We need a novel like Dos Passos would write

by DRM


Sky and sea are opal grey. Martin is stretched on the deck in the bow of the boat with an unopened book beside him. He has never been so happy in his life. The future is nothing to him, the past is nothing to him. All his life is effaced in the grey languor of the sea, in the soft surge of the water about the ship’s bow as she ploughs through the long swell, eastward. The tepid moisture of the Gulf Stream makes his clothes feel damp and his hair stick together into curls that straggle over his forehead. There are porpoises about, lazily tumbling in the swell, and flying-fish skim from one grey wave to another, and the bow rises and falls gently in rhythm with the surging sing-song of the broken water.

Martin has been asleep. As through infinite mists of greyness he looks back on the sharp hatreds and wringing desires of his life. Now a leaf seems to have been turned and a new white page spread before him, clean and unwritten on. At last things have come to pass.

And very faintly, like music heard across the water in the evening, blurred into strange harmonies, his old watchwords echo a little in his mind. Like the red flame of the sunset setting fire to opal sea and sky, the old exaltation, the old flame that would consume to ashes all the lies in the world, the trumpet-blast under which the walls of Jericho would fall down, stirs and broods in the womb of his grey lassitude. The bow rises and falls gently in rhythm with the surging sing-song of the broken water, as the steamer ploughs through the long swell of the Gulf Stream, eastward.

John Dos Passos, One Man’s Initiation — 1917

I’ve been thinking a lot about John Dos Passos. He was a major literary figure of the mid-20th century. You can learn about him here. His masterwork was the U.S.A. Trilogy. I remember reading it in a rush, swept away by the story and the words and the vision.

I read the U.S.A. Trilogy in the 1980’s when we were at the start of a 30-year march of prosperity that made the perspective of Dos Passos appear cartoonish and long-ago. But time calls for those novels to be written again. What Dos Passos saw — two countries, one rich and one poor, consumed by an overwhelming compulsion to move into the future, to outwit fate, to fiercely buy into images and deny realities — is what we are confronted with one more time. The novel of individual redemption, of light irony and remote commentary, of object and predicate, don’t cut it right now. We need a novel like Dos Passos would write, wherever it would come from, that encompasses the whole world and what’s not there.