GAN Quest: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

american pastoralRude awakening…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov has it all. A star athlete in his college days, owner of a successful glove-making factory, married to a former Miss New Jersey, and living in the big country house he always dreamed of, he is the embodiment of the 1950s American Dream. And specifically, the immigrant dream – Swede is third generation Jewish-American, each generation having become a little more successful, a little less Jewish, better educated, more assimilated, more American. And why shouldn’t that progression continue with the fourth generation, Swede’s daughter Merry? Born to every advantage, cosseted and loved, what causes this girl to become involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement and, aged 16, bomb the village store and, in passing, kill a local doctor? This is the question that torments Swede during all the long years that Merry is on the run.

This is called a polishing machine and that is called a stretcher and you are called honey and I am called Daddy and this is called living and the other is called dying and this is called madness and this is called mourning and this is called hell, pure hell, and you have to have strong ties to be able to stick it out, this is called trying-to-go-on-as-though-nothing-has-happened and this is called paying-the-full-price-but-in-God’s-name-for-what, this is called wanting-to-be-dead-and-wanting-to-find-her-and-to-kill-her-and-to-save-her-from-whatever-she-is-going-through-wherever-on-earth-she-may-be-at-this-moment, this unbridled outpouring is called blotting-out-everything and it does not work

The story is told by Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several of his novels. In this one, Zuckerman was at school in Roth’s old hunting grounds of Newark with the Swede’s younger brother at the time when the Swede was winning glory on the football and baseball fields. To the young Nathan, he was a hero whose sporting skills lifted the morale of the community in the final years of WW2, and who was living proof that success was attainable for anyone from any background in the great meritocracy of the US. It’s only after the Swede’s death in the present day (late 1990s) that Zuckerman hears the story of Merry and the bombing. So the reader knows from the beginning that the story Zuckerman tells is not in fact ‘true’, except for the barest of bones, but instead Zuckerman’s imagining of it. The struggle to make sense of it all is in fact Zuckerman’s rather than the Swede’s. As a result, neither Swede nor Merry are fully real, not even in the fictional sense of that word. They are representations – Swede of the ’50s and Merry of the ’60s. Though that in itself is too simplistic, since Merry actually represents the most extreme aspects of the ’60s – the ones that leave Swede (i.e. Zuckerman) baffled and horrified.

Newark race riots
Newark race riots

Zuckerman talks of the Swede as ‘bland’, an ‘incognito’, a ‘human platitude’. He is stuck in his ’50s rut, a man so pleased with his life that he can’t see beyond its boundaries. His reaction to the race riots in Newark is one of incomprehension – it has never occurred to him to try to see the world through other people’s eyes, or to consider that the path to success might not be as easy for others as for him. He assumes his values are right and therefore shared by everyone. When Merry plants her bomb, she doesn’t just destroy the village post office, she smashes the smug certainties of Swede’s world and, by extension, destroys the ’50s American Dream he epitomises.

Merry exists not as herself, but only as Swede’s idea of her, and as a result her motivations are as incomprehensible to the reader as to her father. At first she appears as the idealised child he adores and later as the object of his anguish and bewilderment. She comes to represent everything Swede doesn’t understand about this new generation: who look outwards rather than in, who are contemptuous of the values of their parents, who get enraged about things that don’t directly affect them, who think the political system has failed them, and some of whom resort to violence to achieve their political aims. As she grows into adolescence and then adulthood, she turns into a monster, almost feral in her rage against everything Swede holds dear – especially the America that he loves. And when Swede finally finds her again, many years later, she has transformed into something so disgusting in his eyes that she appears barely human. And his tragedy is that still he loves her.

He stood over her, facing her, his power pinned to the wall, rocking almost imperceptibly back on the heels of his shoes, as though in this way he might manage to take leave of her through the wall, then rocking forward onto his toes, as though at any moment to grab her, to whisk her up into his arms and out.

"March Against Death" - November 1969 "Two, four, six, eight - now it's time to smash the state!" (Photo: DC Public Library Washington Star Collection)
“March Against Death” – November 1969
“Two, four, six, eight – now it’s time to smash the state!”
(Photo: DC Public Library Washington Star Collection)

The writing is superb – Roth at the very top of his game. Scalpel-like as he performs his dissection of this man, but filled with emotional power as he describes the Swede’s feelings of grief and despair. Beyond the two I’ve concentrated on, there is a whole cast of characters, each one carefully crafted to fill out Swede’s world. Dawn, his wife, desperate not to be forever pigeon-holed as a former beauty queen, but finding in the end that her beauty is a shield she can hide behind when her world collapses. Swede’s father, venting his anger and frustration at the world that made his grand-daughter into a monster. And the ambiguous Rita Cohen, the revolutionary friend of Merry who tortures and taunts the Swede, playing on the vulnerability of his desperate love for his daughter, using sex as an ugly weapon in her desire to humiliate.

The descriptive writing is just as strong. Swede’s pride in his business is shown through the lovingly detailed descriptions of every aspect of the glove-making process, from selection of the skins through the stretching and cutting to sewing and fitting. This is a place where craftspeople reverently produce items of beauty and quality for a world in which women still keep a glove drawer, with different shades and lengths to match each outfit – a ’50s style that also faded as the ’60s progressed, with Jackie Kennedy being perhaps the last great glove-wearing icon.


“I love you,” he was telling Merry, “you know I would look for you. You are my child. But how could I find you in a million years, wearing that mask and weighing eighty-eight pounds and living the way you live? How could anyone have found you, even here? Where were you?” he cried, as angry as the angriest father ever betrayed by a daughter or a son, so angry he feared that his head was about to spew out his brains just as Kennedy’s did when he was shot. “Where have you been? Answer me!”

Philip Roth (Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)
Philip Roth
(Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)

This is an astounding book, well worthy of the Pulitzer it won in 1998. There’s enough realism in it to read it simply as a powerful and often deeply moving story of parental love and despair, but it’s true power is in Roth’s depiction of the massive culture shift that happened somewhere in the sixties, the rebellion of child against parent, youth against authority, citizen against state. And, fairly uniquely, we’re seeing it not from the perspective of the young looking back either with indulgence or anger at the past, but from the point of view of that past, that portion of society who saw the future unfold in ways they couldn’t understand, their values rejected by the children they had nurtured, their dreams crashing around them.

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Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWritten in 1997, the book is set in the recent past. I reckon the ’60s and their cultural upheaval were still reverberating strongly in the ’90s, and there’s no doubt that the Vietnam war was still at the forefront of the American consciousness, and influencing policy. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagWhile both the failure of the American Dream of the ’50s and the upheaval of the ’60s have been written about many times, what makes this one feel innovative to me is that we see it happening from the point of view of the past looking forwards, while knowing that it’s actually being written from the present looking back. Also, the device of Zuckerman imagining the story from the few facts he knows gives Roth the freedom to present his characters as representations without them feeling like stereotypes or puppets. This triple layering – Swede/Zuckerman/Roth – is crucial to the success of the book. So – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagI don’t always find Roth’s writing superb, but in this one he moves me, horrifies me, enrages me, disgusts me, and frequently leaves me breathless with the sheer power of his prose. Achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

us flagD’you know, for the first time I’m strongly tempted? Although the book is set in a very specific part of the culture – the Jewish immigrant community in Newark – the themes transcend the setting. The smashing of the ’50s dream, the generational shift, the diminishing of the relevance of tradition, the rise in direct action political protest, the growing participation of women in the political and intellectual arenas (not to mention their sexual liberalisation), the loss of respect for authority, the race riots, the impact of Vietnam – these are the things that define the ’60s for all of America, surely? In the same way as Swede is a representation of the ’50s, his small society is a microcosm of all America. I’m going to tentatively say – achieved! (Though I may change my mind after hearing what you have to say…)

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So, (despite the fact that I still prefer both Gatsby and Revolutionary Road), for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my first…

The Great American Novel

American Pastoral

Philip Roth


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