Friday, October 23, 2009

Book Review: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

by Aaron Briggs

American Pastoral, the Pulitzer Prize winning 1997 novel by Philip Roth, is an elegy to Seymour "Swede" Levov -- a former high-school athlete, childhood idol of his classmates, and hero to his community. Roth uses his recurring narrator, author Nathan Zuckerman, to imagine the tragic destruction of The Swede's happy, conventional, American-dream of an upper class life through the social and political turmoil of the 1960s; it's the story of a sudden slip from the "longed-for American pastoral" into "the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral - into the indigenous American berserk."

If you've never read Philip Roth, here's the quick introduction. Roth is known for his complex but readable prose - he writes with a huge vocabulary and an uncanny ability to "turn sentences around" (as he calls it in "The Ghost Writer"). His novel often blur the distinction between reality and fiction, and he frequently provocatively addresses Jewish-American issues and American identity. American Pastoral rightly feels like his masterwork because it does all of these in equal parts. The novel is rife with confrontation; it's written with an underlying tension that continues to the last heartbreaking page. It's a pleasure to read, but more so a joy to dissect.

American Pastoral is rich and dense with thematic undercurrent that gradually reveals itself along the course of its pages. In the hands of a lesser writer, this breadth of thematic territory could be overwhelming and scattershot, but Roth manages it effortlessly. It's his characters that shoulder the weight of the meaning; these are deep, relatable, archetypical characters, each bolstered with supple backstories rife with politics, economics, social implications, generational rebellion, and those quiet formative moments that shape a person for a lifetime. Ultimately, Roth paints a portrait of three generations of an American family, and the rest of the story shakes out like dust from between the pages.

However, it's equally easy to dismiss Roth's characters (especially Swede Levov) as exaggerations -- impossible monuments that, no matter how flawed, simply don't behave as normal people would behave. But that's the point -- it's important to remember the framing of the story: the entire narrative of the Levov family is created in the mind of Zuckerman, based on only three brief conversations. The story is so immersive, in fact, that there are points in the narrative that we're removed from Zuckerman and Nathan's voice becomes Seymour's voice; it becomes his story as much as it is ours. As effective and believable as it is, ultimately, the entire novel is a construction of the writer Zuckerman. (And Zuckerman is a construction of the writer Roth... so go ahead and add another line of thematic density to your list.)

In the end, Roth (and Zuckerman) use duality to illuminate the thin rifts that divide us: how two very different wars created two very different generations, how strikingly thin is the line between order and disorder (in family, country, self, etc), how differently subsequent generations view the American dream. And as I sit on the precipice of fatherhood, I couldn't help but read the novel as a dissection of how little control parents have in controlling the worldview of their children, and how much influence children have in the worldview of their parents.

Aaron Briggs is a 2003 BU English Alum and winner of the 2003 Ruby P. Treadway Award for Creative Writing. He lives in Nashville with his wife, fellow 2003 BU English Alum Ashley Briggs. They're expecting their first child -- Ansel Franklin Briggs -- in February of 2010.

Aaron works as a Strategist for web design firm CentreSource and a current graduate student in the Distance Education program of San Diego State University, where he is working toward a Master's Degree in Educational Technology. Aaron also works odd weekends at Grimey's New and Preloved Music and continues to write as frequently as possible