Technically, I’d only read one of Philip Roth’s books before, The Breast, but I somewhat charitably decided that it didn’t really count. So American Pastoral was the first one, then. And it was great. And it was also not so great.
i. Prose that felt legitimately tied to the story
Y’know how sometimes, in , say, Delillo, or Ondaatje, there are these completely beautiful little aphorisms, fantastic constructions that illuminate the world, open it up, and that are beautiful on the page. American Pastoral had a few of its own, but rather than flying out of the story they were carefully and subtly embedded in the fabric of the life of the famous protagonist, of The Swede.
ii. Work, as a subject and as a way of life
I loved how this was a novel about, in many respects, work. How the characters have occupations, and how Roth lovingly renders the business of making gloves, or raising cattle. How the joy of doing is one that shapes each character. Especially Dawn, who’s resume complicates her ability to relate to the world and to understand herself. I think this is one of the huge discrepancies between the ‘Old boy’ era of Roth (and Updike etc.), and our contemporary MFA-driven literary world. It seems like newer books are entirely psychological and emotional, that characters are writers or artists or academics, that characters think more than do. Or maybe my working class roots are showing a little here. But still, I enjoyed the way that Roth handled the business of business in rounding out this work.
iii. The remove
The book is a book within a book. So, yeah, this is technically marginally about a writer. But it works here. The first of the three sections sets the story up as a bit of a Tale, and Nathan Zuckerburg is our handily unreliable narrator. From what I understand, Zuckerburg authors lots of books within books by Philip Roth. Anyway, I think it really worked here, because so much of the novel’s thematic content, political violence, the dissolution of American values, the diffusion and dilution of religious, especially Jewish, values, has already been thoroughly mass-mediated. The key events in the novel are situated in the late1960s, and the book was published in the late 1990s, so Roth knew that he had to somehow make it new. Putting Zuckerburg between the story and Roth, or between The Swede and the reader, changes the dynamic in a very pleasurable, if sometimes frustrating way.
What I didn’t:
i. The misogyny
I know that Roth is a writer from “that generation” and that he wrote a book about a man who wakes up as a walking human milk sac, but still. This won the Pulitzer prize! How is it that every female character in the novel becomes emotionally stunted, a cold bitch, a pathetic alcoholic, or a soft spoken wife? Though there were some particularly sexist snippets of dialogue in the beginning, the ending reminds the reader that women are always the source of pain for men, that even gloriously goyish–American!–, manly men like the Swede are broken down by the follies of females.
ii. The ending
The last section of this book takes the form of a tragedy of manners, and what bubbles up in the characters during a dinner party doesn’t match really with the beauty and pain that came before. The structure of the end feels somehow misaligned to the form of the rest of the story, and the last thirty pages are particularly sluggish. There is also no return to Zuckerburg, no symmetry in the denouement, and the lackluster finale didn’t leave me so emotional or heartbroken that I forgot about him. In fact, I wanted to read his afterword, to give the ending a second chance! To be honest, the ending was a big, really big, letdown. I think it was kinda like Roth’s prose had carried the book so far, but then by the end the whole thing sort of caved in on itself. Like a faux leather bag that starts to peel on the way home from the store.