Monday, April 19, 2010

Entry 8.1: "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth (1998)

Let me first say this: I have read better books than American Pastoral, I have read better writing than American Pastoral; I have not, however, been more impressed by a book than I was by Philip Roth's 1998 Pulitzer-winning novel, American Pastoral. I have never been more impressed by a writer who dared to tackle a subject that was so grandiose and epic in its scope and contained it in such a unique way, unlike the way Dan Brown did in The Da Vinci Code; I have never been more impressed by a writer who created such incredibly interesting and unique characters, put them all together, made them interact with each other, and offer the reader their back stories while not overdoing it, nor boring the reader to tears the way Ayn Rand did with Atlas Shrugged; and I have never been more impressed by a book that confronts the so-called "American dream" head-on in such a eloquent way, unlike the way Booth Tarkington did in The Magnificent Ambersons (how much longer am I going to rag on poor Tarkington and that book of his?, I wonder).

With American Pastoral, Philip Roth—an author whom I had never read before—proved himself to be a writer of the highest caliber and one that I will probably be exploring more after this Pulitzer journey finds its completion.
In one novel, Philip Roth managed to single-handedly rip out all the seams of the American dream quilt. Or, perhaps more appropriately, he blew it up. No subject is left untouched, no dream not turned into a nightmare. All of the ideals that propelled America to the forefront of the free world—business ownership, family values and propriety, and basic social freedoms—are confronted, challenged, then completely obliterated by Roth. And even though it seems like it would take an entire series of novels to effectively to do this, and even though it seems like a totally pretentious, or overambitious enterprise to embark on, Roth manages to do it and, most importantly, do it very well in less than 425 pages. And, in all honesty, I don't think this feat has much to do with his writing style, so much as it is because of the subject of his novel: a Jewish family by name of Levov.

By concentrating all of his attention on this one family, dealing with the tumultuous 20 years that were the 1960's and 70's, Roth is able to address incredibly complex events, emotions, and, in all reality, the entire human condition in a very contained, but engaging fashion. Love, lust, infidelity, activism, religion, sibling rivalry, politics, terrorism, parenting, racism, friendship—these are just a few of the incredibly lofty topics Roth confronts in this book.
The book was written in an interesting way—one that I found, on one hand, very unique, and, on the other hand, was very surprised I had never seen before.

The book is written in three sections; the first section is written in first-person from the perspective of Nathan Zuckerman, a writer, and the last two sections are written in third-person, from the perspective of an omniscient narrator (whom, I presume, is Zuckerman again, rather than Roth). The first section features Zuckerman as the main character, narrating his life; the last two sections features Seymour "Swede" Levov as the main character. However, despite Zuckerman being the main character in the first section, Swede is his focus.

Zuckerman informs the reader of Swede, describes him in all his glory (Swede was a guy that Zuckerman was both intimidated and mesmerized by), relates an experience he had when Swede propositioned Zuckerman to help him write a tribute to his father, and then writes about a high school reunion, where he runs into Swede's brother and some of Swede's other acquaintances. At this reunion, Zuckerman discusses the Swede with his brother and learns from him that the Swede's glorious, perfect life, which Zuckerman imagined it to be, was nothing of the sort; that, in fact, it was quite sad and tragic.

In the next two sections, Roth takes the identity of Zuckerman and informs the reader of the Swede's rise to the top and ultimate downfall.

And, to me, this way of organizing the book makes sense—a lot of sense. And I can't help but wonder Why have I never seen a book written in this style before?
Here's a bit of Americana for you: Swede Levov is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew that looks as much an all-American Gentile as G.I. Joe. "G.I. Goy," if you will. Through the course of his life, we see him evolve as a Homecoming King, all-American in baseball, football, and basketball, a Marine, a business owner, a family man. He marries Mary Dawn Doyle—a beautiful Irish-American Catholic girl, his high school sweetheart, winner of Miss New Jersey, and competitor in the Miss America pageant. They have a daughter, Merry, who is exceptionally bright, intelligent, and passionate. They live in a small farm-town outside of Newark, New Jersey, affectionately dubbed Old Rimrock. They raise cattle, they participate in town-hall meetings, they have a tire swing hanging from an old tree in the front yard, they eat apple pie—the only things missing from this portrait of Americana are a family dog and a white picket fence. This Jew—the most ostracized and discriminated-against people group in history—somehow managed to escape the fray and assimilated himself into mainstream American culture.

And all of this wholesome progression of good ol' Americana comes to a grinding halt when Merry, in protest of America's involvement in the Vietnam War, plants a bomb in the general store and, in the process, blows up all of the notions of Small Town, America. And the cinders and ashes, still smoldering in the wreckage, burns away all of the pretense, all of the facades, and leaves the ugly realities of dysfunction that everybody in America's family-friendly middle class worked so diligently at hiding.

This event is the spark that ignites turmoil after turmoil that the Swede is forced to navigate, reason through, wrestle, and come to terms with throughout the rest of the novel.
I don't really believe Roth blew apart the American dream in this book for the sake of blowing apart the American dream. I don't think his intention was to make a grandiose statement about America, or to use this book as his soapbox for anti-Americana sentiments. Rather, I think the real message that Roth conveyed in this book was the question Who are you? Or, perhaps more appropriately, Who do you think you are?

Just as Swede Levov helplessly watched his supposedly perfect life crumble around him, just as Nathan Zuckerman's image of the Swede was shattered, I think Roth dares the reader to question their own lives. What in my life is pretense and what is genuine? What in my life is facade and what is at the core of me? What is for show and what is for real? How many layers of stylish clothes will need to be stripped off of me until I arrive at the naked man that I came into this world as, and that I will leave this world as?

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