Thursday, April 11, 2013

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

When I read a book, my head swims with ideas and questions and a multiple other troubling matters. The more a book worries me, the less am I willing to ‘like’ it. (Like how I am uable to let go after my reread of Disgrace. I will have to either read ‘Scenes from Provincial Life’ or ‘Gone Girl’ before I am fit for society.) And that is exactly what has happened with American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s 1997 offering and part of his great American trilogy (with The Human Stain, and ‘I married a Communist’). I was hooked from Chapter 1, then set adrift, leaving me flailing for concrete ground. Hmmm, let me quit the high-flown semantics, quickly get to the meat of the story. We can analyze and argue later.

American Pastoral is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, fictional writer, and Roth’s alter ego. Zuckerman is in his seventies here, a survivor of prostate surgery that has left him impotent and weak of bladder, a solitary pathetic figure nourished we presume, only by his writer’s curiosity and the satisfaction of regularly realizing his creative potential. Nathan runs into a man from his past, Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov, who their entire Newark neighborhood once idolized, apparently because he was blonde, blue eyed, steep jawed and fantastic in sports. Believable enough; it is pointed out anyway that in those high school days of the forties, when Zuckerman’s ilk of second generation Jewish immigrants had just stepped onto the first rung in the ladder to assimilation, Swede Levov appeared to have arrived there already, showing them that it could be done. (One also infers that Levov’s lack of swagger imbued him with an aura: of the established one, of, should I say it, the well meaning, reticent Anglo Saxon at the top of the food chain!)

But on meeting him after all these years the star-struck Nathan is disappointed to find a bland, self-satisfied man, insisting on rubbing the lonely Zuckerman nose in cozy photographs and triumphant tales of family achievement. Zuckerman responds by consigning Levov to the boring platitude spouting multitude, one beneath the eagle eye of the author-narrator. However, a co-incidental meeting a few years later, makes Zuckerman realize how utterly wrong he has been in his reading, for the Swede, despite his obvious success in the diverse fields of sport and business and love, had been laid low by his beloved daughter’s destiny. Perhaps she had brought her fate upon herself, but it is no less horrifying to a parent for all that. That piques Zuckerman’s interest and he sets about dreaming up a ‘plausible’ version of what could have happened, a version that forms the substance of the book.

Philip Roth
How plausible Roth is, is borne out by the reception his book has received, for it cannot all be attributed to virtuosity, however much one likes the author’s gorgeous rants, or finds evocative the human interaction portrayed, or thinks interesting the descriptions of human endeavor – cattle farming, plastic surgery, glove making, feeding cake, take your pick. The American Pastoral has remained one of the most widely read and critically acclaimed American novels to date, and this will have to be because Roth writes the truth. But why am I not satisfied? Is it because in the best traditions of contemporary novelists he refuses to make one point (you already know I am thinking Disgrace here), but starts up a story abounding in any number of points, if only you picked them up? Is this the fate of the novel in the post analytic world where even evil has been teased into nothingness, where the author inevitably loses his direction? Yes, I have digressed here.

Back to the book. Just like the framing device of the novel is handled by Nathan Zuckerman, the body proper of American Pastoral is told from the bewildered perspective of Swede Levov, who while dealing with the aftermath of his daughter Meredith-Merry’s violent revolt, tries to understand what went wrong. In doing so he gives us nuggets to sift through the filter of our own experience, knowing as we do, the ultimate dénouement, (a brief history of Swede Levov’s life is contained in the “prologue”). Swede Levov goes back and forth in time, reveling in fond memories of an uncomplicated past, speculating on the reasons for his daughter’s breakdown - whether it was the lack of a religious foundation, or her being an only child, or her stuttering disability and perhaps their less than perfect parenting response to it, (but then again, who could claim perfect parenting strategies), or a very inappropriate kiss between Swede and a growing Merry (now this one is more worrisome). We get sucked into the game, as he anguishes. Is the Swede too smug, too unwilling to see a problem until it hits him on the head? Does he mirror the American experience? The Swede is constantly surprised by people around him – he does not worry that an intelligent, stuttering child of clearly glamorous parents could be miserable, thinking it enough that he finds her wonderful, he has no idea how important lack of appearance (of looks, class, and intellectual achievement) is to him and to his wife, he is not riled by the nasty remarks of the incorrigible Marcia Umanoff, most importantly he is not goaded by the violence coursing around him, so apparent in the bizarre events of the dinner he hosts towards the end of the book. 

