We have been watching AMC’s “The Killing,” the murder mystery television series set in Seattle. And we have been struck by the endless rain and how it feeds the feeling of gloom that pervades the story – and brilliantly characterizes the city. We come away with a definite sense (accurate or not, the series was actually shot in Vancouver) of Seattle.
Nothing as simple as the weather characterizes Washington DC. It is a city of great power and considerable wealth but also wretched poverty, street crime and yes, a barely mentioned middle class. A large portion of the population is not native to the city and there is little indigenous culture, including no definitive Washington novel: “…something of an old wound around here: Though a few have come close, the Great American Novel has bypassed Washington,” wrote Mark Athitakis in the local “City Paper” in 2008.
Washington’s great-novel-less status has been the subject of real study. Jeffrey Charis-Carlson, read more than 200 DC novels from spy thrillers to chick lit to congressional intrigue for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa. His conclusion, quoted in the “City Paper:” “[The consensus is that] the great Washington novel is something of an oxymoron.”
As residents of the city, we are on a periodic search for the DC novel. (We also once tried to writing one which is maybe why we are now editors.) The trick, we think, is to make the city a character in the book – and Washington seems to defy characterization.
We just read George Pelecanos, whose oeuvre of many books, takes place across many DC neighborhoods and trends in the city. Pelecanos bicycles through the neighborhoods he writes about, and when he mentions a specific house, say, you can bet it is real.
The rap on Pelecanos is that he writes only about poor and downtrodden Washington. This, we think is unfair because writing about the entirety of any city must be impossible. But we had a hard time separating Pelecanos’ DC from his Baltimore. (Pelecanos was a writer/producer for “The Wire.”)
Other contenders for great DC novel have included:
DEMOCRACY, Henry Adams: Not sure why this hasn’t achieved definitive DC novel status. It does a great job of showing how politics is the social life of this city. Published in 1880, it has had plenty of time to ascend the throne but hasn’t.
ADVISE AND CONSENT, Alan Drury: Here, DC is said to be too much of a backdrop for the plot.
WASHINGTON, DC, Gore Vidal: Too much about rich, powerful Washington and not enough about ordinary folks, critics say.
Christopher Buckley’s novels: Washington isn't known for its sense of humor.
ECHO HOUSE, Ward Just: “This is a portrait of Washington at once so knowing and so cynical that only a Washingtonian could ever truly love it,” wrote the “New York Times” in 1989. Exactly. Has anyone but certain Washingtonians heard of Just?
THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT HEAVEN BEARS, Dinaw Mengestu: Not on everyone’s short list. Mengestu is not a Washingtonian. Also, his book may be too small to be a great novel. But give it time, the book was written in 2007. Set in gentrifying Logan Circle, the book is the story of one Ethiopian immigrant, but it allows Mengestu to touch on many of the city’s core themes: gentrification, rich/poor, black/white, the immigrant experience, politics and what we believe may be the defining characteristic of DC, outsider status.
We wonder if it won’t take an outsider like Mengestu to characterize DC – and that opens the door to pretty much all of you. Have at it.