American Pastoral

11 February 2012

Dear Sharon,

I feel as though most things I’m reading this semester is about the death of the American dream, or some loss of identity and struggle to find identity in some way. Last week we read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays, many of which snarkily dealt with a kind of implosion of the American dream. (I didn’t write a letter because of the concerto competition.) Then there was Momaday’s House of Dawn, which was also about Abel’s struggle to make sense of himself and his life (in the most general of terms). Even Lydia Davis, who has a mix of stuff in her short stories, presents a kind of immobility and paralysis – the desire to do something but the inability to do so – in many of her characters.

This week, we read the first section American Pastoral by Philip Roth: “Paradise Remembered.” It’s a kind of retelling of that same implosion of the American dream. One guy, Seymour “Swede” Levov, has got it made for him. He was athletic, handsome, married Miss New Jersey, had a daughter and a nice house and a nice business, but then everything falls apart when his teenaged daughter, caught up in the politics of the Vietnam War, blows up a bank and murders a bystander. I had trouble getting into it for some reason, which made me feel bad because a lot of other people seemed to like it. Even more frustrating to me was the fact that I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I couldn’t get into it.

I think part of it is the narrator. The novel is narrated by a fictional novelist named Nathan Zuckerman. To him, Swede Levov is the symbol of the American pastoral – the guy whose life is so absolutely perfect that he’s just got to wonder whether there is something underneath. I felt as though in trying to figure out where something went wrong in the Swede’s life, he’s also trying to figure out what went wrong with the American paradise. At one point, the Swede approaches him about writing a biography about his father’s life. Zuckerman meets with him in the hopes of digging below the surface, but soon finds out that “all that rose to the surface was more surface.”

Well, Zuckerman’s attempts to get below the “surface” frustrated and annoyed me. He comes up with elaborate imagining about the Swede’s life, and where things might have gone wrong. He takes something as “small” as the Swede’s daughter’s stutter and attempts to make it one of the main reasons why things fell apart. These little scenes of the Swede’s family life are imagined with such a degree of detail that one sometimes forgets that these are all happening inside Zuckerman’s head. Even the very way the paragraphs are constructed reflects this search. It’s as though he feels that underneath all the blandness there needs to be something wild and crazy to balance things out. Some of these statements were very definitive and dramatic. For instance, “Stoically he suppresses his horror. He learns to live behind a mask. A lifetime experiment in endurance. A performance over a ruin. Swede Levov lives a double life.”

Reading this, I was struck by the grandiosity of these short sentences. At times these and other passages felt so dramatic as to be exaggerated. As it progresses, it gets worse, from mere suppression to wearing the mask to the extent of a lifetime’s endurance to the putting up a play over utter brokenness. I was struck by the power of these words while contrasting these to the blankness that is the Swede’s personality, and part of me wondered why he was going to the lengths to find the right words to emphasize the drama of the situation.

I also wondered for what reason he was so interested in this man’s life, and why he was taking the time to break apart everything, coming to possible inaccurate conclusions. Part of me wondered whether he was doing it because he was attracted by the sensationalism of the Swede’s life, or because the Swede was such a symbol for him that so long that the fact that his life broke apart in such a dramatic way signified something wrong with the world in a larger sense. In short, why did it matter so much whether he could not “decide if that blankness of his was like snow covering something or snow covering nothing”? But then I don’t think it’s merely a personal thing for Zuckerman. The fact that Zuckerman is attempting to illuminate it for us through his own ruminations reveals that he believes that it has some sort of national import.

Maybe part of it was my own current frustration at trying to get at the meaning of books and words and poems and ledger lines to come to a meaning that may or may not be true and which at times seems mostly wrong. It’ll pass. I think.

One Response to “American Pastoral”
  1. beckony says:

    I generally like Phillip Roth, but I haven’t read this one yet. Personally my favorite “death of the American dream” story is still The Great Gatsby, but that is a book that I doubt will be surpassed.

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