Sunday, 10 August 2008

Overdue, partially forgotten but a tour-de-force

This is a long overdue write-up. Delayed, in part, because I was still mulling it over some time after I finished it. It's my second Philip Roth novel, but the one for which he's possibly most well-known, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral.

It's difficult to summarise it in the conventional manner I use here, and that's not likely to do it any favours. While there is a story within its pages, that's not really where its strength lies.

The novel is structured into three long sections. The first, "Paradise Remembered", is written from the perspective of Roth's alter ago, Nathan Zuckerman. It describes his attendance at his high school reunion in New Jersey, and his meeting there with Jerry Levov, the brother of the recently deceased Seymour "Swede" Levov. The Swede, as he was known, was a legend at Zuckerman's high school, blessed with success throughout his life until the day that his daughter, Merry, disappeared in the aftermath of a Weathermen-esque bombing. Having met the Swede on a few occasions after this defining event, Zuckerman sets out to imagine and flesh out his charmed, then damned, life.

The second and third sections of the novel are written from the perspective of the Swede, but are essentially the product of Zuckerman's imagination (the novel within the novel, etc.). The second section, "The Fall", follows the Swede's life in the months and years after the bombing, as he tries to understand why, or if, Merry was involved in the bombing, his coming to terms with this, and gradual revelations about the fate of Merry. This section also describes at length the Swede's rise, his idyllic marriage to Mary Dawn Dwyer, 1949's Miss New Jersey, and the family glove-making factory that he ultimately comes to run.

The final section of the novel takes place against the backdrop of a dinner party organised by the Swede and Mary Dawn. While the Swede has confided what he now knows about Merry to his unsympathetic brother, he has withheld it from Mary Dawn because of his fears for her mental wellbeing. Neither of them have handled Merry's implosion well, and their marriage is under considerable strain. During the course of the evening, the Swede discovers that this strain has not just led him to an extramarital affair, but it has also led his wife there. Entitled "Paradise Lost", this section describes in lacerating detail the destruction of their marriage and the catastrophic damage that Merry's actions have inflicted over both of their lives.

The above is a rather truncated version of the narrative, and glosses over the extensive digressions, flashbacks, remembrances and introspections that occur during the book. I've also completely skipped over a number of key themes in the narrative, including those of Jewish identity and the experience of second/third generation immigrants, post-war politics and the growth of 60s counter-culture ideology, and lots (possibly rather too much) about sex.

To my mind, the novel's main strengths lie in the incredible detail about characters and situations that it squeezes into its pages. Roth's writing is really fluid and able to convincingly create the novel's world. It's almost the writing equivalent of making a miniature portrait. On top of that, Roth allows his characters (and, looking backwards, himself) to go to some rather dark places at times.

On this latter point, there are a couple of places where this becomes a weakness for the novel. For example, in Zuckerman's imagining of the Swede's life, there's an ostensibly key episode that Zuckerman's fictional Swede reflects on as being the first cracks in his relationship with Merry. Zuckerman (which is to say, Roth) then puts what seems a needlessly sexual tinge to this episode. Bearing in mind that this is a fictional treatment of a fictional novelist's imaginings, it didn't ring true, and instead comes across as, well, just pervy. This is followed by a rather surreal (i.e. unconvincing) and sexual episode when the Swede is on Merry's trail. One doesn't know whether to read these episodes as being about Zuckerman (= Roth) rather than the Swede, or whether they're supposed to taken straight up and simply fit in with the otherwise credible and convincing narrative. To me they sort of broke down the novel's realism and stretched my credulity too much.

However, all that said, American Pastoral is a real tour-de-force of a novel. While its not the most inspiring or "life-positive" of novels, and while I've several "concerns" with a few of its more purple passages, Roth is clearly firing on all cylinders here. There's a real virtuosity in some of the set pieces, in the characterisation and in some of the details. By way of a trivial example, there's a lengthy description of glove making that's incredibly detailed but written in an almost completely effortless way, almost as if Roth has been making luxury gloves his whole life. And it captures the interior lives of its characters to what seems an extraordinary degree. In this sense, it's rather different to the other Roth novel I've read, The Plot Against America, which is much more focused on external events. Although completely different, Richard Ford's series of novels about Frank Bascombe is the closest I've read that focuses so clearly on its characters' thoughts and motivations.

Anyway, notwithstanding the above, C was considerably less convinced by the novel that I was. I think the needlessly pervy aspects didn't help and, let's face it, it's a real downer of a novel.

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