Sunday, September 16, 2007

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

I am trying to warm to Philip Roth. I really am. I justified my abhorrence of Portnoy's Complaint by telling myself that I read it when I was too young (14, I think?) and too repressed by my Catholic upbringing (although my friends would probably say that still holds).

I read The Human Stain last winter. This time it was the politics that irritated me—the insistence on caricaturing the academic left without any glimmer of intent to depict them as people, even deeply fallible people.

But American Pastoral is supposed to be his masterpiece, his transcendent narrative that captures the American century in its stride.

Well, I'm going to give Roth more chances, but I'm not by any means won over. American Pastoral is just broader than The Human Stain, but no deeper. I forget who this description applied to originally and who applied it, but it holds for Roth: his novels are flat, but they vibrate very fast. [Forster said it of Dickens—later note.]

Some curious habits mark Pastoral—a curious habit of expressing most attempts at meaningful authorial comment in incomplete sentences, often embodying an idea (e.g. "A guy stacked like a deck of cards for things to unfold differently." "The body, from which one cannot strip oneself however one tries, from which one is not to be freed this side of death.") The body, of course, has been Roth's lifelong quarry, whether that is concerned with the perversions of sexuality, the perversions of old age, or, in American Pastoral, the perversions of bodily perfection. There is an awful lot of overlap, as Mr. Roth will tell you, between the three.

Roth is an aggravatingly and aggressively insistent writer; if I had to estimate the number of times he emphasizes the tragic nature of his hero's existence, I'd put it in the ballpark of 175. (The novel is 432 pages long). Roth apparently skipped the class on "show, don't tell." He also hammers home (literally home—he "brings the century home" just like 60s radicals wanted to "bring the war home") the parallel between the nation's fortunes and those of the Levov family—a parallel which any half-witted reader could have picked up from the title.

But enough complaining. I didn't like the book, although I recognize what other people like about it, and I will continue to read Roth until I've gotten through all his major works (Sabbath's Theater, The Counter-Life, Operation Shylock...)

What I did think was interesting is how desperately Roth tries to convince us that his tale of millionaire New Jersey Jews is a tale of Middle America. This led to thinking about the literary idea of Middle America as it relates to the literary idea of the Middle West. I haven't lived in New Jersey, but it seems to me that in novels like American Pastoral, it can shade almost into Midwestern-ness, especially as it concerns itself with sports and the way sports affect a community. I suppose this is nothing more than the "pastoral" of the title, but it is food for later thought.

Pulling at that thought, however, for just a bit more, doesn't Bruce Springsteen, a NJ boy if ever there was one, seem a bit Midwestern? I don't think anyone would place him in a specific Midwestern state, but there is something generically Midwestern about him. I mean, he did call one of his albums "Nebraska."

I would like to test this idea by reading the Rabbit novels and Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy (and perhaps WCW's Paterson), but I find the very fact that there is such a concentration of Middle America in New Jersey in the literature of the past 25 years or so to be quite interesting, and something I will have to come to grips with in any proper study of Midwestern literature.


Ciprian Jurma said...

I totally agree with your opinion. The remarks you made were the same things that kept annoying me while reading it: the absurdly repetitious manner in which he expresses his hero's feelings over and over again, the unfinished and unpolished style, the predictability of it all, etc. I would add one more disappointment: the dull end that makes the novel seem like missing at least a few chapters. To me the novel seemed like a profund attempt made by a shallow writer. I love Forster's description, it applies indeed. :)

rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read American Pastoral by Philip Roth. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.