Tuesday, August 15, 2006

American Pastoral - Phillip Roth

Upon finishing American Pastoral I was left with a feeling of frustration and anger toward the author. This isn't a completely unknown feeling. I remember feeling similar upon finishing Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and yet somehow that felt like a success on the part of the book whereas with American Pastoral it feels like a failure.

My primary negative comments on the book seem to be at some level tied to the author, although that could be unfair. Darkness and a cynical look at society are by no means new or particularly challenging elements of literature, but American Pastoral left me frustrated. Clearly Roth is skewering the idyll that Americans (particularly immigrant Americans) grew up on in the pre-war post-depression years. Swede's collapsing and empty life is all too obviously the embodiment of that dream. Meanwhile the Vietnam inspired (well perhaps distilled rather than inspired) resistance to that is represented in Merry, and Rita Cohen's lives is subject to at least as much critique. It would be more interesting if it weren't shooting fish in a barrell. Both worldviews are represented by such extreme examples that there's no shock or subtlety to their incompatibility with reality both Swede and Merry are so obviously delusional that the thought provokingness of the book is diminished. Meanwhile only the Swede's father Lou and his one time Mistress Sheila come out of the book with any kind of rationality or logic.

The father was related to another source of my frustration with the novel -- the implication that at the root of the conflict in the book is the catholic-jewish marriage of Swede and Dawn. In the end of the book, though it could almost be excused by his impending breakdown, the Swede recollects his father's interview with his wife, and everything he had worried about in his son's marriage to a catholic. Swede ascribes his and his daughter's life failures to his marriage. In a sense Roth seems to be blaming Merry on Swede's desire to fit in and be American rather than Jewish, and his marriage to a catholic. This felt incredibly silly to suggest that the difficulties of raising a child in two religions are so insurmountable and that the risk of giving up ones ethnic/religious identity are so huge as to produce chaos and destruction felt overblown and strangely reactionary.

Having expressed my frustrations with the novel there were also several elements to it which I found fascinating. The capturing of the desire of the poor young immigrants (and indeed most Americans in the post depression era) to fit in to the new America and to succeed -- that clear set of goals a house in the suburbs, a good job, etc which we so often look down upon as conformist or square, the novel manages to convincingly portray with a compassion one doesn't often see in contemporary literature. The Swede is a tragic figure, innocent in his adherence to the world as it was shown him in his childhood, rather than a monstrous slave to "the man" intent on enforcing his conformity on others. Meanwhile Roth contrasts that desire with its successor bred in his eyes at least in the Vietnam War. The roots of the often less than articulate "resistance" that has become so popular since the 60s are more complicated than just the war, and I found myself grappling with that question while reading American Pastoral. What is it that does drive Merry and everyone she represents to reject the values and goals of the previous generation. I don't think it has anything to do with her mom being catholic and her dad jewish.

I think that while the roots of that movement are wide ranging and complicated American Pastoral made me think in terms of goals and desires. What allows Swede his life is the clear dream and set of goals and desires imparted from birth. The scarcity of his childhood and the struggle toward prosperity. Merry one the other hand, is born with all that prosperity. Where does one go without that struggle, we seek it out. The prosperity of those who successfully like Swede fulfilled their dream of success, feeds the rebellion of their children. Add one part vietnam war and one part revolutionary philosophers and one arrives at Merry -- a child desperate for a way to define herself and a struggle to be a part of. The meaning of hard work in pursuit of prosperity dissappears when the prosperity is handed to you. The prosperity itself wasn't really the thing -- it was the struggle towards it which gave life meaning even if only for a while.

Despite my frustrations with it I enjoyed American Pastoral -- though I don't think enjoyed is quite the right word. I am glad that I read it. It did something which I think is the mark of a great social novel -- it informed moments and interactions in my own life. If I can see the Swede at least in people I meet then the novel, despite its flaws and my frustrations with it has been worthwhile.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami

I decided to re-read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle after reading several of Murakami's other books. One of the things I love about Murakami is the dreamlike setting of his books. While books in the Magical Realism genre tend to insert fantastic or mystic things into everyday life Murakami has a tendency to do the opposite -- take everyday things and imbue them with mystical significance. Perhaps it's my limited knowledge, but the only similar artist I can think of off of the top of my head is David Lynch.

I found myself imagining certain scenes in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle as they would be in a Lynch movie -- the hotel with room 208, the man with no face, and the Rossini whistling waiter, particularly comes to mind. If I had my way Murakami and Lynch would collaborate on a project. In a perfect world maybe.

I'm always curious reading books in translation as to how different they are from the original language, and particularly whether some of the interesting tricks are functions of differences in culture and language or were intended. For example Murakami has a tendency to invert similes -- rather than comparing something alien to the reader to something they are familiar with he will describe something we would normally see as quotidian and read right past and compare it to something outlandish and impossible. "It was a silence like the silence after the death of all living things." Wild Sheep Chase. I don't know whether this is something that might be more common or acceptable in Japanese, but it fits perfectly with the imbuing everyday things with mystical significance that he engages in.

I had a discussion with a friend who had recently finished this book for the first time, and one of his frustrations was that there seemed to be so many aspects of the story without connection to the story as a whole, and it is true to a certain extent that there are a lot of red herrings in the story, but that to me is part of what gives it that surreal mystery story aspect. As a reader you struggle to make sense of the myriad storylines and details that you feel must have significance to the trajectory of the novel as a whole. The reality is that the book resists being decoded in any kind of complete sense -- even the question of what the wind up bird is remains unanswerable. (On a side note I found it interesting that to my friend the question of whether the wind up bird existed in the real world or the dream world, was incredibly important, while for me the question hadn't even crossed my mind.) Malta and Creta Kano virtually disappear from the book entirely, having played a key role early one, and the only news of them we receive is that Creta Kano is having a baby and naming her Corsica. Why? Perhaps to imply the continuation of the human connection to the psychic world even as the narrator loses his connection, or maybe Murakami is obsessed with Mediterranean islands who knows. In the end the world he creates is one in which there is a hint of overarching connection, enough to encourage us to examine everything with the assumption that it has significance, but the key which we feel must exist to decoding all the clues and fully comprehending the world flits seemingly just out of grasp.

Doing a little research I came upon the fact that the book was evidently abridged significantly in translation, which might have contributed to the feeling of abandoned plotlines, and incompleteness at the end. On the other hand the book is already long and maintains a sense of completeness even with it's loose ends.