Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Price winning novel American Pastoral tortured me for about two weeks. I knew not what I was going for. For although Roth is an author of an exceptional value, he is also an author who must be read slowly. There were passages, even sentences, I had to re-read over and over again to come even close to gasping their meaning.
Named among the greatest works of American fiction and included in the Time’s “ALL-TIME 100 Greatest Novels” , American Pastoral follows the life of Seymour “The Swede” Levov. The Swede resembles the perfect man, who lives the perfect life…until the political and social upheavals associated with the Vietnam War affect his family personally and irrevocably.
Seymour Levov, born and raised in Newark, is the son of a successful Jewish glove maker, who from an early teenage age is regarded with awe and respect by other people. In high school he is a revered athlete, equally capable in three sports. He marries Dawn, the 1949 Miss New Jersey, eventually takes over his father’s factory and has a daughter named Merry. Living a seemingly ideal life, the Swede gets his nickname from his blue eyes, blond hair, and natural attractiveness. He is one of those people I wouldn’t believe existed even if I met them – good-hearted, understanding, accepting, nonjudgmental. And yet bereaved of thinking or character – a man living his whole life by the rules and prohibitions of society, refusing (or simply being unable) to oppose or challenge anything.
Told form the perspective of one of Philip Roth’s famous alter egos, Nathan Zuckerman, American Pastoral explores the unanswerable question of why bad things happen to good people. And good parents. Despite the ideal family atmosphere (or maybe just to oppose to it), Merry becomes obsessed with the anti-Vietnam War propaganda. Her radical believes take her as far as blowing the post office in their home town of Newark, accidentally killing a man in the process. Merry goes into hiding, while the Swede and Dawn are left behind to ponder over what went wrong.
It is never a clear cut answer as to why certain bad things happen to people living their whole lives obeying the rules. Like the guy who hasn’t smoked a single cigarette in his life and gets lung cancer. Or the woman driving slowly that dies in a car accident. The world is full of such example of injustice and the Swede’s story is just one of them. Philip Roth doesn’t give an answer as to “why” and “how” Merry turned out to be the way she did. Logically, she shouldn’t have. She was brought in a stable and rich family. She had all the support needed growing up with a stuttering problem. She could have been anything she wanted…and she chose to be a fugitive. Sadly, whatever parents do, there is sometimes no way to predict what the children will turn out to be. Or maybe Merry wanted to oppose just that – the unbearable perfectness in which she was born and raised. Or the father who always does the right thing. Or something else.
After his daughter’s disappearance, the Swede is left behind to pick up the pieces – to try and figure out what went wrong, to endure society’s judgement, to battle with his wife’s mental issues:
He had 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.
And yet no matter how hard one tries, sometimes life goes beyond any logic known to us. It simply happens and we must simply go on living according to the car we have been dealt it. Pondering over the “why me” question only exacerbates the suffering, to a point of madness:
Madness and provocation. Nothing recognizable. Nothing plausible. No context in which it hangs together. He no longer hangs together. Even his capacity for suffering no longer exists.
Probably what makes American Pastoral such a difficult novel for me to read, is that it is way too American. The Vietnam War, the uprisings connected with it, American politics during the 1960s and 1970s, the American life in general – an interesting topic but one very much foreign to me. On top of that, Philip Roth is an author who likes philosophy – thinking, digging, exploring – and his fiction is sometimes too overwhelming to bear. And yet, American Pastoral is a fascinating journey through the human mind, one I don’t regret battling with for the past two weeks.