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.

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