Tuesday, July 08, 2008

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth's famous persona Zuckerman narrates the first third or so of his 1996 novel American Pastoral. He talks about his childhood friendship with Jerry Levov and of his idolatry of Levov's older brother, nicknamed the Swede because of his blond hair, handsome appearance, and athletic build. The Swede was the envy of other boys and the dream of girls. His real name is Seymour Levov. His father is an Italian immigrant, a wealthy manufacturer of gloves. Despite his nickname and his physical appearance, the Swede is Jewish. American Pastoral explores the irony of a man who seems the embodiment of the standard young American hero but who is also Jewish. Is this an irony, a contradiction? Is it possible to be an American hero and a Jew at the same time? Is it possible to be a Jew and an American hero at the same time? Who defines the categories?

The Swede's ambiguous embrace of his ethnic identity is only the surface of the many subjects the novel examines. The Swede lives an idyllic life. He is married to the former Miss New Jersey. He runs his father's business and is wealthy. He is widely admired for his looks and athletic prowess. But gradually his life begins to break down. The collapse begins when his daughter Merry starts to stutter. This formerly charming and idyllic girl puts on weight, grows distant from her parents, embraces radical causes. Finally, at the age of 16, she plants a bomb that blows up a local post office and kills the post master. She disappears.

American Pastoral explores an idyllic life that proves to be not so idyllic. (The novel's title implies this exploration). On the surface the Swede is the American ideal: successful in business and athletics and marriage, an attentive and involved father, a good citizen. Beneath the surface, darkness lurks—or does it? Zuckerman at first hypothesizes that a somewhat too passionate kiss between the Swede and his daughter when she was 11 may have been the source of the problem (the idea of the kiss is Zuckerman's surmise—based only on his suspicion that there must have been some buried event that caused the family's problems). In Zuckerman's imagined account of the Swede's life, the Swede considers this possibility but then discounts it—it was only one kiss.

In the 1990s, when he is in his sixties, Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede, whom he was never close to, asking to meet with him. They meet for lunch and chat but the Swede says nothing that could have been reason for the meeting. Zuckerman doesn't understand why the Swede wanted to meet with him. A year later, at a high school reunion, the Swede's brother Jerry tells Zuckerman about the trauma caused by the Swede's daughter's involvement in the post office bombing. Zuckerman, a writer, is interested in the story that Jerry tells him, but he learns only the bare details, and he wants to know more. Unfortunately, he cannot call the Swede for further discussion because, as it turns out, the Swede has died of prostate cancer. He must have been ill with the disease when they met for lunch.

Zuckerman speculates and surmises. Suddenly the book changes from a story narrated by Zuckerman to a story focused on the Swede, told by a third-person narrator—these latter sections of the novel may be Zuckerman's fictional speculations about the Swede's life, narrated from an omniscient viewpoint. The story covers the years from the 1960s to the 1990s, though the main episodes occur in the late 60s and early 70s, ending around the time of the Watergate scandal.

A key to the Swede's character may be his desire to make others happy, his willing acquiescence to whatever demand or request comes his way, his unwillingness to assert himself or his own point of view. His entire life has been one of compromise and acquiescence. When he calls his brother to tell him that he has found his daughter and to ask for advice, Jerry angrily attacks him and tells him that if he had not tried to make everyone else happy, his life would not have become such a disaster. This trait extends from his athletic career to his job to his family life. The Swede has always been concerned with trying to give those around him what they want. His father convinces him to join the glove business. A friend convinces him to play football, a game he thought he wouldn't enjoy. When his father opposes his marriage to a gentile woman, he relies on the woman to argue with his father rather than doing so himself. Perhaps the main example of this unassertive nature comes when the Swede discovers his daughter, missing for five years, living in a broken-down hovel of an apartment building, a flop house. She is emaciated, in bad shape, and has embraced Jainism. Instead of forcing her to leave and taking her home or to a doctor, he talks to her and tries to understand her actions. Then he leaves her and goes home. In his defense, however, he knows that if he takes her home she will eventually be arrested and tried for her crimes, which include the murder of four people in various bombings. Should a parent be expected to expose his child to arrest? The question is not easy to answer.

American Pastoral also considers the damaging consequences of the 1960s. Conflicts over Vietnam, Civil Rights, feminism, the sexual revolution, drugs tore the nation apart, and extended down to the level of families across the nation. The Swede is part of the post-World War II generation, the generation of so-called complacency and affluence, the generation of the 1950s, while his daughter is a child of the 60s, with its basic rejection of the parents' generation and its attacks on everything conventional, traditional, and of the past.

Roth's portrait of the Swede Levov is powerful and engaging. He is a latter-day version of the Great Gatsby, yet Gatsby sought wealth and American affluence, while the Swede merely acquiesces to it. The Swede is a good man who tries to do right by his family, yet who falls victim to his own goodness, his own lack of will. Does American affluence condition him not to assert his will, his identity? Does it deny him a moral conscience, an ability to see beneath and beyond the surface of his own situation, of his character and his life?

Roth's powerful prose style is a major attribute of the novel, but the novel is overwritten. It could be two-thirds as long. Conversations or scenes that should have run for two or three pages run for ten or twelve. Roth's immersion of his readers in the milieu and thinking of the Swede becomes overkill. I found myself impatient for a scenes and chapters to end. The novel does not end in a satisfying way—it ends with a question.

It's possible I misread this novel. I read it late at night and became impatient with the long chapters when I grew tired. I should reread it.

Clearly one of Roth's interests here is the conflict between the Swede's Jewish upbringing and the "American" identity he adopts. This is not Roth's main issue, but it is an important one. The Swede can stand for any individual with a heritage, a tradition, that is part of his identity. To what extent does pursuit of the American dream of success and prestige compel one to give up his or her individual essence and be absorbed in the national faceless void of predefined values and identity?

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