American fiction

Jason Cowley suggests a reading list to help George Bush better understand his country

In 1960, shortly after the publication of his first book, Philip Roth marvelled at the fantastic nature of contemporary reality and how the writer of fiction would struggle to compete with the bewildering nature of American modernity. "The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist."

If the 19th century belonged to the English and Russian novel, the 20th century, certainly its long second half, belonged emphatically to the Americans. At times, as Martin Amis once observed, it was as if each and every American novelist of ambition was competing to write a novel called USA, a novel that would somehow represent the whole sickening, stupefying truth of modern American experience. The self-declared mission of writers such as Roth, Saul Bellow and Thomas Pynchon was clear almost from the beginning: they wanted to write if not the Great American Novel, then a great American novel. "I would rather fail in originality than succeed in imitation," said Herman Melville, and that, in many ways, remains the guiding dictum of the postwar American novel - which, at its best, combines the linguistic inventiveness and fascination for consciousness of the modernists with the narrative abundance of the 19th-century tradition.

Does George Bush read fiction? I doubt it, but he could do worse, when he returns home, than take a look at my personal selection of ten postwar American novels. He would then at least be on the way to better understanding his own country.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud (1957)

Frank Alpine is a small-time crook. One day he raids a grocery store in New York, injuring the old Jewish owner. Later Frank returns to the store, perhaps out of guilt or, more likely, because he is attracted to the grocer's daughter. And he keeps on returning, eventually taking a job there. A novel about Jewishness, the loneliness of cities, the immigrant's longing for acceptance and about what it means to be good.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1958)

Must every murderer have a fancy prose style? Well, this one has - it is hard to think of a better written and more influential postwar novel than Nabokov's account of the elegant paedophile from Europe who falls in love with, and destroys, a sweet but not entirely innocent all-American girl.

The Rabbit tetralogy by John Updike (1960-90)

Four novels rather than one: Updike tells the story of postwar America - the wars, the political assassinations, the race riots, the excess - through car salesman Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a flawed, vulgar, questing everyman.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1960)

Binx Boiling, a veteran of the Korean war, lives quietly in New Orleans. He is an insomniac, a moviegoer and a dreamer, and we follow him closely through the longest day of his life as he finally resolves to do something purposeful, to act.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1972)

Beloved (1987), the first major American novel about slavery, is perhaps a greater achievement, but this story of a little black girl's longing for blue eyes is the one that got Morrison started, the one in which she first found her singing, free-floating style and the confidence to write not for a white readership, but for her own people, African Americans.

Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow (1973)

A fictionalised recasting of the life of the doomed poet Delmore Schwartz, this is a novel about memory, regret and the flip side of the American dream. You read Bellow less for his character studies and dramatic situations than for the exuberance of that curling, arch, energetic, wised-up voice.

White Noise by Don DeLillo (1984)

A toxic cloud floating above a small town, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn't speak German, a housewife addicted to a new pre-Prozac wonder drug - this is DeLillo at his most ironically paranoid. The prose is characteristically urgent; the sense of crisis is acute. Time is out of joint, American capitalism is out of control, and DeLillo here, as elsewhere, proves the ideal chronicler of our modern times.

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)

Written with harsh lyricism, this is a first-person novel about the impossibility of self-understanding. Frank Bascombe is in middle-aged dejection. His teenage son has died, his marriage is over and, though he once wrote an acclaimed book of stories, he no longer has the ambition to write anything more demanding than sports features. But he is good company: cynical, laconic, yet capable of moments of wonder.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeff Eugenides (1993)

Written experimentally in the first-person plural, this beguiling novel is about the suicide of five sisters and how the collective memory of what happened to them affects the boys who grew up alongside them in their small, introspective American town.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

Roth at his most elegiac and sympathetic. Written in long, graceful sentences, it tells of the destruction of an ordinary American family whose daughter becomes enmeshed in the radical student politics of the late 1960s. Meanwhile, the inner cities seethe and burn.