It is getting exceedingly rare to find books that are well-written and yet hard-hitting and surprising at nearly every turn. Usually, you get just one (like the nearly unreadable Infinite Jest that I can still not get through) or the other (like The Outfit or, say, Game of Thrones). So, when my movie producer friend mentioned that his employer Lakeshore Entertainment would be releasing a film version of Roth’s American Pastoral, I picked the book up (my first by Roth) and I was blown away. It is no wonder that the book stole the 1997 Pulitzer and was a runner-up on the NYT list of best books of the last 25 years from 2006. (Side note: on that list, I agree with the choice of Beloved by Toni Morrison as well as Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and am now curious to read some of the other ones there that I haven’t read by Updike and DeLillo).
According to wikipedia, a pastoral is typically about life on a countryside and requires a cow in the story. Some currents of pastoral literature have – in modern times – denounced the urban sprawl of cities and their encroachment into to “pastoral lifestyle”. While it is difficult to put Roth into a specific category, the fact that the Lvov family owns a large property – and a bull named Count and herd of cows at one point – and the revolt of Merry against not just the idyllic image of America are some ways that the title could be interpreted as being applicable. I saw it as an epic look behind the scenes at a seemingly perfect family that is piece-by-piece revealed to be “reprehensible” as the last sentence of the book states. The various façades of 20th C life in American and the questions that are raised – prosperity, but at what cost? global dominance and warfare, but for what ideal? -are dealt with via the vivid character portraits and their interactions with each other.
If we look at the principal character, Seymour “Swede” Lvov from the outside, we see a man that was always good at everything – triple letterman in sports, beautiful physique, gorgeous ex-model wife, successful business man. But we also learn of his emotional detachment from everything – he has set up an American pastoral idea in his head and is torn apart by Merry’s act of terrorism just as the small store was blown up along with a neighbor. The way in which the various facts are revealed and the psychosis of each of the characters in the book was riveting reading. I appreciated how we start with a first-person narrator who fades away as the Swede is revealed and unraveled by the cascade of events. Roth never spoon-feeds us details – we need to put up with the screaming Merry and her neurotic mother as well as a slew of other characters to figure out what actually happened and how each character was affected. We are as unwitting participants in the devolution of the Lvov family as the characters themselves. Even the end of the book is ambiguous – did Rita Cohen really exist at the end or is the Swede losing it? Do we just leave Merry the Jain in that sordid appartment in Newark? Does the Swede evolve into a more self-realized human being or does he just repress all the anguish (to protect his unfaithful wife Dawn and his acrimonious father Lou Lvov) as he has always done? The is perhaps the most compelling part of this book, you are left to draw your own conclusions. To fill in the colors you wish into this particularly explosive American pastoral portrait.
To be read urgently…I hope (although I am fairly confident) that Lakeshore Entertainment does it justice.
- Philip Roth picks his best novels (guardian.co.uk)
- Philip Roth is greatest US writer: 7.7 out of 10 readers agree (guardian.co.uk)
- Conversation: Philip Roth (writingtipsforbetterwriting.wordpress.com)