Results 1 to 6 of 6

Thread: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley

    American Pastoral by Philip Roth

    American Pastoral by Philip Roth:
    A Review by Pompey Bum

    Philip Roth's American Pastoral, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for literature, is the first in a trilogy of thematically linked novels (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) set between the period of optimism (in America) that followed the Second World War and the rise of political correctness in the 1990s. Critics usually refer to it as Roth's American trilogy or his second Zuckerman trilogy, named for its narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in many other Roth novels. Zuckerman is the trilogy's only repeat character (unless you count the city of Newark, New Jersey, which features in all three). The novels' plots are unconnected. They can be read independently or (unless you are as compulsive as I am about history) in any order.

    Roth, who died last year, was an American secular Jew (and atheist) whose works frequently explored the nexus of Jewish and American identity. He had been at the center of controversy since the publication of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959. The novella (with short stories) angered the Jewish mainstream but won the National Book Award. I am old enough to remember (with apologies to those who don't like that phrase) when Roth was famous as a "dirty writer" due to his wildly successful Portnoy's Complaint, an explicit monologue about (among other things) an overprotective Jewish mother, sexual encounters with gentile girls, and compulsive masturbation. But Roth rejected the wild and crazy pop-culture persona that could easily have served him for life ("Hey, weren't you the guy who wrote Portnoy's Complaint?"). He wrote an a stunning 27 novels (not to speak of memoirs, essays, and short stories) and was described by The Guardian as arguably the finest American writer of his time. Okay, it was The Guardian so they probably couldn't have named many others (). On Roth's death in 2018, The New York Times called him a towering literary figure. And he was.

    Roth's American trilogy novels were published between 1997 and 2000 (so not early in his career). They diverge in some ways from his earlier novels. Themes of Jewish and American remain important, but his scope broadens. What Roth wants to know is what happened to Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. Why did we implode on ourselves in the 1960s and where are we now? By the third volume, his view has become panoramic. The Human Stain lampoons and laments our ongoing failure to locate and live in an enduring human identity. The tragic optimists of American Pastoral are only canaries in the coal mine for that particular cataclysm--the one we are living through now and Roth foresaw 20 years ago.

    In the main, American Pastoral is Swede Levov's tragedy. Levov's real name is Seymour Irving Levov, but he is known throughout the novel as Swede, a High School nickname originating in his anomalous appearance, a "steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask" including blond hair and blue eyes. Swede is an American Jew from the Weequahic neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, a predominantly Jewish ghetto where Roth himself grew up. His fabulously good looks and athletic prowess make him a legendary High School sports athlete and the pride of the neighborhood--"a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get." And so from the start, Swede represents some kind of a fantasy. On the other hand, asks Roth, what is wrong with being a Jewish kid from Weequahic (as he was)? And what is the price of the fantasy--not the fantasy of taking the new identity but of shedding the old? That is the question that unifies these three novels. What is the price?

    Swede is the boyhood idol of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego, who more or less tells the story. Zuckerman does not move in Swede's exalted circle, but he gets to know his younger brother Jerry, an angry nerd and comical failure with girls, with whom he plays endless rounds of basement ping-pong. Jerry and Swede are the sons of Lou Levov, a Newark glove manufacturer whose immigrant father began as a tannery grunt, scraping reeking flesh from hides. Lou Levov (now in the leather cutting end of things) provides dignified employment and skilled labor opportunities to the Newark community, including African American members. He does not treat any of his employees as equals, but he takes his responsibility as their employer seriously. You know, paternalism.

    After High School, Swede joins the Marines. The Second World War is nearing its end, and he is denied the combat roll he seeks in favor of a dream hitch as an athletics instructor--a position at which he excels. Swede becomes engaged to a beautiful gentile girl, but his father intervenes to break them up. Later he gets resolves to marry Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey, 1949, an Irish Catholic girl. This time Lou accedes, but only after a rigorous interview process, during which Dawn confesses that her father occasionally utters anti-Jewish slurs--though without really thinking about them. This development almost sinks the engagement; yet as the years go by, the old men become fast friends--due largely to their shared old-fashioned values. It's a great detail.

