So I recently decided I was way behind on my great American writers of the second half of the 20th century. And I knew one of these great writers was Philip Roth. So I picked up two Philip Roth novels at Barnes & Noble, American Pastoral and The Plot Against America.
I recently finished American Pastoral and well, here's the enormous dorky English major coming out in me, I need to discuss this book with someone who has read it! Some books you can read and finish and then just call it a day. They pass out of your mind as easily as they entered it. Everything is on the surface that you need to know. But other books, usually the great ones, lodge themselves in there.
American Pastoral has lodged itself into my head. And the thing is, I didn't love it. I understand that it is a great novel. I get that, the same way I got that Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke is a great novel. I get why it won the National Book Award the same way I get why American Pastoral won the Pulitzer. These books are works of art. They are beautifully written, near perfect. But I feel the same way about them that I do about the Empire State building. These are collosal creations, nearly blinding in the sheer scope of their ambition. They tower and they shine and they represent what humans are capable of. But neither the Empire State building nor American Pastoral inspires in me any kind of love. I can respect and admire, but I can't fall in love with a skyscraper, the same way I could never fall in love with a book like American Pastoral. There's simply no hope in it, not that I could discern. It is a bleak book and it ends like a building collapsing. Everything falls in on itself and no one is spared from the misery of it all.
And yet this is undeniably a great book. Roth pulls off an incredible hat trick. What starts as one man's story dissolves into another's and there are no seams! This book should be brimming with seams, obvious signs of the work put in, but it's flawless. Roth can write a sentence that knocks you off your feet. When it comes down to it the great writers create their masterpieces from truly great sentences. They are the brush strokes, and without them the canvas would mean nothing. But I am just bursting with questions. I wish I could read this book in a college class. I would love to argue and to question this book in a room full of my peers. So if you've read it please chime in on any of the following. If you haven't read it please skip this post because yes I am an ENORMOUS nerd.
1) What does Roth have against women? I simply cannot get past this. The female characters are across the board unlikeable. Whether it's the half despicable, half pitiful Merry Levov or the broken, shallow Dawn or Rita Cohen who is perhaps the most terrible, ugly, horrendous character I have come across in any book I've ever read. The women in this book are either insane, cruel, spiteful, simple minded, in denial or sometimes all of the above. Is this a Roth thing? Does he do this in his other books? I would absolutely love some background if anyone knows it.
2) What is Roth saying about the anti-Vietnam movement? By presenting anti-Vietnam protesters as singularly violent and angry and ill-informed, it seems that he puts them all in this group. This is a book about a man who simply cannot understand or deal with change, whether in his personal life or in the fabric of his country. But there is something problematic about this to me. The Swede is the most sympathetic character in the novel, or at least that's how I read him. Is there something wrong about that interpretation. Is Roth more subversive than I'm giving him credit for? Or does he agree with Swede, that life was ideal and perfect in the 40s and then everything went to hell. But if that's what he's saying with this book, then I have a huge problem with that.
To go on a tangent (which I always seem to do), isn't it usually the white males who pine for the golden days? If you're a white male feel free to disagree with me and call me names, but I've always chafed at this idea that America has gone down the crapper and that the 40s and 50s represent this idyllic world. You know what was also going on in the 40s and 50s alongside all of that American pastoral---blatant sexism, racism, segregation, a massive war that cost millions of lives. What about the probably tens of thousands of gay people growing up in this time, who more than likely went their whole lives hiding who they really were, in unhappy marriages, forced to pretend because they had aboslutely no place in their country? I'm not saying it was all bad, but that's my point. It's just as foolish to say that this time was all bad as it is to say that it was all good. Yet my issue is that when this refrain of America's decline is echoed by a white, male like Roth, what does that say about his attitude toward women and minorities. And yes, I know Roth is Jewish and he does bring up issues of anti-Semitism in this book, but these are also problematic to me. Or maybe I'm totally wrong. Maybe Roth is poking a hole into the myth of the American pastoral and he's not sympathetic toward the Swede but rather pitying him for believing in the myth. And in that case this book is far more depressing than I even thought possible.
3) Does anyone else see a Gatsby parallel? Both the Swede and Gatsby are men who for one beautiful moment believe they have achieved the American dream, only to have it ripped out from under them from a cruel and merciless society. They are betrayed by the America they believe so deeply in. Yet in both cases it is ironic. These men have done what is so celebrated in America, risen from lower stations, built themselves up, and yet the American society that is supposed to commend that dream is unwilling to let outsiders in. They are both dreamers, gentle souls who believe in love and who hope desperately. For Gatsby it's that green light and for the Swede it's a little girl swinging from a cherry tree. But their dreams shatter in the light of day. And they are both destroyed. And both of these novels are framed by a narrative within a narrative. Neither Gatsby nor the Swede tells their own story. Other narrators witness their hope and their anguish and then tell their story. Yet the reason I love The Great Gatsby but simply respect American Pastoral, is that in Gatsby there is hope. It's small moments really, Nick telling Gatsby he's worth the whole damn bunch put together, Owl Eyes coming to Gatsby's funeral, but these are moments that reveal a human decency, some kindness, however small. In American Pastoral there is no decency or kindness in the end that I could see. And I could be wrong. Maybe I've misread the whole book.
But that's why I need an English class right now. I need feedback. I need to know about Roth's life and background. So maybe this is my attempt at a little online book club but if you've read this book I would LOVE to hear what you think :) And if you haven't read it, please consider it. I know I may have kind of turned you off from this book what with all the talk of misery and destruction, but it truly is a wonderful novel. And maybe you'll find the hope that I missed and fall in love.