Saturday, July 22, 2017

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This is the first Philip Roth that I have read, and I suppose that I’ll read more, although I’ve been hearing lately about how dark and nihilistic he can be. American Pastoral certainly has its darkness and its nihilism, but I think it also attempting to do something profound.

I was ten and I had never read anything like it. The cruelty of life. The injustice of it. I could not believe it. The reprehensible member of the Dodgers is Razzle Nugent, a great pitcher but a drunk and a hothead, a violent bully fiercely jealous of the Kid. And yet it is not Razzle carried off “inert” on a stretcher but the best of them all, the farm orphan called the Kid, modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hard-working, soft-spoken, courageous, a brilliant athlete, a beautiful, austere boy.

This is on page 9, and our first-person narrator (who seems to disappear as the novel wears on) is reflecting on a baseball morality play that made a big impact on his young mind. As he continues, he speculates on what the lessons of the book might mean for our actual protagonist, a boyhood hero of the narrator nicknamed the Swede.

Needless to say, I thought of the Swede and the Kid as one and wondered how the Swede could bear to read this book that had left me near tears and unable to sleep. Had I the courage to address him, I would have asked if he thought the ending meant the Kid was finished or whether it meant the possibility of yet another comeback. The word “inert” terrified me. Was the Kid killed by the last catch of the year? Did the Swede know? Did he care? Did it occur to him that if disaster could strike down the Kid from Tomkinsville, it could come and strike the great Swede down too? Or was a book about a sweet star savagely and unjustly punished -- a book about a greatly gifted innocent whose worst fault is a tendency to keep his right shoulder down and swing up but whom the thundering heavens destroy nonetheless -- simply a book between those “Thinker” bookends up on his shelf?

The book our narrator is referring to is called The Kid from Tomkinsville (although even he contemplates that it could have better been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville or even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter), but, of course, behind him it is Roth referring to American Pastoral. The Swede -- Seymour Irving Levov -- is the Kid, in the sense that the Swede is also a “sweet star savagely and unjustly punished,” but that juxtaposition is not the profound thing that Roth is trying to do. For that, we have to understand that the Swede is not just a man, but an entire generation of Americans, and that the thing that brings him down, is not cruel fate, but the beloved generation that follows them.

But before going there, Roth offers the reader a caution. He doesn’t know if he can actually succeed in doing what he’s attempting to do.

An Astonishing Farce of Misperception

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.

Roth can’t truly know the subject of his own book, just, as we will come to see, the two characters within it who come to represent the older and younger generations of America -- Swede Levov and his daughter Merry -- can’t truly know each other. It is the desire to know, and the inability to doing so, that creates the bitter tragedy.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior working and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.

And don’t try to take sides, Roth seems to caution us. One is not right and the other wrong -- or at least there is no way for us to tell, given our basic ignorance of another’s interior working and invisible aims. Better to just go along for the ride.

The American Pastoral and the American Berserk

Here’s the passage that gives you the clue you need to decipher Roth’s profundity.

The disruption of the anticipated American future that was simply to have unrolled out of the solid American past, out of each generation’s getting smarter -- smarter for knowing the inadequacies and limitations of the generations before -- out of each new generation’s breaking away from the parochialism a little further, out of desire to go the limit in America with your rights, forming yourself as an ideal person who gets rid of the traditional Jewish habits and attitudes, who frees himself of the pre-America insecurities and the old, constraining obsessions so as to live unapologetically as an equal among equals.

This is Swede Levov, the child of Jewish immigrants, a generation of people embracing the American dream and all of its totems and rituals.

And then the loss of the daughter, the fourth American generation, a daughter on the run who was to have been the perfected image of himself as he had been the perfected image of his father, and his father the perfected image of his father’s father … the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive -- initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral -- into the indigenous American berserk.

And this is Merry, the radical, a generation of people disillusioned with the very totems and rituals that define the generation that came before.

In the course of the novel we will discover that Merry took her radicalization seriously, bombing a drugstore in her hometown, killing the proprietor, and spending years on the run and out of touch with her father -- all as a protest against his politics, his country, his generation, him.

And we will also discover that, for these things, the Swede can only blame himself.