    On Swede's return to civilian life, he declines an offer to play professional sports so he can take over the glove business. He renews his father's sense of responsibility for his employees, especially the African Americans, refusing to sell out or move offshore because of the hardship it would bring them. But Swede and Dawn do move to an old money Anglo-Saxon Protestant community far from the city--joining the "white flight" that destroyed the tax base of cities like Newark and contributed mightily to their impoverishment. Swede becomes enamored of an old stone farmhouse they find there and never understands why it doesn't mean as much to others. I'll assume the symbolism here is obvious enough.

    All of this may sound like American Pastoral's plot but it is really only its premise. After establishing most of these basics (in what amounts to one of the better parts of the novel), Roth introduces a somewhat framing device (of sorts) to tell the remainder of the tale. It is awkward, too long, and not entirely convincing, calling to mind what may be American Pastoral's greatest weakness. Roth's longtime editor, Veronica Geng, had died the year of publication, and her replacement may have hesitated to rein him in. And it may well have been that he did not wish to be reined in. Nobody ever accused Roth of lacking an ego.

    The tripartite framing device begins in 1985 when Zuckerman accidentally runs into his old hero outside Yankee Stadium. A few details emerge: Swede is on his second marriage and has several children of whom he is (rather conventionally) proud. The men do not remain in touch. The second part involves dinner at a New York restaurant to which Swede (rather strangely) writes to invite Zuckerberg years later. But their conversation is disappointing. Swede, who is growing thin, seems an unremarkable figure as he gushes over pictures of his new family. Zuckerman begins to think he imagined more than had ever been present behind that heroic Viking mask.

    The third and most significant part of the narrative device involves Zuckerman's unexpected encounter with Jerry Levov, his old ping-pong buddy, at their 45th class reunion two months later. The one-time nerd is now a heart surgeon and the big-shot director of a coronary health center in Florida. But Jerry is as angry as ever and even less likable than his teenage self. He is constantly divorcing his current wife when some younger woman throws herself at him/his money/his power (only to suffer the same fate herself soon enough). This virtual harem has given him a gaggle of children, the only thing he seems to care about. The best thing you can say about the new Jerry (aside from the fact that he saves lives) is that he refuses to gloss over truths, ugly or otherwise, with happy illusions. And that issue, as it turns out, lies at the heart of American Pastoral.

    His brother, Jerry tells Zuckerman, died of prostate cancer three days before--that's why he happens to be in town. In his life, Jerry says, the great Swede was tormented by Merry, his daughter by Dawn, who had been a monster and a killer. She had ruined the couple's marriage and their storybook life. Zuckerman now understands why Swede acted the way he did at the restaurant--desperately clinging to the pretense of a normal family life, even as he knew his death was at hand. Based on his limited conversations with Swede and Jerry's blunt remarks, Zuckerman puts the story together. And here begins, really, American Pastoral.

    At this point, I'm going to pause. My post is already so long that many won't bother to read it, and if it gets much longer no one will. I'll add more later.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 07-21-2019 at 11:36 AM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley
    Zuckerman is unconvincing as the narrator of American Pastoral. He could not possibly have known the intimate details of the story he tells--and does he even tell it? He is barely a presence after the class reunion; the remainder of the novel is told as a third person narrative, mostly (though not exclusively) from Swede's perspective. The clumsy framing device seems little more than a literary conceit, its failure as realism tacitly acknowledged between reader and writer. It exposes what some may take as another flaw (though others will not be bothered by it at all): a certain postmodern or even impressionistic liberty in what needs to be a down and dirty story about (as Jerry Levov would put it) the way things really are. I will speak more of this tendency as it resurfaces.

    Merry's tale is grueling enough. Despite being raised in a seeming paradise by storybook-perfect family, she develops a severe stutter--a source of anguish to her as she starts school. Swede and Dawn get her speech therapy (which involves recording words that give her trouble in a speech notebook) and psychotherapy. But nothing seems to help. She remains the imperfection in their lives.

