I’m a very cheap person, so often the novels I read have been around for a while before I read them. I always find everything I need, since apparently no one in Hilo but me reads novels.
The other day I went to the book sale at the Hilo Library and picked up a whole box of hardbound books that had been taken out of circulation, for $7.50. The oldest novel, and the first one I picked up, was Nancy Mitford’s entertainment, Love in a Cold Climate, about upper-class British high-jinks between the wars. One of Mitford’s sisters, Jessica, was a well known transplant from England to Berkeley who wrote various exposes of sharp American business practices, such as her piece on the American funeral industry. Another sister, Unity, distinguished herself by becoming a member of Hitler’s social circle and eventually committing suicide.
Second, I read with pleasure A.J. Cronin’s 70’s slight novel, A Pocketful of Rye, about a scurrilous young doctor making the best of things in Switzerland. I loved Cronin when I was an avid 12-year-old reader who depended on the local library for my books. I was rather confined to the tastes of the local librarian, a person of conventional tastes in spite of her background as a prostitute. But I adored Cronin’s first novel, The Green Years, which is a very touching Bildungsroman about a boy whose parents die and who then goes to live with an elderly relative and suffers a good deal in the way children do. He finds love and becomes a doctor and prevails in the end. Very nice.
Then, near the bottom of the box, looking for heavier fare, I found a far less entertaining matter: the tortured 1997 novel, American Pastoral, by Phillip Roth. Roth’s novels of Jewish assimilation have always been controversial and would be so even if he hadn’t written Portnoy’s Compliant, that expose of the Freudian Jewish family romance.
I could not read American Pastoral without covering the book with Post ‘Em notes. It was so full of choice material, not sexual but social. No wonder Jews get mad at him. He mercilessly exposes them to the gaze of the world while disingenuously seeming to defend them as victims and innocents.
So what does Roth do to make this novel so problematic? Right away, he throws the entire narrative into the realm of the unreliable. The first chapter gives you two characters: first, the writer and familiar of Roth, Zuckerman, and second, the hero, the Swede, so named for his blonde, angular good looks.
This is tricky, so pay attention. Zuckerman is a character in the novel, a writer, and he is also the narrator. The Swede has hired him to tell his father’s story, not his own. But Zuckerman becomes the purported teller of the Swede’s tale instead. He makes a lot of unverifiable inferences about the Swede’s life. He goes from direct observation to opinions to stories he tells about incidents he did not witness himself. And he’s a fictional character. So where’s the truth? Is it silly putty, as Jerry Ruben said? (Or was it Lenny Bruce?)
Aside from the first chapter, in this novel, unlike in Roth’s past ones, Zuckerman remains almost invisible as a character.. All we really know is that he’s had prostate surgery that has left him impotent and incontinent; the Swede has also had the surgery, more successful in his case. The Swede possesses a very presentable second wife and three boys whose achievements he can brag about. He also has a bomb-throwing daughter by his first marriage, as we find out later.
The Swede is a man Zuckerman says he has always looked up to but who also strikes him as a conventional bore. The only clarity here is how clear Zuckerman’s ambivalence is. He tells the tale of the Swede but infuses the book with his unreliability and emotional duplicity.
You can’t believe anything in this book. Not only can all the facts be doubted; the way people say they feel can also be questioned. Men and women are not fleshed out but rather symbolize various ideas. The shoe very often does not fit, which sets up a dissonance between the characters and what they represent.
Most obviously, The Swede is a Jew, a blond blue-eyed Polish Jew whose father is a glove manufacturer. So is this the background of an all-American boy, sports hero but still a Jew? It’s as if he has had to endure stereotyping from two directions, which confines him to a small repertory of behavior. He’s in a squeeze play between WASP conventionality and Jewish upward striving.
The same claustrophobic existence seems to be the fate of all of Roth’s manipulated characters. The women are crazy or go crazy. Dawn, the Swede’s wife, has to be a sex symbol, an all-American beauty contestant, an animal lover, a picture-perfect mom, an Irish resentnik and a nut case who gets a face-lift. That is quite a burden of notions for one character.
And what about Merry, the poor bomb-throwing daughter, this underground horror that gives the lie to the façade the Swede and Merry have created of the perfect family? This is a cliché. I find family dynamics, as Roth writes about them, just plain unbelievable. The smarmy evocations of family romance really gag me. This could be Roth’s intent. But where does that leave just plain ordinary OK people and their families? Such do exist, in the real world. Real families, real people. And they can make for interesting fiction, too. The exaggeration of normality is grotesque, Martian. Must be Zuckerman’s fault.
Roth does understand his Freudian Jewish family well, the people of the Swede’s parents’ generation: seductive Mom who morphs into dumpy Hausfrau, virile Dad who morphs into hard-working, bullying, heart-attack prone dad, unattractive or incompliant son (or daughter) who deserts the family and finds freedom outside its narrative, beloved son, favored but never allowed to escape. But I find no enlightenment about families in this book.
There are some great anecdotes, though, such as the one about the man who goes to an analyst who says, “What do you think when you look at your wife’s body.” The man says, “I think I want to kill myself.” So he leaves his wife for a younger woman. The author leaves unexamined the meaning of this little tale.
Then, rather late in the book, several other stereotypes show up: the big fat intellectual Jewish broad and her wimpy husband; the once sweet shiksa who has taken to drink and now looks (#1 sin) older than her age and is nuts to boot; the artistic WASP architect who seduces Dawn. I detect here the confluence of Updike and Kafka. It’s just too odd.
And then there’s the truth-telling brother, now a heart surgeon in Florida.I think he’s a narrative device, mostly don’t know what his function is in the book aside from providing the Swede with a rebellious sibling. He does “punish” the Swede with his bruising honesty and lets him appear as a naïve, innocent victim.
So what about the plot? That’s the easy part. The Swede, favored son of assimilating former Shtetl Polish Jews, handsome, good at sports, compliant, has all the typical American experiences. He’s a star high school athlete, does a stint in the military, takes over his father’s glove-making business. He falls in love with an Irish-American woman, a former Miss New Jersey. She manages to pass muster with his father and so they can marry. They get out of Newark. Liberals, they have plenty of money and property and all the finest high-minded ideas. Merry, their sole child, joins the left radical underground, blows up stuff and kills 4 people. The last he sees her, she’s living in squalor in Newark. (This is the 60’s). The Swede moves on to a new life with a new wife and better kids. That’s the story.
Roth has played his material for comedy in the past. Here, he seems pretty dreary about it all. But this is Roth, who always fascinates me. I think the desertion of Newark in favor of playing the gentleman farmer in rural New Jersey would count as the Swede’s greatest sin, in my book.
© 2006, Marianna Scheffer