I am thinking of the Swede and of what happened to his country in a mere twenty-five years, between the triumphant days at wartime Weequahic High and the explosion of his daughter’s bomb in 1968, of that mysterious, troubling, extraordinary historical transition. I am thinking of the sixties and of the disorder occasioned by the Vietnam War, of how certain families lost their kids and certain families didn’t and how the Seymour Levovs were one of those that did -- families full of tolerance and kindly, well-intentioned liberal goodwill, and theirs were the kids who went on a rampage, or went to jail, or disappeared underground, or fled to Sweden or Canada. I am thinking of the Swede’s great fall and of how he must have imagined that it was founded on some failure of his own responsibility. There is where it must begin. It doesn’t matter if he was the cause of anything. He makes himself responsible anyway. He has been doing that all his life, making himself unnaturally responsible, keeping under control not just himself but whatever else threatens to be uncontrollable, giving his all to keep his world together. Yes, the cause of the disaster has for him to be a transgression. How else would the Swede explain it to himself? It has to be a transgression, a single transgression, even if it is only he who identifies it as a transgression. The disaster that befalls him begins in a failure of his responsibility, as he imagines it.

But, perhaps as you can begin to see even in that excerpt, it is always important in this novel not to view Seymour and Merry Levov as individuals -- as people that Roth has told us we are incapable of truly knowing anyway -- but as generations, wrestling with each other for the soul of America. The Swede, in blaming himself, embodies the mindset of an aspirational generation, while Merry, in rejecting all that her father has arranged and decoded for her, embodies the mindset of a nihilistic one -- the American pastoral versus the American berserk.

Because what is it, exactly, that Merry finds so objectionable about her father, that the young generation finds so objectionable about the older? The narrator alludes to it when he meets the Swede for dinner as adults in the opening pages.

I was impressed, as the meal wore on, by how assured he seemed of everything commonplace he said, and how everything he said was suffused by his good nature. I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he has instead of a being, I thought, is blandness -- the guy’s radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him. Several times during the meal I didn’t think I was going to make it, didn’t think I’d get to dessert if he was going to keep praising his family and praising his family … until I began to wonder if it wasn’t that he was incognito but that he was mad.

And the Swede’s brother throws it in his face much deeper in the novel.

“No, you’re not the renegade. You’re the one who does everything right.”

“I don’t follow this. You say that like an insult.” Angrily [the Swede] says, “What the hell is wrong with doing things right?”

“Nothing. Nothing. Except that’s what your daughter has been blasting away at all her life. You don’t reveal yourself to people, Seymour. You keep yourself a secret. Nobody knows what you are. You certainly never let her know who you are. That’s what she’s been blasting away at -- that facade. All your fucking norms. Take a good look at what he did to your norms.”

“I don’t know what you want from me. You’ve always been too smart for me. Is this your response? Is this it?”

“You win the trophy. You always make the right move. You’re loved by everybody. You marry Miss New Jersey, for God’s sake. There’s thinking for you. Why did you marry her? For the appearance. Why do you do everything? For the appearance!”

The Swede is a man so swamped in the cultural ideal of his generation that nothing individual, nothing messy, nothing radical, ever swims to the surface.

There is a powerful scene early in the novel that illustrates the Swede’s need for this control, for this all-consuming normality, and the hidden frailty that secretly lives within him, the shattered self he can show no one but which is a direct result of Merry’s betrayal. He is giving a young woman named Rita a tour of his family’s glove manufacturing business, and Roth dives deep into Melvillian detail as the Swede discusses, demonstrates, and diagrams both the art and science that is glove making. It goes on for so long, and in so much obsessive detail, that I began to wonder what it all meant. It’s clearly not just an interlude. And then this.

This is the silking, that’s a story in itself, but this is what she’s going to do first. … This is called a piqué machine, it sews the finest stitch, called piqué, requires far more skill than the other stitches. … This is called a polishing machine and that is called a stretcher and you are called honey and I am called Daddy and this is called living and the other is called dying and this is called madness and this is called mourning and this is called hell, pure hell, and you have to have strong ties to be able to stick it out, this is called trying-to-go-on-as-though-nothing-has-happened and this is called wanting-to-be-dead-and-wanting-to-find-her-and-to-kill-her-and-to-save-her-from-whatever-she-is-going-through-wherever-on-earth-she-may-be-at-this-moment, this unbridled outpouring is called blotting-out-everything and is does not work, I am half insane, the shattering force of that bomb is too great. … And then they were back at his office again, waiting for Rita’s gloves to come from the finishing department, and he was repeating to her a favorite observation of his father’s, one that his father has read somewhere and always used to impress visitors, and he heard himself repeating it, word for word, as his own.

