I don’t know about the Great American Novel. But I do know about great American novels, and especially books that so fully capture the experience of a time and a place and an identity. I think Moby Dick is the great American 19th century novel. It has everything (except women) to say about what America is, contains, and says it in both perfectly and multivalent ways.
This book is the same for the 20th century. And I would argue, quite possibly for the 21st century.
I first read this book in college in the same week as I was scheduled to read A Light in August by Faulkner, which is about as long, not quite as dense, but certainly contains some corollary material.
This novel is a strange, exaggerated, and over-determined depiction of a disgraced southern Black college student who goes to New York in hopes of returning to his college in the South. While there, he gets the runaround from the supposed contacts his college gives him to look for work, he gets into an absurd situation in paint factory, witnesses an old Black couple being evicted, and finds himself a mouthpiece for the (unnamed) Communist party in NY.
Throughout all of this is a feverish pace, wild imagery and illusory imagery, and grotesque depictions of other humans, stark symbolism that is almost cartoonishly evoked, and a set of experiences through which the reader is thoroughly dragged.
There are almost no women in this novel, which is a huge drawback in terms of what it says about America (even to the point of having several men sit around a room and discuss “The Woman Question”) but there is version of Whitness and White supremacy drenching almost all the rest of the novel.
The Communist Party has parallels to the current left movement with its speaking for people of color but not listening to people of color. The more radical Black movement is shown as violent and resistant, but has its own issues.
Throughout the whole of the novel, we see so much consistency in the American landscape that I think many many people would be well-served by reading or rereading this novel.
The language is poetic and frightening and frantic for almost the whole of 600 pages.