    Merry is lovable enough at first. She decorates her room with pictures of Audrey Hepburn, and even emblems of her mother's Catholic faith for a time, despite how much this upsets her Jewish grandmother. Her parents aren't really interested in the conflict. Neither tradition has much to do with the monied Protestant culture that has become the new measure of their perfection.

    Merry's stutter does not improve. At one point, her psychotherapist enrages Swede by suggesting she stutters in order to control her parents--and this because she feels she cannot possibly live up to their standards. And beneath the surface, the perfection itself is starting to break down. To his surprise, Swede finds himself having an affair with Merry's speech therapist. Dawn busies herself with the hobby of a dairy business. The illusion holds.

    But as Merry's puberty approaches, so does the Vietnam era. She is first drawn to the anti-war movement first through a morbid fascination with the images of the Buddhist monks who are calmly immolating themselves in protest. Like the young Buddha, she is shocked and obsessed with the suffering from which she has been sheltered. Merry becomes fat and pimply from a constant (self-loathing?) diet of teenage junk food. She grows angry, even hate filled, at the reality she finds, raging against her stutter at the apparition of Lyndon Johnson on television ("You f-f-*cking madman! You heartless mi-mi-mi-miserable m-monster!") and throwing her parents in with him soon enough. When Merry is 16, her bedroom is decorated with militant posters, including one in her own hand bearing the motto of the terrorist Weather Underground faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (anyone else remember the SDS?):

    "We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmares."

    Whether or not Merry stutters to disrupt her parents' expectations, she clearly despises the life they share. Why should she? Well, yes, for all the usual teenage answers: it's fake, it's bogus, it's a lie. But why hatred--why to the point of violence?

    Here is what I think. Strip away the veneer of Swede and Dawn's pastoral idyll and there is--nothing at all. Not Jewishness, not Catholicism, not Newark, not the story of a family that struggled up from the reeking tannery pits. Those are all embarrassments now. There is only the falsely "good and decent" life of affluence (Roth sets himself to expose its phoniness by the novel's end) surrounded by Merry's angry, self-hating nihilism. For Roth, this is what happened to America in the 1950s; and the cost was Merry, the incendiary child of the 1960s. This is what happens when one's old identity is sacrificed on the alter of the new. The cruelty of doing this does not become apparent until The Human Stain. And by then it is clear Roth is not talking only about Jewish-American identity. Merry is no anomaly. I remember Merry.

    Swede and Dawn make a series of fatal mistakes with their daughter. The first is to seek compromise with the direction her life is taking (enlightened ideas about parenting being part of their perfect lifestyle). The second is allowing Merry to spend time with a progressively minded couple they trust in New York City. This soon develops into regular trips to the city without the supervision, as it later emerges, of the trusted couple. The third is a heart-to-heart talk in which Swede encourages Merry's anti-war activities but urges her to keep away from New York City. This sounds reasonable enough, but in retrospect, it retires the cup for stupidity:

    "Bring the war home. Isn't that the slogan? So do it--bring the war to your home town...If you oppose the war here with all your strength, believe me, you will make an impact."

    Shortly afterwards a bomb destroys the area's general store. A beloved local physician is killed. Merry disappears.

    And here again I think I will pause while a few of you may still be awake (somebody poke MANICHAEAN). I'll add more soon.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley
    This section of my too long review of American Pastoral contains details a reader may not anticipate. I do not consider them spoilers, but some may. If you have concerns, this would be a good time to leave.

    Some will find American Pastoral's narrative structure frustrating. Information and events move through the novel in a circuitous, spiraling manner. The mention of a significant character at any time may trigger a hundred pages of background. Be prepared to learn more than you ever thought you would about school sports, leather cutting, and the Miss America Pageant (each a surprisingly rewarding topic). The events that actually move the plot precede and follow these spirals, creating (when it works) a kind of slow-burning suspense. But some readers will not want to wait for the action. I found a hilarious one-star "reader review" on Amazon, entitled: "American Pastoral is the greatest book on glove making I have ever read." Those who want computer games should not read it. Fair enough?

