U.S.A.

Modernism is therapeutic. For melancholy, Joyce; for jealousy, Proust; Virginia Woolf for despair. And for postmodern alienation? Salve Franzen and Foster Wallace with Dos Passos, whose 1938 U.S.A. trilogy simultaneously conjures and completes the “Great American Novel.” It’s like nothing else, except maybe The Great Gatsby, On The Road and Sunset Boulevard.

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And Baz Luhrmann’s Australia? Yes, insofar as both texts expose the national via the romantic. (“What she hated most about him was the way he yawned.”) Both also have a soundtrack, delivered in U.S.A. via fragments between all-caps headlines: RAILROADS WON’T YIELD AN INCH; NEVER SAW HIM SAYS MANAGER. Then a biography of Edison that reads like beat poetry.

The second novel’s about the end of the Great War, rejecting “war to end all wars” before the Second World War begins. In elevating the war fiction genre the book itself becomes a historical source. “Henry Ford was right” the author decides in the 1930s. (Are we less historic or just less declarative?) For his structure Dos Passos doesn’t link as much as layer, describing armistice in Paris several times from different angles, “reiterative like the eddas.”

Actually a lot of U.S.A. is set in France, defining an identity by how it looks abroad. “We’ve been too much interested in money and material things,” says an American, “it’s taken the French to show us how to live.” As the writing turned bilingual I followed along, remembering Paris.

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