Tuesday, September 18, 2007

American Pastoral

I wonder if I'm really qualified to comment on Philip Roth's novel, American Pastoral. Well, I'll re-phrase that: I wonder if I am qualified to comment on how successfully the novel dissects American society and idea of the American dream, since the sum total of my time spent in America up until now is a week in New York eight years ago.

Still, the idea of the American dream is international in a way. The concepts of freedom, wealth, democracy and so on are integral to the ideals of many other countries. Also, the rest of the world is so immersed in American popular culture that it sometimes feels as though here, in Australia, we are still participating in the American experience, albeit at one remove.

American Pastoral is a highly ambitious novel and one that I found incredibly compelling and, at times, incredibly disturbing. It follows the life of Seymour Levov, better known as 'the Swede', a Jewish boy from New Jersey whose athletic prowess, charm and good looks seem destined to help him achieve a life living out the American dream. He is the pride of his immigrant neighbourhood, the one who will succeed and infiltrate the 'real' America.

And to an extent this is what he does. He takes over his father's glove factory, marries an ex-Miss New Jersey and buys an idyllic country house. Everything suggests that he will escape from his working class, ethnic roots. However his daughter Merry changes everything- she introduces chaos into the Swede's perfect world. She stutters and stammers her way through life growing angrier and angrier, eventually joining a radical political group and blowing up the post-office in the local village, killing a man in the process, an event that tears apart the Swede's carefully manufactured life.

The characters and events in the novel are fairly obviously meant to be symbolic. While the Swede embodies the conservatism and prosperity of post-war America, as well as the success of the second-generation immigrant, Merry reflects the chaos and social upheaval of the sixties. She is the ungrateful child of the previous generation. The Swede wonders why his daughter rebels, especially given her comfortable loving upbringing, never realising the potentially suffocating effect of so much expectation and love. Roth examines the tensions between generations, races and classes in America without over-simplifying. There are no simple solutions to the problems he describes and he is careful to let the reader decide for themselves where to lay blame. Personally I had very mixed feelings abut Merry and her actions. On one hand she is incredibly selfish and inexcusably violent, on the other I can recognise the purity of her political belief and commitment to her ideals, as well as her need to reject the materialism of her parents.

A further layer of complexity is added to the novel through Roth's use of a narrator. The narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is a childhood friend of the Swede's brother Jerry and has since made a name for himself as a novelist. He idolised the Swede as a teenager and the story of the Swede's life is told by him, based only on a few anecdotes and one brief meeting with the Swede. The entire story is essentially a product of Nathan's imagination, how he thinks life might have gone for his idol. This makes the story more unsettling and less certain, an effect that seems very apt here. Roth plays with the idea of writing, of creating a character out of almost nothing, of filling in the back story until it becomes more convincing than real life. These are interesting ideas that are somewhat abandoned in the later parts of the book as the central narrative takes over.

American Pastoral is a 'big' book in every sense of the word. It is sprawling, complex and messy but also precise and insightful, and somehow Roth manages to contain all the elements of his story just long enough to tell them, and to tell them well.


Smithereens said...

I started the American pastoral, inspired by your enthusiasm, and even though I'm not far into the story yet, the writing is awesome!

Fay Sheco said...

Shameful, but I have not read this book yet. Roth is considered by all and sundry to be one of the great American writers of his generation. I read The Human Stain earlier this year and liked it very much.

jess said...

Smithereens: I'm so glad you're enjoying it! I agree, the writing is very good.

Fay: I'll try to read The Human Stain on your recommendation. I'd definitely like to read more of Roth's work.

prepossessing said...

This book is what makes me love Roth. I haven't read anything else of his that I thought was better!

Ange said...

Hey Jess, Did you ever read Vernon God Little for another take on the American "dream"....his irreverance is quite amusing and continues to what I can only imagine was his own entry on Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DBC_Pierre. I'll try some Roth and come back to you.

jess said...

Hey Ange. Yes, I did read Vernon God Little. It's a clever book but I can't say I really liked it. An interesting comparison with Roth though. Let me know what you think if you read any of his work.