    The odd structure of time and action in this novel works best in the period following Merry's disappearance, in effect a disjointed nightmare. Months pass in anguished silence. Dawn's mental health begins to deteriorate. Swede burns to save his daughter from whoever has her--from whoever did this. But the neighbors know damn well who did it.

    At this point the novel's most memorable character enters. Clinging to illusions of normalcy through the routine of his work, Swede agrees to give a factory tour to a young woman, Rita Cohen, who says it will help with her business school paper. Unexpectedly, Swede finds himself enjoying the paternalistic role he falls into with the wide-eyed Rita, a twenty-two year old with the frame of a child. He repeatedly calls her "honey" and even has a pair of petite gloves custom made for her during the tour. Everything is going swimmingly until they are alone in his office, when Rita whispers:

    "She wants her Audrey Hepburn scrapbook."

    In the tragedy driven by Swede's hubris in assuming Olympian godliness (and jettisoning Weequahic Jewishness), Rita Cohen will be an especially demonic nemesis.

    In the days that follow, the mysterious Rita demands Merry's speech diary along with her girlhood leotard and ballet slippers, which Swede surrenders in a Newark Airport parking lot. Rita taunts him cruelly, saying that Merry thinks he should be shot. She berates him for the "f*[*]cking fairy tales" by which he lives. Swede begins to wonder whether this "criminally insane Jewish kid" has Merry at all--perhaps she has merely read about her case in the papers. But when Rita demands Swede bring $5,000 to a New York City hotel room, he agrees--at Dawn's insistence. Both desperately need to believe their daughter has been abducted. Merry will be there in New York. Unbidden, the raise the ransom payment to $10,000.

    But of course only Rita Cohen is waiting. She informs him that he has come to have sex with her (though less delicately), exposing herself and comparing her vagina to the small gloves he made for her. Perversely, she imitates Merry's stutter as she tempts him onward.

    How, he wants to know, can she be so cruel? "What is the aim of all this talk?", he. "Will you tell me?"

    "The aim?" she replies, "Sure. To introduce you to reality. That’s the aim."

    "And how much ruthlessness is necessary?"

    "To introduce you to reality? To get you to admire reality? To get you to partake of reality? To get you out there on the frontiers of reality? It ain’t gonna be no picnic, jocko."

    Swede retreats in revulsion. He goes to the FBI (as he should have done in the first place) but by the time they get to the hotel, Rita has split with the money. Merry's trail goes cold.

    This sequence is not pornographic, it is chilling. Rita is a believable demon. She is recognizable as a sadist, an extortionist, and perhaps a political crazy. Yet not all of what she says is false. She calls Swede a "paternal capitalist", and he is. She says Dawn is covering up her working class background, and she is. Indeed, Rita's rhetoric about facing reality seems strangely akin to some of Swede's brother Jerry's talk. And the parallel will continue--we're not done with either of them yet.

    Five years pass. The Weathermen are planting bombs all over America. The Tet offensive is met with napalm manufactured by Dow Chemical--better living through chemistry. Vietnamese children burn. So do American cities--harrowed by their own angry poor. Even before Merry left, Newark had exploded in an orgy of rioting and arson. Swede's factory was spared (perhaps) because his African-American employees had set placards in the windows, in effect begging to preserve their jobs. But the city is left a burnt out shell. Homelessness is rampant. Predatory street crime is everywhere. It never recovers.

    Swede and Dawn are safe in their village--an hour's drive from the flames. But even there, life is becoming an ordeal. Swede starts to receive antisemitic death threats, presumably from neighbors angry about his daughter. Dawn is twice hospitalized for severe depression. They endure these agonies silently, doggedly adhering to appearance of their charmed life and fairytale marriage. Slowly Dawn shows signs of recovery. Five years after the bombing, she begins a project with a private architect to construct a new home. She even contemplates a facelift. By 1973, Illusion has begun to seem possible again. Then a letter arrives--from Rita Cohen.

