Philip Roth, American Pastoral

April 11th, 2012 § 2 comments

Thinking: She is not in my power and she never was. She is in the power of something that does not give a shit. Something demented. We all are. Their elders are not responsible for this. They are themselves not responsible for this. Something else is.
Yes, at the age of forty-six, in 1973, almost three quarters of the way through the century that with no regards for the niceties of burial had strewn the corpses of mutilated children and their mutilated parents everywhere, the Swede found out that we are all in the power of something demented. It’s just a matter of time, honky. We all are.
He heard them laughing, the Weathermen, the Panthers, the angry ragtag army of the violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have. The Swede finally found out! They were delirious with joy, delighted having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to their truth, to the truth as they knew it to be for every Vietnamese man, woman, child, and tot, for every colonized black in America, for everyone everywhere who had been fucked over by the capitalists and their insatiable greed. The something that’s demented, honky, is American history! It’s the American empire! It’s Chase Manhattan and General Motors and Standard Oil and Newark Maid Leatherware. Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race!

In American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s meta-fictional lens, the author, Nathan Zuckerman returns for the first time since Nineteen Eighty-Six’s The Counterlife, to play a more passive role as chronicler of the fictional life of a recently deceased acquaintance. The two meetings that Zuckerman has with the man whose life he imagines, Seymour “the Swede” Levov (rhymes with the-love) bookend the Swede’s life; first as the blue eyed handsome blonde high school star of baseball, basketball and football, the idol of a Newark community struggling to overcome the tragedy of the second World War, and much later as the wealthy owner of Newark Maid Leatherwear and father of three.  The childlike idolization that Zuckerman had for the Swede, resulting from a throwaway friendly remark the Swede once made to him, remains forty-five years later, when upon meeting him for dinner at the Swede’s request, he struggles to reconcile the young man revered by the community as a god with the normal man that he has become. But all that changes when shortly after, at Zuckerman’s high school reunion, he learns from the Swede’s brother Jerry that the Swede has died from prostate cancer, and that his life was shattered by a random act of violence that Zuckerman knew nothing about. This revelation prompts Zuckerman to write a novel that imagines the idyllic life of the Swede and the consequences that the tragedy has on himself and his family.

The role that the Zuckerman device plays in American Pastoral (and the two novels that follow, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain) is fundamentally different to the Zuckerman novels that precede it (collectively referred to as Zuckerman Bound). Whereas in the past, Roth had used Zuckerman as a lens to examine and comment on his own experiences, such as the sudden fame that arose from the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, (re-enacted in Zuckerman Unbound as Zuckerman’s difficulty coming to terms with his fame after the release of the his fictional novel “Carnovsky”), and also to comment on the relationship between the artist and art, the Zuckerman of American Pastoral acts as an added layer between author and fiction. In a sense, through the use of Zuckerman, the fictional novel within a novel as a framing device becomes something akin to a play-within-a-play. Zuckerman himself tells the reader that if he were to give his novel to Jerry, that he would likely tell him that he has got not only the facts, but also the character of all those involved completely wrong. But for Zuckerman, as for all works of fiction, getting it right is unimportant because fiction can never be right, as he explains in the two quotes that follow. Firstly,

The fact that remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive; we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. If you can do that-well, lucky you.

and secondly,

Writing turns you into somebody that is always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.

The act of writing fiction then, can never be “right”, because authors are not attempting to recreate the truth, to do so would be a contradiction in terms. Through Zuckerman’s liberties with the life of the Swede, we can see his motivations for using the narrative to shape his own views of America as a separate entity from Roth, and that allows us to analyse the intent of a character and not the author, sidestepping the problems that arises in regards to authorial intent. As a result we can say that Zuckerman shapes his Swede in a manner that allows him to reveal the empty reality of the American pastoral, without having to speculate as to what Roth intends.

When discussing character in The Poetics, Aristotle states that the author of the tragedy, in regards to the protagonist, must “[reproduce] the distinctive form of the original” while “[making] a likeness true to life and yet more beautiful”. The “real” Swede is already an impressive specimen, seeming to  be the consummate All-American Jew, handsome, successful, and at one point married to a shiksa beauty queen, Dawn Dwyer, the 1949 Miss New Jersey  and Miss America contestant.  In Zuckerman’s novel, putting aside an engagement and a military career he is a dutiful son, starting at the bottom of the company in the tannery and learning every aspect of glove-making before succeeding his father as the owner of Newark Maid Leatherware. He is also a dutiful husband, often putting his wife’s happiness ahead of his own, and buying a classic country house for the pair to live in in a gentile community, against his parents’ wishes.  But it this desire to please everyone that leads to his downfall and expulsion from his pastoral paradise. His willingness to avoid any sort of conflict that would shatter the idyllic life that he wants so badly leads to the tragedy that destroys his family. His brother Jerry, in an angry phone call, brings the point home,

What are you? Do you know? What you are is you’re always trying to smooth everything over. What you are is always trying to be moderate. What you are is never telling the truth if you think it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings. What you are is you’re always compromising. What you are is always complacent. What you are is always trying to find the bright side of things. The one with manners. The one who abides everything patiently. The one with the ultimate decorum. The boy who never breaks the code. Whatever society dictates, you do. Decorum.

