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.


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