My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Just before he learns that the life he’d imagined for an old neighborhood and school acquaintance is not the life the man had actually led, the narrator of American Pastoral exclaims:
The fact 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. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.
This, famously, is the novel’s motto. And the same goes for books, reading them and writing them and writing about them: there is both the necessity and the inevitability of forming wrong interpretations, the impossibility of getting a book right and the need to get it at all. So, in honor of this novel’s thesis and of its tripartite structure, I offer below three mutually incompatible misinterpretations.
But first, a little plot summary: it is 1995 and Philip Roth’s narrating alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is a bit worse for the wear as he approaches old age. Left impotent and incontinent by prostate cancer, he reflects on his youth, particularly on the athletic hero of his Newark neighborhood during World War II: Seymour “Swede” Levov, so nicknamed because of his Aryan superman good looks. The Swede gets in touch with Zuckerman about the possibility of his writing a reminiscence for the Levov family, but the meeting comes to nothing and Zuckerman is left to assume that the godly superficial jock has coasted through a blessed life after his youthful athletic triumph, his inheritance of his father’s successful glove business, his marriage to Miss New Jersey of 1949, and his move to a bucolic stone house in the WASP enclave of Old Rimrock.
But at his high school reunion, Zuckerman encounters Swede’s bitter brother Jerry, who informs him that the Swede’s life was in fact almost destroyed in 1968 when his teenage daughter, Merry, planted a bomb in the town post office as a protest against the Vietnam War and then fled from justice. With Jerry’s information, Zuckerman proceeds to invent what he calls “a realist chronicle”—the life of the Swede following this catastrophe. Here ends the novel’s first section. The next two sections, essentially a novel written by Zuckerman, cover five years, though the entire second half of the book takes place over a day and a night even as it seamlessly integrates the Swede’s memories, a structural coup every novelist will envy. The Swede struggles to recover himself and his family even as his fugitive daughter comes back into his life as a religious fanatic, and his wife plots her escape.
Roth/Zuckerman weaves masterfully in and out of the Swede’s mind, scattering in stream-of-consciousness time between the awful narrative present—the early ’70s, five years after Merry’s bombing—and the blissful moments of the Swede’s past. The novel never rounds itself off, never circles back to Zuckerman, but rather crashes to a stop with a final farcical act of violence, leaving us in its final sentence with a question: “What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?”
1. Bern, Bro; or, Roth’s Political Nostalgia and Prescience
American Pastoral will turn 20 next year, and it is so far aging quite nicely, ripening like wine or cheese as time allows its significance to ferment. It seems to speak more clearly to 2016 than to 1997, as social media gives us a million Merry Levovs stuttering their rage and resentment into the Twittersphere, and as a politics of labor has reentered the mainstream conversation.
A few months ago, the actor Richard Dreyfuss attended a Ted Cruz rally in search, he said, of “the old Republican Party.” American Pastoral is the book of “the old Democratic Party”: the white ethnic urban working-man’s coalition, later to be undone from within by those very white ethnics’ successes and undone from without by sexual and racial energies it could never contain and in fact tried to exclude. Roth charts all this quite clearly—though, by present standards, somewhat offensively, as when he pointedly juxtaposes the Swede’s loyal black forewoman in the glove factory during the Newark race riots with the revolutionary Angela Davis.
But this is not a conservative or neoconservative novel; for that matter, there are no conservatives even in the novel. Both Swede and his father remain loyal Democrats, passionate liberals in the post-New-Deal sense; Swede protests the Vietnam war—not on the streets but as part of a business owners’ committee—and his father Lou is consumed by a passionate hatred for Nixon, whom he construes as a fascist, “Richard von Nixon.”
Why, then, does Merry Levov blow this relatively enlightened family up? Why does “the fourth generation,” as Swede pronounces her, poised for the ultimate success in American life, turn radical when her family was hardly a cage of repression? The novel toys with several explanations, most notably a Freudian one: the plain-looking and stuttering Merry’s rivalry with her pageant queen mother and her consequent thwarted Electra complex (“Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother”). But I am more fascinated by the Swede’s denunciation of his daughter’s radical emissary, Rita Cohen:
“You don’t know what a factory is, you don’t know what manufacturing is, you don’t know what capital is, you don’t know what labor is, you haven’t the faintest idea what it is to be employed or what it is to be unemployed. You have no idea what work is.”
