What Should Be the Official State Novel of California?
The House of Representatives of Massachusetts recently named Moby-Dick the commonwealth's official 'epic novel,' a compromised reached after representatives from areas that were home to writers Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne protested. While the bill must still pass the Senate and get the governor's signature, it got me thinking about our own state's literary tradition.
California doesn't have an official state book or novel, although we do have a state folk dance (It's the Hustle. Just kidding, it's actually square dancing). Obviously there's a very rich history of literature from the Golden State, but how would one choose the "capital O" Official State Novel. Let's try, shall we?
Let's limit it to novels, since throwing in non-fiction and poetry would complicate things horribly. I won't try to separate out the epic novels from the regular, non-epic ones, although I'd be interested to hear exactly how that distinction was made in the Massachusetts State House. Let's further say that the State of California should be the primary setting for the novel, though not the only setting, and that the author should be in some way associated with California. Aldous Huxley wrote a book about California, but I don't tend to think of him as a "Californian author." With these guidelines in place, a few contenders jump to the fore immediately. John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, should certainly be given consideration. Likely something from Jack London would make the shortlist as well (they did name a square after him in Oakland, after all). Below are my picks for the long shortlist:
- The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
- The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammet
- The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
- The Day of the Locust, by Nathaniel West
- Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski
- Ask the Dust, by John Fante
- Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
- The Human Comedy, by William Saroyan
- Play It as It Lays, by Joan Didion
- East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
- The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
- The Valley of the Moon, by Jack London
- Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis
- LA Confidential, by James Ellroy
The third thing that occurs to me when I look at the list is how impossible it would be to pick one book from it. There are so many great books about so many different aspects of California. The state is too diverse to be captured in a single work. It may be a cop-out, but that's how I feel about it. If I were pressed, I would choose East of Eden, a big, sprawling, multi-generational novel with biblical themes. Is it big and sprawling enough to encompass a state like California? Not even close.