    The note takes a strangely respectful tone. Merry, Rita informs Swede, is working under a pseudonym in a pet shelter in Newark "I want to go away but I can leave her to no one", Rita claims. "You have to take over." She says she only carried out the hotel room episode on Merry's instructions:

    "You must believe me when I tell you that I never said anything or did anything other than what Merry demanded me to say and to do. She is an overwhelming force."

    Rita claims she subsequently told Merry that Swede had paid her for sex, but only because otherwise, she knew, Merry would not have accepted the money. She gets even stranger:

    "Your daughter is divine. You cannot be in the presence of such suffering without succumbing to its holy power...She must be allowed to fulfill her destiny. We can only stand as witnesses to the anguish that sanctifies her.

    The Disciple Who Calls Herself 'Rita Cohen'"

    This testimony is accompanied by threats to remain silent about the letter "IF YOU CARE ABOUT MERRY'S SURVIVAL". Swede is tempted to destroy the letter. Rita Cohen is obviously insane and probably just trying manipulate him again--building up hopes for the sadistic pleasure of watching them destroyed, and likely planning another spurious ransom as well. He does not think Dawn's fragile recovery would survive the blow. They have both been in a secret hell for five years. Couldn't they just walk out?

    But this excruciating moment in the narrative is interrupted by 76 pages of background spiral on Dawn. Is it a flaw? Well, not really. Dawn's character has been somewhat neglected, and the background Roth provides on the world of 1950s beauty pageants is strangely interesting--like glove making and high school sports, it is something I would never have looked into on my own. It is also part of the impressionistic tableau--for lack of a better term--that Roth wants to paint. The spirals are not just "back story" (to resort to that odious, Disney-esque term) but images of the age he describes that are inseparable from the story he wants to tell. What draws the reader on, what preserves the narrative tension, is the promise to return to the suspenseful moment that preceded the digression. And that works well enough--for the time being.

    In the end, Swede goes looking for Merry without telling his wife. He lurks at a now dangerous Newark street corner by the ruined building in which his daughter supposedly works, hoping she will emerge at closing time. She does. Merry is filthy and emaciated, her eyes sunk into deep sockets. She wears rags, one of which (an old strip of panty hose) partly veils her face. Merry--who has lost her stutter--is not surprised at her father's approach. After a brief exchange, they walk to a ruined hovel along the McCarter Highway, where she lives. It is a lockless, windowless, faucetless, unlit, unheated, cell-like room, empty except for a foam rubber pallet beside a pile of filthy rags--her clothing. The corridor outside it is a latrine for the homeless (and perhaps for Merry), some of whom lie there now. To approach this place from the animal shelter (where Merry walks twice a working day), they must walk under a pass in a similar state, "an underpass not just as dangerous as any in Newark but as dangerous as any underpass in the world." It is home to the city's most desperate derelicts. Swede finds "people shifting around in the filth, dangerous-looking people back in the dark."

    "They know I love them," girl tells her horrified father.

    Merry claims to have become a Jain. Jainism is an ancient Indian sect notable for its non-theism (God does not exist as such), its trans-theism (the divine permeates all things), and its sometimes extreme asceticism. Merry lives in filth because she will do no harm to the germs and parasites on her body. She will not wash herself or her rags because she will do no violence to water. She survives on small amounts of vegetables but describes self-starvation (to death) as an act of spiritual perfection. The only decorations in her room are index cards taped to a wall. These record the vows she has taken: to refrain from killing, lying, stealing, sexual pleasure, angry speech, and attachment of any kind. (It is worth noting, though, that most Jains do not live in filth as Merry does).

    Enraged to think that Rita Cohen has drawn his daughter into a lunatic cult, Swede demands: "How many of you are there?"

    "Three million", she replies. This may be the only moment of humor in the novel--and dark humor it is.

    But oddly enough, Merry knows nothing of Rita Cohen. She received no money and can't imagine who her father is talking about. And yet if Rita was just a fraud how did she know about about--but I'll deal with that later.

