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On Feb. 29, Edward P. Jones spoke before an adoring crowd of locals. He and another writer, Dinaw Mengestu, were reading from their work and taking questions at Capitol Hill’s Lutheran Church of the Reformation, a place the literary organization PEN/Faulkner uses when demand for its readings exceeds the capacity of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Unquestionably, this was a big night: The evening’s topic was fiction about Washington, D.C., something both writers have some expertise in—Jones has written two short-story collections about the District, 1992’s Lost in the City and 2006’s All Aunt Hagar’s Children, and Mengestu’s 2007 debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, is set in a rapidly gentrifying Logan Circle.
About midway through the event, one person rose to ask Jones how he could bring such a detailed, novelistic quality to his short stories about the District, without actually writing a novel. In response, Jones riffed for a bit about the virtues of brevity. He spoke about his affection for his collection of tiny, meticulously crafted Japanese figurines and said he wanted to bring that same sort of smallness, detail, and precision to his writing about D.C. “In New York it’s all about the novel,” he said. “Novel, novel, novel. I didn’t want to write a novel that’s bloated and full of steroids.”
Loud applause from the pews ensued, almost reflexively—as if there were something hoary about trying to write a towering work of fiction about D.C. That’s something of an old wound around here: Though a few have come close, the Great American Novel has bypassed Washington. And if Jones—who wrote a brilliant, Pulitzer-winning, nonsteroidal novel about black slave owners in Virginia, 2003’s The Known World—is recusing himself from the job, the job may never get done.
“[The consensus is that] the great Washington novel is something of an oxymoron,” says Jeffrey Charis-Carlson, the opinion page editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and a scholar of District literature. For the past four years he’s devoured more than 200 novels for his University of Iowa dissertation on D.C. fiction. He’s taken in reams of spy thrillers, stacks of chick lit, mountains of congressional intrigue. But he’s had a rough time finding a singular book that might rank with the likes of The Adventures of Augie March, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Big Sleep, A Confederacy of Dunces—novels that drill deep into how a city operates, giving you a sense that multiple waterfronts are being covered.
And there are more than just a pair of them—don’t try making the there-are-two-D.C.s argument. “[T]hat’s a too-easy observation, and it denies the District’s complexity as a whole,” crime novelist George Pelecanos writes in the introduction to the 2006 anthology D.C. Noir. He’s written some fine novels about the “other D.C.”—2004’s Hard Revolution and 2005’s Drama City best among them. But the crime novel that evokes D.C. in a way that ranks with James Ellroy’s Los Angeles or Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco or Nelson Algren’s Chicago isn’t in his 13 books. In the same way that Tom Wolfe’s and Ralph Ellison’s fictional New York wasn’t just skyscrapers and immigrants, and Walker Percy’s and John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans wasn’t just jazz and gumbo, the city of D.C. fiction ought to contain multitudes—the strivers, the palace intrigues, the crime, the ongoing conversation about race, immigration, and gentrification. Instead, we get a lot of bulky Fed-driven tomes.
This isn’t a new debate. In 1989, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley banged the drum loudly for Marita Golden’s Long Distance Life, a novel about a black family’s migration to D.C. from the South and its difficulties settling into the city across six decades. Yardley pleaded for the creation of a regional fiction that has yet to arrive, voicing his contempt for Washington novels filled with “papier-mache presidents…cardboard senators…pneumatic bimbos.” Writing in the New York Times Book Review in 1995, critic Terry Teachout mourned the death of that same Washington novel. There, Teachout fondly recalled Allen Drury’s 1959 Pulitzer-winning novel, Advise and Consent—not because he thinks it’s a masterpiece (on Teachout’s blog, About Last Night, he calls it “heavily laden with characters wearing primary-color hats”), but because it portrayed Washington, D.C., as a place where interesting things happened. Over time, those “interesting things” have ossified into cliché: The District is a place where somebody’s hatching a terrorist plot, where some young thing is trying to get laid, somebody else is in a power struggle, where somebody is gonna get got. The stuff of bestsellers, maybe. But not the stuff of classics.
That’s not to say that District fiction hasn’t changed since those two critics lodged their complaints. Christopher Buckley has emerged as the leading satirist in a town that isn’t known for its sense of humor. The Washington romance, once the sole province of Sally Quinn, has been supplanted by D.C. chick-lit novels by Ana Marie Cox and Jessica Cutler. Serious authors who want to bring some historical gravitas to their tales go looking into the District’s past: Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America sent its central family to D.C. to better expose its dystopian, anti-Semitic America, and Richard Powers kicked off his hefty novel on race relations, The Time of Our Singing, at Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance on the National Mall. Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. is on the verge of publishing a novel on “journalists and politicians and campaign consultants.” District-set gay lit has expanded (most recently in Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers). And one rock-solid competitor for a great novel set in D.C. has emerged. Ward Just’s 1997 novel, Echo House, tracks three generations of lobbyists and legislators; Just is a former Post foreign correspondent, and his book is among the most convincing portraits of insider dealings, power brokers, and secrecy. It neatly captures the intellectual pitch of life off the Potomac; but, like a lot of Washington novels, it hardly acknowledges the Anacostia.
What’s happened? It may simply be that the era of the big, multifaceted novel is over: Wolfe recently groused to the New York Times that American fiction went into decline once hard-living folks like Hemingway and Steinbeck faded off and timid MFA types took over. But it may simply be harder to write a great D.C. novel than it is to write a great Chicago novel or a great San Francisco novel. After all, any District novel that claims to cover the whole city needs to tell a story about bureaucracy, and, as Charis-Carlson says, “It takes a great novel to make bureaucracy interesting.” None of the four novels featured here, all recently published books that largely turn on D.C. settings, are legitimate contestants for the prize of the great Washington novel. Nor are they trying to be. But taken together, they shed some light on the multiple elements that a D.C. novel with real ambition ought to include. Writing a great novel isn’t simply a matter of ticking off seven items from a checklist, of course; I doubt I’d want to read a book that was constructed in so Frankensteinian a fashion. But narrow thinking only means more bricks of Tom Clancy. The field is wide open for somebody with the nerve to give the Great D.C Novel a shot—Jones, it appears, isn’t bothering.