Review Summary: "I want to believe there's a better place...so why can't I?"
In an 1868 essay submitted to The Nation
, writer John William De Forest remarked that “the Great American Novel,” which he described as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” had not yet been created. Attempted? Sure. But ruling out works by leading novelists of his day, he insisted the country, still reeling from the physical and emotional scars of the Civil War, was too new and fractured to produce a piece of literature wholly worthy of encompassing—with the fancy stroke of prose, of course—the sentiments uniquely definitive of our national character.
In the years since, hallmarks of English classes from To Kill a Mockingbird
to The Great Gatsby
to The Grapes of Wrath
have all been held aloft as contenders for that crown, but there remains no clear consensus on any standalone title-holder. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; a people this diverse by design would be hard-pressed to concur about the best of anything, and most narratives in question would either whitewash our bloody, imperialist legacy or ignore the persistent myths considered cornerstones to our cultural consciousness altogether. In truth, each side only makes sense contextualized against the other—but at that point you’re practically writing a history text, not a novel. De Forest’s signature phrase is thus best applied to stories that snapshot that tug-of-war between the American ideal and the American reality. As the centuries pile on, the only guarantee is that someone will consider a different Great American Novel more emblematic of that struggle than those that were in the running before.
All of which is to say it’s not any oversight of Proper’s that their The Great American Novel
won’t speak for everybody. Proudly black and queer, the New York-based trio don’t shy away from foregrounding our modern (albeit hardly new) intersectional web of racist violence, class struggle, and systemic oppression from the perspective of people who couldn’t fully escape being on the receiving end of those frameworks if they tried. Based around anecdotes from vocalist/guitarist Erik Garlington’s twenties (he even suggests listeners interpret the protagonist as a contemporary Holden Caufield type), the album forms a loose narrative arc about trying to grapple with these overlapping constructs, complete with enough personal details to flesh out its voice as more emotive character discourse than detached case study.
But that’s all to be expected for established fans of the band; the real draw for newcomers is that the music finally mostly
surpasses the status quo of their particular brand of pop-punk and emo. “I think a lot of bands tend to go more pop,” Garlington says of Proper’s maturation, “but I wanted to make something both challenging and undeniably catchy.” Aside from an occasional stiffness with meter and pitchy vocal delivery (pop punk is as pop punk does), that goal is certainly met; not only is any given song here punchier, more streamlined, and more distinguishable than anything from the band’s prior catalogue, they fully embrace a wider range of influences in the process.
Early tracks “Shuck and Jive” and “Red White and Blue” set the tone well, propulsive in tempo, scornfully sarcastic in verse, and packing post-hardcore riffs aplenty. The band dials it up to eleven on “McConnell,” whose brutal chugging and ominous melodies invoke every bit the devil its namesake and future corpse (can’t come soon enough!) governs like. There’s still fun-loving cheekiness to be had here, though; on the opposite end of the self-serious spectrum, “In The Van Somewhere Outside of Birmingham” is an “oh my god I’m crushing on this man” freakout brought to us by way of a mid-song chipmunk voiceover and an absolutely batshit internal monologue that’ll have you laughing in disbelief before coming back down to Earth and going “damn, that internalized toxic masculinity was kinda messed up tho.” It's also preceded by an interlude about hating haircuts, for whatever that's worth.
The moments of deeper introspection are what really root Proper to the album’s most rewarding inquiries, though. A few are sprinkled through the first half of the tracklist—of highest import, “Jean” recalls a friendship prematurely cut off and irreversibly ended after the other party ended up committing suicide in prison—but most of the nuance creeps in as the album approaches its homestretch. “The Routine” muddies the straightforward commentary about patriarchy with its gay protagonist bragging about a dead-inside streak of unsatisfying sex. “Done Talking” brings back the intensity of “McConnell” to steamroll the insinuation black people ought to act more proper (get it?) so as to not be stereotyped as a threat. And right after it, “Americana” even flips the profiling outward, seeing Garlington come closer to terms with places he’d once written off over their racist pasts or unflattering experiences.
The apex of this leg is standout banger “Huerta,” a simultaneous reclamation of Garlington’s Hispanic heritage and a desperate wish to embody a more unique (but no less stereotypical) alternate self, fantasies ranging from “a farmer in the grasslands” and “a tubist in a corrido band,” to “a telenovela stunt man.” “Just don’t want to be another dull American,” he admits, before the band breaks into a Latin groove. It’s a little corny, yeah, but at its core, so are most things about Proper’s parent genre. It’s rare and refreshing to hear the template so effortlessly transcend its usual trappings.
The Great American Novel
’s conviction to unflinching, critical honesty about the black and queer experience forms a sufficient outlet for entirely justified anger, rarely straying too far into mere platitudes or misfired posturing. The problems it raises a cry against have no immediate, actionable solution, but the pain they inflict is
immediate and resistant to all change. It’s fucked. This country’s fucked. We’re fucked.
To some extent, most writers claiming to speak for this nation over the years reached the same conclusion. That’s just the perpetual state of the constantly-changing Great American Novel. Proper’s take on it is as legitimate an entry into the canon as anyone else’s.