We also wonder if the Swede’s moving away from his tribe (a Jewish identity), in the name of an assimilation that has not really happened, creates a vacuum in his child’s life that she tries to fill with her own individually created belief systems? Or is it only a case of crisis paralysis, for as the book progresses, Swede Levov seems unable to take any coherent action vis-à-vis his daughter. I could not help taking my musings further- so much land and so few people - you either farm the land or you squire it, or you move beyond the suburban. Is America creating little family islands brooding in provincial isolation, tinderboxes ready to explode anyway? It is amazing that one can get so carried away about the imaginary doings of imaginary characters. 

But still. Kuch khatakta hai. Ennomo neruderethey! And the more I think, the more I feel that it is the character of the Swede that does not sit right for me. He sounds wonderfully good childy in his John Appleseed fantasy, right up to when his daughter reaches adolescence. But is it possible that such a man would achieve all his dreams? In my limited experience, our gifts and talents give us a start in life, but what one makes of a business or a marriage requires character, and while self-delusion helps, it is never enough. The Swede could not have been such a babe in the woods, such an innocent if he came this far. And I do get it; there is an underside to him, steely or weak you decide, the side that does not see alternative scenarios, that walks away from a broken engagement, a broken marriage, the faith. I suppose he finds it more difficult to walk away from a broken child, but would such a character anguish like that? Who knows? I had to ask others. 

Tarun was like – Swede Levov realizes that he cannot accommodate his daughter in the life he has made for himself, and that is his tragedy. Alright. I went to the book discussion. 

Madelyn felt the book was pitch perfect in its portrayal of America. Having grown up in a New York neighborhood next door to many Jewish families, she could identify with the setting and that in itself, was exhilarating. Madelyn also found the development of the novel symptomatic of what she felt was happening in America, ‘the descent of the collective dream of the American Pastoral into the individual American berserk’. She appreciated also, how American history had been swept into the scope of this novel –World War II, the race riots, the Vietnam war, the weathermen, Angela Davis, the sexual revolution, the Watergate scandal. If Madelyn had to pick one inexplicable wrong move – by Levov/ Zuckerman/ Roth, it would be the kiss. She could not see how such deviance could so normally be woven into the story. My take is that the Swede gives himself away in more ways than one, through that incestuous kiss – in effect it is an admission that Merry’s stuttering is a terrible affliction that needs drastic recompense. I have to admit however, that the episode came across rather self consciously clever in a post Freudian way.  In the tradition of Woody Allen and Portnoy… 

I saw also in Roth’s writing, a delineation of the Jewish identity, how it explained many things to me, and how uncomfortable that made me. I did not need these sociological inputs about a people after the history lesson of Master and Margarita. Does reading great fiction make one an armchair ethnologist? Mamta asked how this story would have panned out in an Indian context- she felt an Indian middle class household would have never moved beyond Meredith, her story would have become theirs. Shivalik felt that the novel was really about America, the story of a nation that discovers itself veering off a blameless course to a happy ideal, as it gets blindsided by events. Possible. The sweep of the novel is American; why should there not be an allegorical significance?
Of course everyone wondered about Merry’s breakdown and the causes for that- the mother, the lax upbringing, an isolated life. It was interesting that I had read ‘Some Girls’ by Jillian Lauren just a week before starting American Pastoral.

'Some girls' is the memoir of a suburban New Jersey girl who rebelled against her Jewish middle class parents and ended up in the sex trade, ultimately landing in the harem of a Brunei prince. 
As airport reads go, it is superbly written, but what I took away, was that a kid from a perfectly boring-normal western background, brought up by well meaning reasonable parents could end up as the pet of a bored sultan. There are similarities between Merry and Jillian. Both of them felt disconnected at home perhaps, (Merry because of her insecurities, Jillian because she was adopted), both grew up in very well off Jewish households but in cosmopolitan neighborhoods; they probably felt alienated from their suburban peers. But more interesting was the difference between the real and fictional stories of a girl gone wrong. There was real violence in Jillian’s home. That key ingredient for someone to become unhinged - Roth hints at sexual abuse, but he is half hearted about it, would it have made sense instead, to have hinted at violence in the home?

I cannot end the review without registering a protest against the portrayal of a religion so moderate in its outlook as a kooky violent group, even from the warped perspective of a demented Meredith. Jains are vegetarians but scrupulously clean, but more importantly a basic tenet of their faith is ‘anekantavada’. Anekāntavāda encourages its adherents to consider the views and beliefs of their rivals and opposing parties. Proponents of anekāntavāda apply this principle to religion and philosophy, reminding themselves that any religion or philosophy—even Jainism—that clings too dogmatically to its own tenets, is committing an error based on its limited point of view. Roth could have surely picked another religion to project as fanatic. Maybe he was being ironical.

But the book makes you think. It is important and readable. Pick it up. 

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