American Pastoral

american pastoral

I read American Pastoral weeks ago. Well before several of the posts already live.

Am I messing with your sense of space/time, which is no doubt based entirely on the sequence of books posted on this glorious blog? Probably. But this was not my reasoning. It was simply so good, so rich, and so bloody excellent that I had to give it time to sink in.

I’m going all literary on you; it didn’t have the compulsive readability or pleasure of some of my recent favourites. But it just has so much wisdom, so much to say which is so very, very well said that it deserved space and respect.

American-bashing is a national sport here in the UK, even as we guzzle US media and products as fast as our little arms can scoop. But it’s unfashionable to credit the Yanks with discernment on high culture, which is ridiculous. I believe that the top, culture-defining fiction of our age is being written by Americans. Franzen’s The Corrections rocked my world, and American Pastoral has done the same.

Fundamentally, the novel takes on the American dream, and questions and twists it to breaking point. The story is of “the Swede” Seymour Levov, a blonde star from a Jewish immigrant family whose sporting prowess and all-American charm propel him into the sort of broad acceptance and success his peers hanker for. As an adult, his obedience and values give him all of the trappings of the Dream – business, land, family. But this is all destroyed by the forces of chaos in the form of his own daughter, who sets about a path that not only destroys the Swede’s life but pulls into question everything he has achieved and lived for. Surveying the shattered remains of the Swede’s life by the end of the novel, it might seem that Roth is simply denouncing the Dream as an unstable mirage that you can dedicate your life to for nothing. And yet throughout, Roth’s admiration and and respect for the Swede and his fundamental decency seem unfeigned, and draw an honourable counterpoint to the self-serving, immature forces of chaos. We are shown the pity in “the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.” The pastoral may be an outdated, fated construct, but it’s special and valued.

This is no straight narrative – in fact the set up is pretty strange. The narrator Zuckerman (who is apparently a recurring Roth character) who tells the story through his own experience, mashing beginning and end before getting underway with the story proper which is his imagining of the Swede’s life – he then disappears from the story entirely. It’s odd, and it gets you thinking. Is it to emphasise the myth of the hero around the Swede, giving a peer’s view of his importance? Is it to destabilise the narrative, Roth’s own version of chaos fighting order? I reckon a bit of both, and a hundred more besides.

To achieve all of this means some sacrifice, and it’s not a rip-roaring read. It’s circuitive, repetitive, slow, speeding up towards an ending that you need to retrace early pages to piece together. But it’s about so much more than turning the pages. It’s a tragedy in the classical sense of the word, lamenting the betrayal of bad things happening to good people or as the novel says, “The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy – that is every man’s tragedy.” As the Swede isn’t truly an All-American everyman, Roth layers this with the play of outsider/insider. As an outsider, the Swede clings to the American way as a means of belonging all the more than those who can trace their lineage back through the local graveyards, and this anchoring is recognised as an all-important part of the human condition. As a character says near the novel’s close: “You don’t have to revere your family, you don’t have to revere your country, you don’t have to revere where you live, but you have to know that you have them, you have to know that you are part of them. Because if you don’t, you are just out there on your own.”

Some critics have doubts about the success of American Pastoral, but to my mind this book is a masterpiece. All hail the Yanks.


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