“I think there are a lot of American critics who try to pretend that I don’t exist at all.”

John Dos Passos also drew and made watercolors, like this one here to his translation of Blaise Cendrars, a pastime, of which he said, "I do a little painting, a watercolor or so. The prose can get too highcolored; a watercolor gets that drained off."

I’m at Ledig House up near Hudson, New York, with my edits on my second novel, going over them, preparing to turn them in soon.  I printed it up single-spaced with wide margins, so it looks more like a book, and shrank the font, and now I sit with it on a clipboard and mark it with a pen, a notebook next to me to take notes.  I did this with Edinburgh also near the end, to bring the image into my mind of it being published and thus final. This scares me into fixing what’s wrong with it in a different way. So is this what you want it to be, the whole thing says to me as I work.

I do this because a font can make something look so polished, and a screen is really just the size of a long paragraph, or of just two pages. This makes it easy to believe the words in front of you are right, when in fact they are only familiar.

When I’m not doing this, I’m putting together my seminar for next semester at Iowa, and today, reading from John Dos Passos’ Paris Review interview online, because I’m thinking of teaching a seminar on his work or somehow including his USA Trilogy into the course. I first read that trilogy in college for a class, and I read those books with a ferocity I hadn’t given to anything before, except books from my childhood, like maybe Tolkien, and Kon Tiki.  I’ve been talking about him with colleagues periodically throughout the year, and everyone agrees no one speaks of him now.  I can’t think of why, though this quote from the interview is a clue: “I think there are a lot of American critics who try to pretend that I don’t exist at all.”

To my mind, few writers have radicalized narrative meaningfully in the way he did since. Most people who claim to be experimenting with narrative aren’t; they’re playing with something else. Worse, obfuscating the story, often passed off as a narrative experiment, isn’t really a radicalization of narrative. It’s like smearing the ink on a sentence and calling it a story.   

In any case, there’s something about those novels from the trilogy that haunts me. They seem to project right into my brain.  Dos Passos was a part of the same group of American writers as Ford Madox Ford, Modernist writers who were trying to make novels not just out of the vernacular and introducing “the secret language of men” (i.e. obscenity) but also making them more impressionistic, to structure the reader’s relationship to them in a way that might resemble the workings of their mind, or work with the workings of their mind.  Dos Passos used the pieces he put together to evoke, in the manner of a poet, but you never doubted you were reading a novel. His USA Trilogy was like eavesdropping on the mind of a country, but structured by dramatic irony.

The term “fragmented narrative” comes to mind when I think of him but this has always seemed like a fraught phrase to me.  Many have done it who are just imitating something they saw stylistically without understanding the architecture of it.  They don’t display a sense that the fragmentation is intentional, not random, and moves towards being understood. Fragmented narrative is too often the hiding place of someone who fears being understood.  But this was not Dos Passos.  He greatly wanted to be understood. And the fragments of his narratives move toward creating an unforeseen (by the reader) whole out of their disparate parts.

The phrase I use for this is “articulate complexity”—something that when you take it apart seems intensely complicated, perhaps even chaotic, but that, when fit together, creates something the reader experiences as that direct communication Cheever spoke of in his Paris Review interview.  Dos Passos was my earliest apprehension of why you’d use a fragmented narrative, the way something could be broken apart in order to describe something larger than what it could if it were whole.  Reading Dos Passos, I had the feeling of watching a DJ put together tracks to make a whole—the movement between the pieces in the novel was called a collage, but that has never seemed very interesting to me.

I thought of creating something like a class reading fragmented narratives, but am unsure. Also something along the lines of stereoscopic narratives occurred to me, with the idea being novels created out of multiple points of view—this being another way to characterize the way Dos Passos worked, and allowing for a very different kind of discussion about the texts.  I’ve also thought of making it on novels and nations, i.e., looking not just at the Great American Novel but also something like Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, or The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst.

I think about Dos Passos a little differently of late because I’ve been working on an essay about the internet, the fragmentation of consciousness, the feared remapping of the brain and then an interesting accidental possible solution I found recently. That essay began as a column that was first just going to be a blog post, really, but it kept getting bigger, and now has progressed into something more serious than I expected. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is what led this off (check out Emily Mandel’s thoughtful review of it here at the Millions) and strikes me as the other topic of the year, (the others being Franzen, the Gulf Spill and the Tea Party).  I wonder what David Shields thinks of Carr’s book and his argument, given Shields’ own book—and there is a way to see his book as an outgrowth of Dos Passos.

Or Tao Lin, for that matter. David Haglund, writing in the London Review of Books, praised Tao Lin for using gmail chats in his books, for example—if Dos Passos were alive, I think he’d be doing that. I guess the point I’m making is that it may be that Dos Passos imagined or at least foreshadowed the experience these various writers are getting at back near the beginning of the 20th Century. This is very interesting to me.  I don’t know that it’s true, but I’m interested to re-read them and see, whatever this class ends up being by the end.


  1. wow do i wish i could take THAT class. in iowa no less. sigh. i’ve been thinking about just such things in the context of a novel in my head that i think it’s absurdly too soon to be thinking about, but i can’t stop thinking about nonetheless. i guess i’ll have to put dos passos on my already absurdly too-long list of things i have to read by yesterday.

  2. Tao Lin uses Gmail chats, but the result is an extremely boring novel. He’s talent is in spoof, satire, and promotion.

    Anyway, interesting article. I interviewed David Shields earlier in the year at The Rumpus, and will interview him again, and the points raised are food for thought.


  3. oh wow. i don’t know how i missed this post. I love dos passos and blaise cendrars–do you know his book, Hollywood, with drawings by jean guerin? i would give my left elbow to take this class!

    1. Thanks, Rob, and I don’t. It sounds beautiful.

      I went away from him and this. I ended up putting all of these books together that I wanted to teach and realizing that they were about invented countries and fake histories, or they were historical, or some combination thereof. His was one of the odd ones out: he was making something very much about America, and at the time he wrote it, it was very contemporary. I almost made the class Novels and Nations, but that sounded as if it was about Nationalism in a way I could never be interested in. So it became Imaginary Countries, and he’s waiting, for some other class further on down the line. It’ll happen soon, for sure.

      Next time we hang out, we’ll talk Dos Passos!

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