The Swede and his father and his grandfather had to work for a living. Merry’s mother, Dawn—one of the most impressive female characters in all of Roth—is embarrassed by her beauty pageant past, especially since she only participated in the pageants to earn money for her family, and she tries to live it down by raising cows, a labor that consumes most of her time during Merry’s childhood. Even Zuckerman, the narrator, is working hard: he conducts for the reader a master-class on how to make a novel at this advanced stage in the form’s history even as he builds his fiction out of intensively researched passages on how things and people work, on the making of gloves most of all. Merry alone in the book does not have to work for her living. She inherits her living, and so she squanders it.
What destroys the America of the old Democratic Party is the end of labor, labor not just as work per se but labor as the ongoing creation of a self and a society, a creation necessarily attuned to the exigencies of reality. The worker cannot afford fantasy or resentment; the novel’s realism is the corollary of the laborer’s attention to what Hegel, in his praise of the slave over the master, called “the independence of the thing.” By contrast, the middle-class radical never had to pay attention to any thing at all, which ignorance leads her to neglect and finally to destroy things. It takes a limited historical and political imagination to call this a conservative critique, however:
In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.
2. Merry’s Maypole; or, Roth vs. the Puritans
As I’ve hinted, some of its first readers saw American Pastoral as Roth’s palinode: he had turned his back on his former ’60s rebellion, typified by the pornographic Portnoy’s Complaint, and become a neoconservative at last. Does the novel not celebrate America and denounce America’s haters? There may be no readings, only misreadings, but there are also what a friend of Roth’s likes to call “weak misreadings,” and the neoconservative interpretation is one of them, not only for the political reasons enumerated above.
In the middle of the novel, the Swede is haunted by his wife’s saying that she always hated the stone house in Old Rimrock, the house that represented the ultimate in their attainment of the “American Dream,” their assimilation into the successful stratum of mainstream American society. Swede’s father, Lou, passionately protests against Swede’s move to WASPland, citing Klan activity and recommending instead a new Jewish suburban development. And Swede’s brother blames the whole tragedy on the family’s ethnic masquerade, the pretense of these urban white ethnics trying to blend in:
“Out there with Miss America, dumbing down and dulling out. Out there playing at being Wasps, a little Mick girl from the Elizabeth docks and a Jewboy from Weequahic High. The cows. Cow society. Colonial old America. And you thought all that facade was going to come without cost. Genteel and innocent. But that costs, too, Seymour. I would have thrown a bomb.”
The narrative itself even tends to validate these objections to Swede’s Americanization, as the hero is poised by the novel’s end to see his marriage undone by his wife’s lover, the old-money neighbor Orcutt, whose family goes back to the Revolution.
But unlike Toni Morrison and Cynthia Ozick, Roth refuses to torment his characters for evading their religion or ethnicity. In fact, a Joycean/Dedalian ethical imperative seems to drive his characters to “fly by those nets” of “nationality, language, religion”—though Roth is too intelligent (as was Joyce) to fail to count the costs. The cost does not invalidate the goal, however, and worldly Roth would not punish Swede simply for his indifference to the Jewish pieties and the working-class immigrant nostalgias. (Lou Levov’s interrogation of the Irish-American Dawn before her marriage to the Swede, recalled near the novel’s conclusion, is an all-caps comic masterpiece of provinciality as he negotiates what Catholic rituals he will allow his eventual grandchild and draws the line at Holy Communion: “I HAVE THE HIGHEST RESPECT FOR WHATEVER YOU DO, BUT MY GRANDCHILD IS NOT GOING TO EAT JESUS.”)
Roth does punish Swede, though. Recall that in the ethical lexicon of the previous Zuckerman novel, The Counterlife, “pastoral” was a bad word: it signified the desire for uncomplicated wholeness, for an organic life without thought or dispute; it characterized both the fanaticism and violence of ultra-Zionism and the stupid, hateful complacency of English anti-Semitism. When read with this in mind, we can see American Pastoral for the ironic title it is, and we can see that Swede’s pastoral fantasy is too naive not to invite destruction.
