Journalism Major: A Song of Ice and Fire impresses me more every time I touch it. It has my vote as The Great American Novel, although it is actually a series of novels, isn’t about any Americans and isn’t even finished yet. Plus, I admit I’ve never read Melville or a hundred other worthies, and I gave up after my first chapter of Faulkner. But the worthies I have read haven’t dazzled me with storytelling anything like the way George R. R. Martin has.
My first awareness of the series was the board game version of the opening novel, A Game of Thrones. The game was so good I read the book’s first chapter, which in turn was so engrossing and then shocking that I fell deep into Martin’s universe and read all the books to date. Then came the TV show, Game of Thrones, which has increased the fame of the series. A lot of that new celebrity can be credited to the production’s high quality, but most of the things that blow people away week after week are the characters Martin created and the deeds they do.
English Major: Look, I’m all for popularity … at least for other people who really get into that sort of thing … but I crave substance in my literature and I’m not sure A Song of Ice and Fire delivers here. I mean, where’s the metaphor? Where’s the duende? The nuance? Unfortunately, a thousand screaming fans can be wrong, and to paraphrase my friend who shall remain nameless, “Accessibility often seems to nullify ‘greatness;’ today’s stamp of approval is often a tainted thing.”
Journalism Major: So you are questioning whether the fame will last? My bet is that it will. Even though cast as fantasy, this is human history broad, deep and detailed. The setting is Medieval, but the struggles for power and gratification clashing with moral ideals could be readily adapted to Roman or Chinese or Incan — or even modern. And the characters are so varied and so realistically drawn that it’s like being back in high school with hundreds of us making and breaking alliances as we struggled for recognition in the crowd.
As to duende, well, that’s part of the idea. Martin wouldn’t use a word like duende, which I had to look up. He doesn’t hide his meaning in layers of art or artifice. Not that he doesn’t delicately foreshadow lots of plot twists — that’s a big part of the fun. But if you re-read Martin, you re-read for more of that fun and more of the details, not to puzzle out some allegory that went way over your head the first time.
English Major: Plot. Meh. I guess if that’s what you’re after. But plotting, no matter how exquisite, simply provides you with a lot of answers, and answers are by their nature, arbitrary. I’m interested in questions, exploration, pure experience. These are, in the end, the more difficult things to capture, the real wealth of a shared human struggle. If the journey is straightforward, precise, easy, how can the revelation at the end have any true worth?
Journalism Major: The struggle I want is the one in which I try to cope with the insights into the human condition that the author clearly communicates. I’m swinging for the fences here, but Martin truly reminds me of Shakespeare. Martin writes beautifully, but in language any educated reader can understand, just as Elizabethan commoners could follow the rich language of the Bard. Ice and Fire is studded with Lears and Iagos, Hotspurs and Lady Macbeths, all exquisitely crafted in both descriptive language and in dialog that is often witty and slashing.
Granted that Ice and Fire is such a bounty because it is already so long — reputedly at twice as many words as all the Shakespeare plays combined with two more books to go. And granted that some of the words and the plot twists are excessive, but even Shakespeare wrote some duds.
I realize there are artistic layers in Shakespeare that most of his contemporaries probably could not perceive, and I’ll leave it up to folks trained as you are to hunt for them in Martin, if they exist at all. It’s just that I don’t see why a novel has to include obscure artistic elements in order to be great. It’s great because it teaches so much, reads so lyrically, entertains so enchantingly and moves us so powerfully. It will remain so as long as the humanity of the future is the humanity of today.
English Major: You write well about what you perceive as Martin’s achievement, persuasively even, but I’m afraid if I commit to actually reading The Song of Ice and Fire I will only find myself feeling I should really be re-reading Kafka’s The Castle or wondering vaguely if I’m missing something new and avant-garde in the world of experimental film. Are these anxieties not well-founded?
Journalism Major: For sure — for you. That’s why we have public libraries. I’m told one of our co-workers is even trying to read James Joyce this summer. That’s definitely not on my bucket list, but I still intend to get around to Moby Dick some long day. Then I’ll see if I need to change my vote.
… And you, dear readers, do you have a pick for the Great American Novel?