and following novellas, mostly mainstream until a sf'nal element shows up a bit more than halfway through (IIRC). Settings include Japan, China, Mongolia, the U.S., Britain and some other places I can't recall.

Several of Bruce Sterling's novels have a fairly global scope in their range of settings (Islands in the Net, Holy Fire, Zeitgeist), but I can't recall any with a large internationally diverse cast of characters.

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