PHILIP Roth begins his 1988 memoir by describing the source of his literary imagination.
In the past, as you know, the facts have always been notebook jottings, my way of springing into fiction. For me, as for most novelists, every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the facts, with the specific, and not with the philosophical, the ideological, or the abstract.
This is commonplace wisdom among fiction writers, as the author says in the passage. Yet Roth largely ignores it in his new novel, American Pastoral, an allegory seemingly conceived in an abstracted realm of big notions and fixed ideas. American Pastoral is a relentlessly mental book, full of inconclusive rumination on material often left strangely undramatized. And that, along with the book's mystifyingly haphazard structure, prevents it from becoming a "genuine imaginative event."
The novel concerns a Jew who does not look or behave like a Jew, a man who comes to be known as "the Swede" in his Newark, New Jersey, high school in the 1940s because of his magically "anomalous face": "Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov." And the magic goes beyond mere looks: the Swede is gifted with an extraordinary athlete's body and talent. His achievements on the playing field seem to be the sole element of legend and self-transcendence in the insular world around him.
Through the Swede, the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world, the fantasy of sports fans everywhere: almost like Gentiles (as they imagined Gentiles), our families could forget the way things actually work and make an athletic performance the repository of all their hopes.
The book is narrated by the well-known Nathan Zuckerman, but Zuckerman in the present day -- now alone, separated from the "aristocrat" with whom he'd been living overseas, impotent and incontinent (though presumably cancer-free) from prostate surgery. In the 1940s Zuckerman was a classmate of the Swede's younger brother and an idolizer of the Swede, that great Other among the Newark Jews: "He'd invoked in me, when I was a boy -- as he did in hundreds of other boys -- the strongest fantasy I had of being someone else." This very fiction is the long-delayed fulfillment of that fantasy, because Zuckerman, as he freely admits, concocts most of it, merging with the beautiful, un-Jewish, unknowable Swede by inventing the story of his life. The novel's most memorable episode occurs early, and is also one of the most directly dramatized: Zuckerman's forty-fifth high school reunion, where he meets his old friend Jerry Levov, the Swede's younger brother. Jerry has just attended the Swede's funeral; the Swede died of the same disease that Zuckerman has lately survived. Jerry reveals a traumatic, decades-old event in the Swede's personal life, but not much else: "Anything more I wanted to know, I'd have to make up," Zuckerman says, announcing his intention to "dream" the Swede's surprisingly unhappy life. He allows his first-person voice to be replaced by the story he's inventing, and that moment has something of the fictive magic of Nabokov, or of the Eastern European writers whom Roth admires and whom he has published in his Writers From the Other Europe series of books for Penguin.
Zuckerman was provoked to make a story by learning of a specific historical event, but his dream of the Swede's life sweeps us into a novel of ideas. From here on what "happens" is largely said to happen, the events of the plot now seen through a veil of issues and themes. At any rate, what happens is that the Swede, a charismatic, kind-hearted, nearly selfless Jew who could be taken for Anglo-Saxon, rejects a career in sports to go into his father's leather-glove business. He then defies his father by marrying a shiksa (an Irish Catholic and a former Miss New Jersey), and further breaks with his origins by leaving his ancestral immigrant metropolis for an old fieldstone house in rural New Jersey -- site of Revolutionary War encampments, a place of pristine American history. He and his wife have a daughter, Meredith, known as "Merry," who seems not to have inherited the great beauty of either parent, though Merry's face is left oddly unportrayed among other palpable faces in the book. Her flaw, however, is not unportrayed: she suffers from a severe stutter. And though her childhood is otherwise idyllic, around the age of fifteen she is suddenly transformed -- "almost overnight" becoming fat, slovenly, contemptuous of her family, and committed to extreme leftist politics. By sixteen, in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, she has become so radicalized as to bomb the general store in her rural village of Old Rimrock (killing a local physician), and goes into hiding, vanishing from her parents' lives.
That brings us almost a third of the way through the novel. The Swede's psychological anguish is described at length, but he takes almost no action, except to meet several times with an emissary of Merry's. The next five years pass in summary, and the remainder of the present-day action -- occupying, along with much flashback, more than half the book's bulk -- takes place in a single afternoon and evening. During this day the Swede's almost-repaired life is brought down with one sweep of the author's hand: he finds Merry, who is now a member of the ascetic Indian sect known as the Jains; learns that it was Merry's Morristown speech therapist who concealed her for the first few days after the bombing; and discovers that his wife is having an affair with her prototypical WASP architect. We, in turn, learn something that has been concealed from us until now: five years before, just after the speech therapist defied federal law by harboring Merry in her home, the Swede himself had an affair with her -- an event for which there is no basis in the Swede's character as we've seen it portrayed.
Thus, on the very day that he meets (and is again spurned by) his fugitive daughter, the Swede also learns that the only two women in his adult life have both wickedly betrayed him. Except for Merry (whom the Swede has left in her Newark hovel, because he can't bring himself to use force on another person), all these people are at the Swede's house for dinner this evening, along with the Swede's mother and father, among others. And then the novel simply ends, without playing out or tying up the various dangling strands.
