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Thread: Roth's American Pastoral

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    Roth's American Pastoral

    Considering there weren't exactly a bevy of threads on this '97 Pulitzer winner, I figured I'd get a new one rolling. To me, the novel utilizes the historical backdrop of post WWII, Vietnam, Deep Throat & Watergate merely as ambient parallels to outline the downward spiral of the Levov family, whose order disintegrates into a confluence of chaos. The American dream; coveted & grasped by the ‘Swede,’ dissolves without a defining transgression & does so with all the boisterousness of Newark’s peripheral collapse during the riots of the 60’s. Again, cause & effect wasn’t stressed, as the background of the times was merely that. A parallel echo, not necessarily a promoter. Perhaps Roth is more comfortable delving into characters as an emblem of the times as opposed to Delillo’s weightier look at environment first, people second approach. Either way, w/ all his expounded detail on the Levovs, I found one particular character’s role to drop like a lead weight by comparison. Merry’s ‘accomplice’ (or the brains behind the operation, it is never clearly stated) Rita Cohen, perhaps one of the most wretched young females I can recall in fiction, left me w/ a few questions.

    Is Rita simply an symbol? A blaring opposition to Swede’s neutrality & steadfast benevolence? A writhing, polarizing force to wedge apart the American Pastoral from the American Berzerk? Or does her character have a different type of significance? Does she really matter in the scheme of the book or is she simply an explosive exclamation used to illustrate Roth’s dynamic?

    Whether your have a comment on Rita or the book, please share. I'm digging through the Underworld now...must be in a '97 mood.
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    Cool I have started four of Roth's novels, and ....

    haven't been able to finish one. I am more at home with Dickens and Dostoevsky than I am with post-modern authors. Not that they are hard to read - just boring to read.

    I started DeLilo's Underworld, and thought the first chapter was great with Gleason, Sinatra, and Toots Shore (?sp) kibitzing about the game. This was paticularly interesting to me since I saw Bobby Thompson hit the homerun off Ralph Branca. It was on very early tv. After that first chapter, the book petered out as fast as the Dodger's pennant hopes.

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    Nice comparison! Once I dig in deeply enough I'll come to an informed decision. I've read on the boards here consistently that the opening is glorious but his undertaking may have been a bit too ambitious in scope & most feel he looses focus as the novel progresses. I hope I don't feel that way but it is worth the trek. I loved White Noise...to be honest I felt similar to you in my adoration for the classics and inability to connect w/ modern literature until I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Since, I've juxtaposed my reading of Light in August w/ Blood Meridian, The Stranger w/ Beloved...and so on.

    American Pastoral did draw out a bit, but there was real soul amidst the gritty descent into the downward spiraling quest.
    http://unidentifiedappellation.blogspot.com/

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    Cool I did like Blood Meridian ....

    Cormac, at least usually, is not boring. I liked No Country for Old Men even better. Conversely, The Road with its repetitiveness, was awful.

    I like many of the Moderns such as Theodore Dreiser, but post moderns like Roth are just unbearable, at least the ones I have tried.

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    Hi Brad

    On first reading American Pastoral several years ago, I enjoyed the novel a great deal. Subsequent encounters have left me less impressed. While it's probably fair to say that no one has ever accused Roth of subtlety, I find American Pastoral's characters and motifs to be little facile. The naive and wholesome Swede, the militant Merry, the unraveling of the American dream, paradise remembered etc :the strokes are a touch too broad. For mine, Rita is as you describe her: a violent contrivance functioning as a counterpoint to the Swede's quiet nobility. That said, it's a testament to Roth's skill that the novel is still undeniably powerful. I felt the Swede's pain and frustration even if I sometimes questioned whether such a man could exist. And Roth does capture time and place very well. Ultimately, though, of the late Roth (say American Pastoral onwards), I'd place The Human Stain and Sabbath's Theatre ahead of American Pastoral, with Sabbath's being among his best 3 or 4 books.
    'Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.' - Groucho Marx

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    I also much prefer Dickens, but I have found Roth the most readable of modern novelists (along with McEwan.) I gave up on Underworld as well - though I didn't like the first chapter at all. Being British I would have had to do more background reading on baseball than I would ever want to. I find cricket boring, so why would I want to get into a foreign equivalent? Maybe DeLillo was trying to illustrate how boring such sports are by being extremely boring. It certainly seemed that way! I also agree that McCarthy is worth a read, if you have a strong stomach - Blood Meridian was certainly not boring...

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    Six,
    I agree- broadly, the allegory is a tad stale, but I think Roth's characters are what provide vibrancy to the book. Granted, he did expound and recapitulate a tad much, but the depths of character study & attention to detail were impressive. In spite of the Swede's lack of surface credibility, part of Zuckerman's search (essentially everything post the reunion in his writing) was to find his human frailty. As the spiral funnels further down, the Swede's warts, emotions, fears and neurosis pile up & we can't help but continue to feel more and more empathy for him, the human...no longer the unrecognizable rock.

    The other aspect lacking resolution which I appreciated was his inability to put a real catalyst as to Merry's pathology. The kiss, the stutter, the blind rage against the norm, the war...plenty of inadequate pieces to a puzzle he could never finish. Most origins are unsettling and misunderstood. Some things 'are the way they are,' but it doesn't stop the blame game.

    Thank you for the recommendations on Sabbath's and Stain- I will throw them in the 'modern cue' to balance out my sweatin' to the oldies

    Mal,
    I've really enjoyed the 1st chapter thus far, but yes- it appeals to all my wholesome, idyllic American sensibilities I was wondering if it would have much meaning outside the states and I think you answered my question!
    http://unidentifiedappellation.blogspot.com/

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