Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Philip Roth--American Pastoral (1997)


This 1997 novel is a rather sprawling look back primarily at the generational conflicts of the 1960s.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it is one of several of Roth’s semi-autobiographical novels to feature Roth alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman.  In this novel, Zuckerman attends his 45th high school reunion, where he meets Jerry Levov, brother of Seymour “Swede” Levov, who was once Zuckerman’s athletic idol.  This provides a frame story for Zuckerman to tell the story of Swede Levov, who built his father’s glove-making business into a strong, money-making endeavor, but whose homelife during the turbulent 1960s seems emblematic of the generational breakdowns of the era.
In earlier encounters with the Swede, Zuckerman learns that he has remarried and has three sons; his first marriage and daughter Merry is not mentioned.  In a letter to Zuckerman, the Swede hints that he might like the novelist to write his story, as a way of making sense of it all.  Though Zuckerman misinterprets this request to mean writing the story of the Swede’s father, he later realizes that he meant the story of his daughter Merry, whose political protests against the Vietnam War led her to set a bomb at the local general store and post office, which killed the local doctor, and to set subsequent bomb around the country, which eventually brought the death count to four. 
Seymour’s struggle to interact with and understand his daughter’s behavior (as well as his wife’ unhappiness and adultery, and the race riots around his Newark factory) are the primary focus of the novel.  It’s significant to me that Zuckerman frames his story around the high school reunion, as the framing device to a certain extent functions like a conventional novel, in that it allows a retrospective point of view which appears to give a certain amount of objectivity, but which ultimately can’t escape its own subjectivity.  This is the cause of my alienation from this novel—sure, I appreciate his disdain for Boomer self-importance, but while Zuckerman finds their confessional mode to be shameful in its performativity, I rather find it shallow in its narcissism.  I doubt that Zuckerman would disagree with me, but I have no problem with performativity—in fact, I see most behavior as having aspects of performance to them.  To think otherwise is na├»ve—though to someone of Zuckerman’s generation (or especially that of his father’s), there is still the belief in some sort of essentialism, some sort of essential identity or goodness that everyone should be able to access.  Failure to do so signals some sort of moral failing. 
At the end of the novel, Zuckerman’s revelation that the final dinner scene—in which the Swede has discovered his wife’s adultery, admitted to his own, and admits to his own failure to help his daughter—represents the modern American pastoral.  This to me did not seem as shocking a revelation as Roth seems to have intended—but again, my own cynical Generation X sensibilities were most likely keeping me from experiencing the full effect.