    Swede wants to know if Merry was the bomber--the doctor's killer. Yes, she was. She managed to slip town after being sheltered by her speech therapist (the one with whom Swede had had a brief affair). She was later sheltered by an anti-war minister who put her in touch with a radical commune in Portland, Oregon. He gave her money and bus tickets to Portland via to Chicago. But on reaching Chicago she was robbed, held captive, and twice raped--eventually getting the fare to Portland by washing dishes in skid row dives.

    In Oregon, she planted two more bombs, killing three people. She more or less enjoyed this. Eventually, falling foul of the commune, she made her way to Florida in a failed attempt to reach Castro's Cuba. But there she found herself noticed by the FBI. It was hiding from them in public libraries, reading revolutionary and eventually religious thinkers, that she found Jainism: King to Gandhi to Mahavira. She had been a Jain for a year now, and in Newark for a few months. Will she go now with her father? No. He needs to leave her alone.

    It may seem like I am revealing the plot of American Pastoral, but these are a handful of details given in a very few pages. The question the plot turns on must be: so now what? What is Swede going to do for his daughter, a multiple murderer and fugitive, seemingly bent on her own destruction either from starvation or disease or being brutalized under the pass? Is her conversion to radical non-violence an attempt at atonement? Or is she seeking self-immolation, like the burning monks who once held her in thrall. How will Dawn respond to the terrifying apparition of their daughter returned? And what should he do now?

    Well, he doesn't know. And he can't talk to his wife about it. So he does exactly what I would do under those circumstances: he calls his brother. But Jerry will have none of his hand-wringing. In words oddly reminiscent of Rita Cohen's, he tells him to face reality--not the fantasy he lives in.

    "You think you know what a man is? You have no idea what a man is. You think you know what a daughter is? You have no idea what a daughter is. You think you know what this country is? You have no idea what this country is. You have a false image of everything...You wanted Miss America? Well, you’ve got her, with a vengeance—she’s your daughter! You wanted to be a real American jock, a real American marine, a real American hotshot with a beautiful Gentile babe on your arm? You longed to belong like everybody else to the United States of America? Well, you do now, big boy, thanks to your daughter. The reality of this place is right up in your kisser now."

    As for what Swede should do, obviously he needs to go get his daughter out--no matter how ugly it looks. Otherwise, just walk away. That's the choice.

    "But you are not going to bail out, if that is what you are calling to tell me, then for Christ’s sake go in there and get her. I’ll go in and get her. How about that? Last chance. Last offer. You want me to come, I’ll clear out the office and get on a plane and I’ll come. And I’ll go in there, and, I assure you, I’ll get her off the McCarter Highway, the little sh[*]t, the selfish little f[*]cking sh[*]t, playing her f[*]cking games with you! She won’t play them with me, I assure you. Do you want that or not?"

    Swede declines--and Jerry has had enough:

    "Too brutal for you. In this world, too brutal. The daughter’s a murderer but this is too brutal. A drill instructor in the Marine Corps but this is too brutal. Okay, Big Swede, gentle giant. I got a waiting room full of patients. You’re on your own."

    So the question arises: was the pastoral idyl for the daughter or was the daughter for the pastoral idyl? As Jerry asked his brother, what did he really want? And he was right--it's a brutal question.

    And Pompey Bum perceived the coming day;
    And ceased to say his allotted say.

    I should be able to finish next time. 825 views to date, so I'll assume someone's still reading.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 08-03-2019 at 07:42 AM.

