Thursday, February 17, 2011

You've Got to Read This! TBR Challenge Book (Book Eight)

Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. New York: Vintage, 1998.

(As promised, I'm starting to "catch up" on my TBR Challenge posts.)

Wow! Just plain wow! I read this last summer, and I know Philip Roth doesn't exactly spring to mind when one thinks of light summer reading, but at the time, I had sort of been "o.d.-ing" on light summer reading, which is like spending a day eating nothing but candy. After a while, your mouth begins to hurt from all the sugar, and you find you are still quite hungry (at least if you're me. I need more than carbs loaded with sugar to stave off hunger), while, at the same time, having lost interest in eating because you're feeling a little sick. I was beginning to think I was losing interest in reading. Then, I remembered how I'd been extending my evening walks in order to be able to keep listening to the audio version of this that I'd downloaded from the library onto my iTouch. A couple of times, I'd reached home and had sat on the back steps to continue listening. I decided to continue with the print version. Voila! My obsessive interest in reading resurfaced. I was mesmerized and finished it longing for something else as good and as substantial.

Anyway, it's another one of those books that so wonderfully lays out for the reader that the so-called American dream is nothing but that: a dream. In this case, you can work your way up from nothing, do everything that is "right," become a multimillionaire, move out to the suburbs. And still, still, the dream eludes you. Not on the surface, of course, but where it counts: inside the idyllic "country" home; underneath the expensive, fashionable clothes; behind the degrees and awards hanging on all the walls; buried in the basement of the high rises that are home to the corporate offices. In fact, you might think you are better off than your forebears, stuck living in a 2-room tenement apartment, working 12-hour days, six days a week in a sweatshop, when, actually, emotionally, you are no better off than they were, no happier. How did that happen? This is America, where once you achieve the dream, you are supposed to be happy.

If you were to travel back in time to spy on your great-great grandfather, you might even be surprised to find that he was happier, less confused, less tortured than you are. You might also be surprised to find that those living in the 21st-century equivalent of tenement houses, those for whom (if you are kind-hearted) you might even feel sorry or about whom (if you are mean-spirited) you might say, "Get a job. Make something of yourself," could be less tortured than you are. They may not be happier, of course (and if not, they can all blame each other for never being where they should be, never doing enough to make the money to get out of this hell hole, which is a different sort of "American dream" story, the sort Russell Banks or Wallace Stegner might put between two covers), but they very well could be.

You may wonder why that is, but Philip Roth doesn't. He knows it has to do with your family dynamics and how you choose to deal with them. It has to do with knowing yourself, not other peoples' versions of you, but you: who you really are, what you really want in life, and what is really important to you. It also has to do with knowing those you call "family." (Or not knowing, as the case may be.)

The book's main protagonist is Swede Levov (or "the Swede," as he is called), the sort of high school athlete that the majority of young boys idolize to some degree. Nathan Zuckerman, who narrates his story to us, certainly does. A neighbor, several years younger than the Swede, Nathan is friends with Swede's younger brother Jerry, and he describes the high school athlete thus,

Yes, everywhere he looked, people were in love with him...His aloofness, his seeming passivity as the desired object of all this asexual lovemaking, made him appear, if not divine, a distinguished cut above the more primordial humanity of just about everybody else at the school. (p. 5)

(That brief quote should be enough to demonstrate for you what a flat-out talented writer Roth is. There's breath-taking, quotable prose on nearly every page. He's the sort of writer who makes those of us who write feel like we ought to give it all up and go join the circus or something.)

The Swede, looking in from the outside, has it all. He's the beloved high school sweetheart in his small New Jersey town , earning admiration, not jealousy. He joins the marine corps, hoping to be sent to Japan, only to have WWII end just as he's wrapping up boot camp. Instead of shipping off to Japan, he becomes a drill sergeant and then returns to New Jersey to attend college, to marry Miss New Jersey, and, eventually, to take over as the president of his father's glove manufacturing company. He moves out to the wealthy Newark suburb of Old Rimrock.

That's an American success story, isn't it? Swede's grandfather did work in one of those sweatshops. Two generations later, the grandson is living in an old farmhouse on 100 acres of land, married to a beauty queen. And yet, the Swede's life is nothing but a tragedy, a tragedy he cannot escape.

He can't escape this tragedy because he can't escape his father's tyranny. He has learned to cope with it, knows it's there, but has buried the truth of it. His means of coping is to accept, not to fight -- his brother Jerry takes the opposite approach, fighting tooth and claw. He copes with it by trying not to be tyrannical with his own child, his daughter Merry whom he adores, not the mere apple but the whole apple tree of his eye. He tries so hard not to be like his father, and yet, he still loses his daughter. She still becomes something unrecognizable to him, something he cannot understand. And once this happens, his wife becomes unrecognizable, unknowable, as well.

The Swede loves his wife and daughter. He loves their life together. He gives them what he thinks they want and need, everything he thinks they want and need. Somehow, though, it isn't enough. The brilliance in what Roth has conceived here is that in his giving, he is, on some levels, as tyrannical as his father was, because, you see, he is giving them what he thinks they want and need. He's not always listening to them. He is rarely understanding them. He's not capable, it seems, of separating them from himself. If he's happy, then they must be happy. We can't really blame him, though. He was never taught how to get to know someone, how to listen, how to try to understand. Nobody in his birth family ever bothered to know him. And it's not as though his wife and daughter are making much of an effort to get to know him, either.

I've written this much already and have barely scratched the surface of what a Great Book this is. For instance, Bob, ever since I've known him, has stated that the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is merely the story of "growing up": we live an idyllic life in Eden as babies when all our needs, wants, and desires are met. Then adolescence and young adulthood hit, and awareness sets in (we eat that "fruit"), and finally, we are left with the reality that to be human is harsh, that we have to work hard and will suffer greatly. Roth gives us a beautiful spin on this idea, even dividing the book into three parts, "Paradise Remembered," "The Fall," and "Paradise Lost."

There's so much more I could say here about this perfectly conceived and executed book, but I won't. I will just end by saying that I, most definitely, will be reading more Roth at some point. I am quite sure that anything else I read by him will do nothing but disappoint. This has got to be the man's Masterpiece. Still, I'm impressed enough to want to explore more.


Watson Woodworth said...

I've only read "The Plot Against America", been staring at "I Married A Communist" for over a year now to no avail. I have no discipline when it comes to fiction.

Anonymous said...

I'm putting it on the list.

Robert Hagedorn said...

But what IS the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: The First Scandal.

litlove said...

I really loved The Human Stain when I read it, and haven't been sure what to follow it up with. I will put this one on the tbr right away!

Rebecca H. said...

I really loved this book too. Nice review of it! I think it's possible to overdo it with Roth but a little bit at just the right time is wonderful. I think Portnoy's Complaint is awfully good too, in an entirely different way,

Smithereens said...

I'm so glad you liked it, I loved it too! I felt so sorry for the Swede, it's one of those books you think about again and again, even years afterward. I think Roth really got the complexity of human lives.

Emily Barton said...

Nigel, well, life's too short to worry about that sort of discipline. If you don't enjoy fiction, I say don't bother.

Lilian, you won't be disappointed.

Robert, interesting theory, but I prefer to think of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as being a metaphor catered to individuals, that whatever it represents is different depending on the person, because we all have defining moments that make us "grow up."

Litlove, I'll be very interested to hear your take on this one when you get around to reading it.

Dorr, I've been thinking that Portnoy's Complaint might be next.

Smithereens, oh yes, definitely one you think about again and again. And it's very hard not to feel sorry for Swede, poor man.