I HAD expected to enjoy American Pastoral, partly because it's by Philip Roth, partly for personal reasons. Its settings happen to be those of my own life. I, too, was born in Newark, New Jersey. My parents met because their families lived in Weequahic (pronounced, by my family anyway, "Week-wake"), the very section of the city where the fictional Swede Levov (and Roth himself) grew up. My mother attended Weequahic High, though seven years earlier than Roth did. And when my family left Newark, in the white flight from the city during the 1950s, they went to the same countryside of north-central New Jersey, outside Morristown, where the Swede buys his old stone house and sets up as a young country squire. I'm exactly the age of the fictional Merry Levov, so when she hung out on the Morristown green in 1968, I was one of the other sixteen-year-old would-be hippies lying on the grass (though in a more tangible stratum of reality).
But in American Pastoral the idea that a stringy-haired, sputtering sixteen-year-old destroys her father's life with a terrorist bomb reads like a piece of apparatus wheeled in from another novel altogether -- even from another world. It never ceases to feel arbitrary, trumped up, forced upon the poor Swede. This is mostly because the notion seems to have little reality for the author, leaving him to summarize and philosophize rather than dramatize the concrete.
The novel tries to focus intently on the Swede's experience of all this, on his inner life, but the Swede doesn't have much of an inner life. As Zuckerman says, the Swede is a character of great "opacity" -- a simple, stoic, undemonstrative guy, hard to fathom. Beyond his beauty, kindness, and rhapsodic love of America, family, and the glove business, there's not much to tell, yet we're reading a novel whose literary gestalt is not dramatic but analytical and expository. The result is a book that cycles redundantly over well-researched but superfluous history, entertains almost any theory or abstract explanation that comes along in the train of Roth's associations, and attempts to depict the mental anguish of the unreflective Swede Levov with rhetorical questions.
For [Merry], being an American was loathing America, but loving America was something he could not let go of any more than he could have let go of loving his father and his mother, any more than he could have let go of his decency. How could she "hate" this country when she had no conception of this country? How could a child of his be so blind as to revile the "rotten system" that had given her own family every opportunity to succeed? To revile her "capitalist" parents as though their wealth were the product of anything other than the unstinting industry of three generations.
Roth is a masterly prose stylist, of course, and there are many passages of fine language in American Pastoral -- luxuriously detailed descriptions of the author's beloved, doomed Newark, the leather-glove business, the New Jersey countryside, the Miss America pageant, the raising of cattle. And the themes themselves are characteristic of Roth: the trials of ethnic identity, the fate of Old World values transposed to the New World, the wrenching political confusion of recent American history. But these strengths are indulged in a way that becomes the book's weakness. The abstracted treatment of ideas, the weighty, morally serious exposition, result in a novel that holds its material at arm's length from the reader.
A story has to work as a story before it can work as an allegory. If one accepts the novel's dramatic premise and then makes a list of seemingly essential scenes, one finds that very few of them are directly portrayed in the book. Roth is perfectly capable of saying "Lights! Camera! Action!," and on the infrequent occasions when he does, the reader sits up straight, savors the sensation of being in a specific place at a specific moment, and hungrily awaits the drama. And yet many times when a real scene is put on stage for us to witness, it is interrupted by a long, intensely detailed digression. Eventually a miasma of unreality comes to pervade the book. When, five allegedly torturous years after Merry's disappearance, the Swede suddenly learns her whereabouts (she is right in Newark, working in an animal hospital), he drives there (after much deliberation) to wait for her to come out. And as we sit with him in the novel's most momentous moment, waiting for the book's second living legend to walk through a door, Roth launches into a long, dense digression on the history of Newark and the leather-glove industry -- a freight of exposition that, for one thing, we've had several times already, and that, occurring at this instant, leaves us dumbstruck.
Such techniques make much of American Pastoral feel like notes toward a novel rather than a novel itself. Whether one reads the Swede and Merry as people or as stand-ins for an America brought low by self-righteous narcissism, one struggles to locate the novel's final "attitude" toward them. Is Swede Levov a good, innocent man who has the bad luck to become "history's plaything"? Or is there something significantly wrong with the Swede, and thus some ironic distance between his blithely conformist character and the narrator? For that matter, is there ironic distance between Zuckerman the narrator and the author Philip Roth? American Pastoral contains evidence for and against all these possibilities.
One clue may be the alacrity with which Zuckerman rises to his task, his eagerness "to embrace your hero in his destruction." If one steps back to see the book whole, apart from its tangled mechanisms, it seems that one should indeed regard the Swede as a very good man -- a very good man who perhaps must be destroyed because he is not a very good Jew. "By virtue of his isomorphism to the Wasp world," Seymour "Swede" Levov escapes the pain and self-consciousness of being a Jew in America; he passes for WASP, and he apparently cannot be allowed to get away with that. In the end, the Swede's charmed escape from Jewishness -- his simple possession of his own DNA -- seems to be American Pastoral's essential subject and the explanation for the terrible punishment that Philip Roth, god of this chaotic fictive world, inflicts upon his latter-day Job.
Illustration by Michael Morenko