  4. #4
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Mar 2019
    I am an alien on a training mission.
    Pompey, impressive beyond belief! You are a master. I have five of his Library of America volumes and have read a few of the novels, but have yet to read American Pastoral. I have been meaning to read the Nemeses quartet and you may have just moved Roth up on my reading list. Thank you for your work on the review. It's obvious you enjoyed writing it, regardless of readers or responders.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley
    Quote Originally Posted by Ekimhtims View Post
    Pompey, impressive beyond belief! You are a master. I have five of his Library of America volumes and have read a few of the novels, but have yet to read American Pastoral. I have been meaning to read the Nemeses quartet and you may have just moved Roth up on my reading list. Thank you for your work on the review. It's obvious you enjoyed writing it, regardless of readers or responders.
    Thank you very kindly, Ekim. Yes, I like writing these reviews. Organizing my thoughts critically is a way of enjoying a book all over again--but in a slightly different way. So in that way, yes, I'm writing for myself. But I very much appreciate your reading my work and commenting. I'm not a master, as you say. I'm just a book-lover.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley
    I should say now that despite American Pastoral's Pulitzer Prize I consider it the weak link in Roth's American trilogy. This is because of its final section, particularly in consideration of demands on a reader's patience already made by the entire novel's digressive narrative structure. A question I mentioned earlier also comes to mind: how well does a gritty story about facing reality sit with metafictional tricks and sly games with truth? I weigh these considerations against Roth's obvious control and clear choice about how he wanted to end his novel, and I diagnose--cool resolve and a touch of intellectual arrogance. Not that Roth, up in atheist heaven, gives a good goddamn how I feel about it.

    American Pastoral's last section, Paradise Lost, does not involve how or whether Swede Levov gets his daughter back. Instead it is about the rottenness of the the seemingly idyllic community in which he and Dawn finds themselves--the moral bankruptcy of their lives there and even their marriage. In short, everything Merry struck at and fled when she threw her life own away.

    Most of this section revolves around a single dinner party in which hitherto minor characters become important. The most vivid link to the earlier plot comes with the unexpected appearance of Rita Cohen on the telephone--in form as usual. Rita is furious because she believes Swede has told Merry that they did not have sex in the New York hotel room. She accuses him of trying to take her away and warns that he has gone too far this time. Swede hangs up on her, but he is left fearful of what she may do next. Is the story reaching a devastating conclusion that will resolve its apparent contradictions?

    No, it is not. Instead, Roth throws more and more background spirals at us. And we bear them because we know the final payoff is going to be enormous. And yet--spoilers be damned, you need to know this--it never comes. Instead Roth opens his fist and lets all the loose ends drop to the floor. Then he folds his arms, smiles whimsically (or is he smirking?), and says, "What? That's all I have to say."

    Or almost. The novel's final lines express what has been Roth's point all along. They break with the perspective, Swede's, that has been in effect since Zuckerman (supposedly) began telling the story of his fall:

    "And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?"

    The unstated answer to these ironic questions is Roth's resolution. Nothing is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs--or the lives of millions of other Americans who left themselves to put on the costume of easy affluence in the 1960s. But respectability is a judgment from without and one that requires a desperate process of keeping up appearances. Within this poisoned apple was a rottenness that destroyed the little girl who found it and reduced her father to the dying man Zuckerman met at the restaurant--fumbling with photographs of his second family, still clinging to the lie of redemption through normalcy.

    Many readers are going to revolt at this ending---and understandably enough. American Pastoral is a tragedy that promises and promises but fails to deliver anything like catharsis (it comes, but not until The Human Stain). I already knew the kind of life the Levovs were living was phony. What about the rest of the story? Is all that just to be dropped? Really?

    Well, not exactly. Swede didn't bust his daughter out of Jain hell. He chose not to--didn't you understand why Jerry was so disgusted with him? And Swede's own fate was already told by Zuckerman: he died of prostate cancer, sad and haunted but unable to accept his failures. Zuckerman may also have learned Merry's epilogue from Jerry, although there is an element of uncertainty. During the class reunion, Jerry told him a story that might have meant she was dead. Around 1992, Swede disappeared from a dinner out with his second family and Jerry's--third or fourth family. Jerry finds his brother in his car, sobbing uncontrollably.

    "He said, ‘I miss my daughter.’ I said, ‘Where is she?’ I knew he always knew where she was. He’d been going to see her in hiding for years. I believe he saw her frequently. He said, ‘She’s dead, Jerry.’ I didn’t believe him at first. It was to throw me off the track, I thought. I thought he must have just seen her somewhere. I thought, He’s still going to wherever she is and treating this killer like his own child—this killer who is now in her forties while everybody she killed is still killed...No, I couldn’t buy it. I said to him, ‘I don’t know whether you’re lying to me or you’re telling me the truth. But if you’re telling me the truth, that she’s dead, it’s the best news I ever heard."