Roth deploys Merry as Hawthorne deployed Merrymount (and sex and the devil): to disrupt the Puritan settlement, to invade the original American pastoral—the New Jerusalem of the pilgrim fathers—with everything it cannot countenance or contain. Let us read the notorious passage where Merry’s emissary, Rita Cohen, polemically puts her vulva into the Swede’s face, and consider it not as Roth’s misogynist panic but as his erotic celebration, a bit of écriture féminine from a surprising source:
“You’ll be surprised by what a very clear picture of things you’re going to get from this display.” She edged her two hands down onto her pubic hair. “Look at it,” she told him and, by rolling the labia lips outward with her fingers, exposed to him the membranous tissue veined and mottled and waxy with the moist tulip sheen of flayed flesh. He looked away.
“It’s a jungle down there,” she said. “Nothing in its place. Nothing on the left side like anything on the right side.”
Roth is not just Old Left, he is New Left. He is “the ’60s,” an avatar of sexual revolution; Zuckerman, likewise, was unbound. Doesn’t Roth have more in common with Merry than with the Swede? Wasn’t Portnoy’s Complaint a bomb thrown into the culture?
The Swede, we are told many times, lacks any will of his own. His father is all will, as is his wife, as is his daughter—as is his creator, Nathan Zuckerman. Swede thought he could settle down, he thought life could be rest after labor; but as the novel advances to its comic-nightmare conclusion—a dinner party gathering to the point of a fork in the eye—who could miss Roth/Zuckerman’s Maypole glee at showing this American pastoralist that he’s got another thing coming?
3. Hard, Gem-Like Bombs; or, Zuckerman’s Aesthetic Self-Renewal
In literary history, the enemy of the “realist chronicle” has traditionally been one form or another of aestheticism, from Oscar Wilde’s mockery of 19th-century social novelists for thinking that art imitates life when in fact the reverse is true, to Virginia Woolf’s castigation of the Edwardians for their dreary materialism and lack of soulful insight, to James Baldwin’s argument against the protest novel for lacking the imagination to contest the social boundaries it supposedly protests, to Ben Marcus’s attack on Jonathan Franzen for trying to reflect reality in transparent prose instead of composing difficult texts whose strangeness would transgress received ideas. Aestheticism in its myriad incarnations sees fiction and other forms of art not as windows on reality but as objects in their own right, objects whose chief goal and power is to incite intense, complex experience in their beholders, to help us burn with Walter Pater’s “hard, gem-like flame.”
Roth is no aesthete. Browsing through Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound—a kind of critical biography-cum-tribute—I find him pronouncing The Great Gatsby “too melodious” in contrast to Hemingway and happily reading Woolf’s old enemies, the doughty materialists Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy. The novels of his late phase are serious in their realism: they recreate both physical facts and historical events with dense specificity. American Pastoral is unimaginable without its realist transports—on how gloves are made, on how the Miss America contest and its regional offshoots were held in the pre-television era, on the decline of Newark following the city’s race riots and white flight, on the flora of rural New Jersey, on the Watergate hearings. As I said above, these fact-filled passages mark out the novel’s ethical territory: realism is its therapy against fanaticism and fantasy, the recreation of life the opposite of life’s destruction in acts of war and terrorism.
But remember that the novelist Nathan Zuckerman is our conveyance for all this realism. There is no godly Tolstoyan third-person voice here, no George Eliotic narrator construing herself as universal historian—just Nathan and his “dream” after attending his high school reunion, and moreover a Nathan deflated by advancing age and disease, by the loss of sexual and physical potency. So what does this depleted Zuckerman do? Physically debilitated, he projects himself into the mind of an athlete; childless, he projects himself into the life of a father; an artistic solitary, he projects himself into the world of a mainstream bourgeois family. He tells himself a story that allows him access to all the things he has never—and probably will never—see or touch. He renders an aesthetic object for himself to renew his sense of literary possibility, to recreate himself as an artist even as the years uncreate him as a man. His dream of realism is his reawakening to life.
The Swede’s story becomes an occasion to describe, to create, to narrate, to soliloquize. Hence the novel’s very inexplicability: why does Merry do it, why the bomb? To get the story going, to get the language running, to tap the mental juices when the bodily juices no longer flow. Exiled from life, Zuckerman creates life. American Pastoral is not a realist chronicle—the whole thing takes place inside of Zuckerman’s head—but an inner portrait of the artist as an old man. Aestheticism need not attack realism at all, not when realism is one of the most potent of all aesthetic strategies, one of the most reliable ways to “give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”