To bookish foreigners who are curious about America, I always recommend two novels: Huckleberry Finn and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days. If you haven’t read any of Keillor’s work, just imagine William Faulkner meeting The Simpsons. Like Faulkner, Keillor invents a town and populates it with three generations of characters, but in Minnesota instead of Mississippi. Like The Simpsons, it is funny. In fact, I suspect the early seasons of The Simpsons were influenced by Keillor’s works, which explains why they were better than later seasons.
While Huck Finn is the classic American outsider and critic, the citizens of Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men handsome, and all the children are above average”, are the American middle-class homebodies that Huck was always trying to escape: prejudiced and stubborn, yes, but also capable of piety, love, and quiet generosity.
“Cognitive dissonance” is a fancy phrase that describes that moment when you receive two opposite impressions about the same thing, making your brain feels like jelly. I get it every time I watch a political speech, and most times I watch the news or a movie: the talking heads hold a fun-house mirror to the world and proclaim “this is where you live!”, when my own experience tells me something almost completely different.
Lake Wobegon Days gives me the opposite feeling: I recognise the people and emotions described there. The drunks, the shopkeepers, the kids, the grandparents, the teachers, the church-goers (Lutheran, Catholic and Fundamentalist) are more or less the people I run into in my life.
But Lake Wobegon stories are also sad: there is always a sense that no one is ever completely “at home”, that even the most stationary townies are itching to drop everything and wander off even as outsiders look in at them and wish that just once, they too could “belong”.
I think all of us feel this contradiction in some way: on the one hand we want to belong, to feel at home, to be truly from somewhere; on the other we want to be like little Huck Finn, show the whole world our middle finger and then disappear. I don’t know if this is a result of being Americans, with our geographical and social mobility, or just part of being human “strangers and sojourners.”