    But that's all we get. Maybe Merry finally starved herself to death. Maybe Rita Cohen killed her. Maybe Swede disavowed her--maybe she was dead to him in that way. Or maybe Swede was lying to his brother to protect his daughter. In the end, Roth, makes the reader is responsible for disposing of Merry.

    But Rita Cohen is another matter. With Rita, Roth is messing with his readers' minds--and has been from the start. Despite her frightening plausibility, Rita is (almost) an impossible character: little more than a metafictional device intended to unsettle the reader. She cannot be fitted into any coherent version of the story. She was not, as Swede suspected, a fraud who picked up scraps of Merry's case from the papers. She knew too many details: Merry's Audrey Hepburn phase, her speech notebook, her ballet slippers and leotard. But Rita could not have known Merry. It's easy to miss, but Merry was compelled by a Jainist vow not to lie when she told her father she couldn't imagine who he was talking about. If the vow had no meaning--if Jainism was just a front--she would not have been starving herself and risking disease, rape, or murder in her squalid living conditions.

    So who was Rita Cohen? The more you think about her, the more you get drawn into a non-existent plot line about Swede buying sex from her in New York City. Wait, I know! Rita was a delusion of Swede's--even a fantasy. After all, no one else actually saw her, right? Wrong. She toured the glove factory in Newark and everyone saw her. It's no good. Rita just won't fit

    Or almost. I have a theory about Rita Cohen that I think is fairly good. It's what would have been revealed if P.D. James had written American Pastoral. In theory, she could have been one of Jerry's daughters by a previous wife. Swede would only have seen her previously as an infant, but Rita would have gotten an earful about her uncle and his family (including details Swede may have told Jerry about his daughter). After Merry's disappearance, Rita would have taken it upon herself to become Swede's tormentor, either for militant political reasons or because of deviant psychology/sadism, or both. All that is needed is for Rita to have become independently aware of Merry's life as a Jain and to have resumed her torments at that point. It's not that much of a stretch, and it would explain the gap in Rita's attacks between 1968 and 1973.

    I thought for a while Roth was going this way with the novel. And who knows, maybe he considered it. But I don't think he intended that interpretation in the end. If anything, his point was that revolutionary militants of the 1960s were not operating from a rational framework--only an all consuming ill will. And this they found because their human identities had been painted over. They were not The Possessed but the dispossessed. And optimistic social climbers like Swede and Dawn had done the dispossessing.

    For all its ambiguities and frustrations, American Pastoral is a powerful, moving novel. I recommend it to adults who understand the goals of literature to be different from those of popular fiction and cinema; to those who see the latter as selling readers what they want and the former as serving the needs of the work itself. Those who cannot accept American Pastoral on these terms should spare themselves and read something else.

    One last piece of advice: it is not necessary to begin Roth's American Trilogy with American Pastoral. The second novel, I Married a Communist, is more conventionally structured but no less powerful. And The Human Stain (while it could have used a more ruthless editor) is arguably the most important book of the three--and Roth's real legacy for our times.

    I plan to review all these novels in the future. This thread has 948 views now, more than 123 since my last post, so I know I've got readers--even if they/you are the quiet type. Thanks for reading.

Similar Threads

  1. Philip Roth passes away
    By tonywalt in forum Serious Discussions
    Replies: 2
    Last Post: 05-23-2018, 03:45 PM
  2. Philip Roth
    By Heteronym in forum General Literature
    Replies: 18
    Last Post: 11-12-2011, 02:50 AM
  3. philip roth
    By EDward in forum General Literature
    Replies: 14
    Last Post: 06-23-2011, 01:42 PM
  4. Roth's American Pastoral
    By Brad Coelho in forum General Literature
    Replies: 6
    Last Post: 04-01-2010, 10:05 AM
  5. Philip Roth
    By metal134 in forum General Literature
    Replies: 7
    Last Post: 10-29-2007, 01:34 PM

Tags for this Thread

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts