Endlessly reflecting mirrors
Philip Roth’s Pulitzer prize-winning American Pastoral is beautifully written, deeply disturbing and at times offensively misogynistic. It is also bitter, angry, sharply incisive about the frailty and illusion of the American Dream – and, heart-breakingly tender about the ties that bind us, particularly the love of a parent for their child, however wayward, however lost.
And, as well as all this, it is a fascinating series of challenges about the nature of writing and the nature of the writer. Roth throws down the gauntlet from the start, asking us not to forget that one of the central characters is his continuing alter-ego , Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman. The story we reading, presented by Zuckerman, into the life of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, Zuckerman’s childhood hero, is possibly Zuckerman’s invention. Certain events happen to Levov, but the reason they happened, the psychoanalytical unpicking of them, may be only the writer in the book (not to mention the writer of the book) shaping a chimera.
Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, whose story Zuckerman tells, was a gifted athlete, an inheritor and emblem of the aspirational dream of America’s European immigrant community. Looking like a WASP, he is Jewish, his family, a generation or so back, by hard work, dedication and talent, rising in the Promised Land. Swede’s success at football, basketball and baseball, and his upright, hard-working personality have made him envied and adored, a kind of hero to others. One of whom is the slightly younger Zuckerman. Meeting again, in late middle age, it is now Zuckerman who has achieved fame, as a writer, and he is long past a time of adulating the seemingly much more simple character of a former sporting hero. Zuckerman in fact perceives the apparently settled straight as a die, unthinkingly patriotic, successful businessman, husband and father that Levov has become as a bit of a simp. The writer rather takes a position of intellectual, metropolitan, sophisticated arrogance. Though written in 1998, there are definite pointers and echoes here of the roots of our divided nation – both here and in the States, between the cultural intelligentsia and those who ‘seem’ as if they inhabit and engage with nuance less. Zuckerman indulges in various fantasies and theories, trying to worm behind the simple, satisfied persona Swede seems to represent. There are several writerly inventions Zuckerman engages in, each of which, again and again, proves wrong. Finally, Zuckerman, sophisticated in his cynicism, dismisses Levov
There’s nothing here but what you’re looking at. He’s all about being looked at……..He always was…..You’re craving depths that don’t exist……The guy is the embodiment of nothing
And then Zuckerman finds out how wrong, how very wrong he has been, and how he knew nothing of Swede, nothing of his life.
Swede had reached adulthood and maturity shortly before the end of the Second World War. Enlisting as a marine, trying to meet the manly, right, patriotic challenge of the war, he was still going through boot-camp training when the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. He took his desire to serve his country into the post-war world. A model citizen, he worked hard, had a developed awareness of social responsibility, married his childhood sweetheart, Dawn, entered and successfully ran the family glove-making business, and fathered a beloved daughter. Meredith, the daughter, was a teenager in the 60’s, at the time of the Civil Rights movement and resistance to Vietnam, and she became intensely radicalised, revolutionary. Merry, the apple of Swede’s eye, committed a shocking and violent act whilst still at high school, and then went on the run, hunted as a terrorist. Swede’s family, marriage, business and life suddenly shattered.
Belatedly discovering these events, Zuckerman then weaves this into story. He creates a narrative of motive, a narrative to ‘explain’ how this normal family, and privileged, loved child could have so violently changed. However……because of the constant reminders earlier in the book that narrator Zuckerman was inventing stories and sub stories which were wrong, Roth is reminding us that this too is narrative, story, invention. We know certain facts happened, but the interpretation of why Swede, Merry and Dawn got to where they did, may not be right. Zuckerman ‘blames’ a childhood event for Merry going to the bad – but the event is Zuckerman’s imagined narrative, and may never have happened.
Patty Hearst kidnapping/Symbionese Liberation Army – a kind of sign of those times
Going forward, to after Merry has gone underground, is a deeply disturbing, highly misogynistic section in the second part of the book, with the introduction of a young Jewish woman who may have been responsible for Merry’s violent radicalisation. This is a section distasteful to read, and highly unsettling – are we being shown an unconscious misogyny, particularly towards Jewish women, which comes from Roth himself, through his alter ego as Zuckerman – or is the author placing himself firmly and consciously on a slab, for the reader to dissect Roth himself?
And then, at the point where the reader might think they have been able to negatively ‘get’ Roth himself, as the creator of all this, comes a section, where, after many years of searching for his vanished daughter in hiding from the law, Swede finds her, living in utter degradation, weirdly, most weirdly, transformed. This is a section of utter heartbreak, riven tenderness and almost unbearably painful humanity. Roth took my breath away in this raw exposure of all our suffering, poor, magnificent, broken complex humanity. Like Zuckerman with Swede, we get it wrong with each other, again and again.
American Pastoral rightly won its Pulitzer prize. It is not in any way an easy book; it is a greatly, painfully challenging one – by turns horrible, horrific, stony, violent, hating and hateful – and full of compassion and suffering. Published in 1997, looking back over a roughly 50 year sweep, it is far from dated, and seems horribly pertinent today.
I shall for sure, read more of Roth’s later work, though I am still, months after finishing this one, processing it.
Radical Group of the times, The Weathermen, took their name from a line from this Dylan song as featured in the film Don’t Look Back
Finally I have been a long, a very long time coming to this one. FictionFan strongly, strongly endorsed this, in her GAN quest, indeed naming it as The Great American Novel. I bought it, and there it sat on my bedside table for a couple of years. I think I had been too riven by other GANs to be able to handle further deeply uncomfortable, brilliant GANnish journeys. I got to it via a small subsection of my book group, who have embarked on some challenging American titles, and a slow, sectional read of them. This was my choice. Lacerating, and amazing, all together as FictionFan suggested, You can read her review