What the Greeks understood about tragedy is that the punishment for the crime of inaction carries as much weight as any other. The Swede goes through his life as if he never really has any agency; when the time comes to act, he fails to do so. He caters to his wife’s every whim, from purchasing an expensive steer so she can raise cattle, to expensive modern art and a facelift in Geneva. When his daughter starts to become radicalised, instead of putting his foot down, he instead respects her opinion and tries to enter into rational discourse with her, which does nothing to dissuade her. His self-sacrificing nature makes him a passive spectator to the demise of his reality, and it is commitment to his American pastoral, and his Proustian desire to return to it after the tragedy that serves as his hubris. Paradise lost can never be regained, regardless of any amount of nostalgic longing.

The instrument that brings about the destruction of the Swede’s pastoral is his beloved daughter Merry. Cherished by her father, she grows from a sweet and loving daughter with a speech impediment to an angry pro-Vietnam Communist who despises her father for owning the means of production.  In her anger, she brings the war home to America, using what she has learned in high school chemistry to construct a bomb. Her plan to blow up the local small town post office goes awry though, when the bomb kills the local doctor who was in the vicinity unexpectedly. The incident forces Merry to go into hiding, causing the Swede to lose a daughter and his wife, Dawn, to suffer a mental breakdown. As Roth writes,

…the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive-initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens the particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral-into the indigenous American berserk.

The Swede becomes obsessed with psychoanalysing his daughter, scrutinizing his memories of her childhood to try and identify some event that served as the catalyst for her radical change. Rita Cohen, her supposed accomplice and tormentor of the Swede, claims her reasons arose due to criticism of her stutter by her mother, and his bourgeois values. His darkest fear is that is it all stems from his mistake in indulging her childhood whim that he kiss her like he kisses her mother, a mistake that haunts him in the wake of tragedy.  When he finds her later, having come full circle back to Newark, she has killed three more people, been raped twice, and become a Jain, the horror of which is too much for him to bear. But even then, he is still unable to force himself to act and take her out of her dangerous situation, even after a strong dressing down by his brother, who offers to fly in from Florida and do it himself.  He does realise however, that everything she has done is a feeble attempt to fill the emptiness inside her as the Swede’s inner monologue demonstrates,

Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness ever deeper. There is nothing we can do to dispose of that. No, loneliness shouldn’t surprise us, as astonishing to experience it as it may be. You can try turning yourself inside out, but all you are then is inside out and lonely instead of inside in and lonely. My stupid, stupid Merry dear, stupider even that your stupid father, not even blowing up buildings helps. It’s lonely if there are buildings and it’s lonely if there are no buildings. There is no protest to be lodged against loneliness-not all the bombing campaigns in history have made a dent in it. The most lethal of manmade explosives can’t touch it. Stand in awe not of Communism, my idiot child, but of ordinary, everyday loneliness. On May Day go out and march with your friends to its greater glory, the superpower of superpowers, the force that overwhelms all. Put your money on it, bet on it, worship it-bow down in submission not to Karl Marx, my stuttering, angry, idiot child, not to Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung, bow down to the great god Loneliness!

Roth’s novel ends, not with death or divorce, but with a seemingly normal dinner party that takes place during the Watergate scandal and signifies the mundane death of the Swede’s pastoral. He discovers that his wife’s upswing in mood has been caused by an affair with their Ivy-league neighbour, William Orcutt III, and having discovered from Merry that her speech therapist (also a family friend and his mistress for a few months when Dawn was in a mental institution) was the person who hid Merry after the initial bombing. Also in attendance is Mrs. Orcutt, who drinks herself into oblivion, and the Swede’s parents. The conversation moves from the war to Deep Throat, and as the Swede sits in the middle of the facade, he knows it is all a lie. He has, as Zuckerman writes earlier in the novel, “learned the worst lesson that life can teach-that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.” We imagine our lives in the third person, the people we want to be, the lives that we want to have,  reality has other plans for us. The force of history destroys the Swede’s idyllic life, despite the wall he builds around his pastoral, history cannot be kept out. Not just his daughter’s crime, but the war, the Newark riots, racial tension, presidential assassinations, infidelity, and betrayal; the barbarians are at the gates and they cannot be kept out forever. This can happen to any of us, we are all on the chopping block.

This is how successful people live. They’re good citizens. They feel lucky. They feel grateful. God is smiling down on them. There are problems, they adjust. And then everything changes and it becomes impossible. Nothing is smiling down on anybody. And who can adjust then? Here is someone not set up for life’s working out poorly, let alone the impossible. But who is set up for the impossible that is going to happen? Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering? Nobody. The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy-that is every man’s tragedy.

§ 2 Responses to Philip Roth, American Pastoral"

  • sue says:

    well , this was pretty good. i hope from this knowledgible writer or team to provide me with more critical things about american history and its nature and role in the works of Philip Roth especially his America Trilogy. thaaaaaaaaaaanks.

  • bookblender says:

    This analysis was excellent. It helped me clarify some points of the narrative. Thanks!

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