There’s a kind a sad beauty in both this device and Roth’s writing. It’s one of those rare moments in literature where something is set-up and the unexpected pay-off delivers seven-fold. It really captures of emotion of the Swede’s impossible situation.

The Awfulness of Her Terrible Autonomy

That’s a phrase I circled when I encountered it on the page. Much of the novel will be consumed by the Swede’s consuming obsession, and his inability to understand his daughter’s actions.

Nor could he say he hated his daughter for what she had done -- if he could! If only, instead of living chaotically in the world where she wasn’t and in the world where she once was and in the world where she might now be, he could come to hate her enough not to care anything about her world, then or now. If only he could be back thinking like everybody else, once again the totally natural man instead of this riven charlatan of sincerity, an artless outer Swede and a tormented inner Swede, a visible stable Swede and a concealed beleaguered Swede, an easygoing, smiling sham Swede enshrouding the Swede buried alive. If only he could even faintly reconstitute the undivided oneness of existence that had made for his straightforward physical confidence and freedom before he became the father of an alleged murderer. If only he could be as unknowing as some people perceived him to be -- if only he could be as perfectly simple as the legend of Swede Levov concocted by the hero-worshipping kids of his day. If only he could say, “I hate this house!” and be Weequahic’s Swede Levov again. If he could say, “I hate that child! I never want to see her again!” and then go ahead, disown her, forevermore despise and reject her and the vision for which she was willing, if not to kill, then to cruelly abandon her own family, a vision having nothing whatsoever to do with “ideals” but with dishonesty, criminality, megalomania, and insanity. Blind antagonism and an infantile desire to menace -- those were her ideals. In search always of something to hate. Yes, it went way, way beyond her stuttering. That violent hatred of America was a disease unto itself. And he loved America. Loved being an American. But back then he hadn’t dared begin to explain to her why he did, for fear of unleashing the demon, insult. They lived in dread of Merry’s stuttering tongue. And by then he had no influence anyway. [His wife] Dawn had no influence. His parents had no influence. In what way was she “his” any longer if she hadn’t even been his then, certainly not his if to drive her into her frightening blitzkrieg mentality it required no more than for her own father to begin to explain why his affections happened to be for the country where he’d been born and raised. Stuttering, sputtering little bitch! Who the fuck did she think she was?

Pages and pages of this: self abuse, shame, and torment. He loves her. He hates her. He can’t understand her.

Hate America? Why, he lived in America the way he lived inside his own skin. All the pleasures of his younger years were American pleasures, all that success and happiness had been American, and he need no longer keep his mouth shut about it just to defuse her ignorant hatred. The loneliness he would feel as a man without all his American feelings. The longing he would feel if he had to live in another country. Yes, everything that gave meaning to his accomplishments had been American. Everything he loved was here.

The voice of one generation. Struggling to understand the mind of another.

For her, 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. The men of three generation, including even himself, slogging through the slime and stink of a tannery. The family that started out in a tannery, at one with, side by side with, the lowest of the low -- now to her “capitalist dogs.” There wasn’t much difference, and she knew it, between hating America and hating them. He loved the America she hated and blamed for everything that was imperfect in life and wanted violently to overturn, he loved the “bourgeois values” she hated and ridiculed and wanted to subvert, he loved the mother she hated and had all but murdered by doing what she did. Ignorant little fucking bitch! The price they had paid!

And all of it -- the Swede and Merry, the two generations they represent, the American Pastoral and the American Berserk -- Roth ruthlessly allows all of it to circle high above the reader like a desert scavenger, only and always to eventually come down to feed on that one powerful phrase. The awfulness of her terrible autonomy. We do what we want. And there is nothing, not even generations of toil and fealty to a dream, that can stop us.

The Kiss

At first, I was not going to include this, both because I didn’t think it was crucial to one’s understanding of the novel, and because I wasn’t sure I could adequately convey its subtle subversion. But as I reflect back on the novel, re-reading all the pages I’ve dog-eared and passages I’ve underlined, I’ve come to realize I do have to address it.

I found him in Deal, New Jersey, at the seaside cottage, the summer his daughter was eleven, back when she couldn’t stay out of his lap or stop calling him by cute pet names, couldn’t “resist,” as she put it, examining with the tip of her finger the close way his ears were fitted to his skull.

This is the narrator again, looking into the life of the Swede as a grown man, not “as a god or a demigod whose triumphs one could exult as a boy but his life as another assailable man.”

Wrapped in a towel, she would run through the house and out to the clothesline to fetch a dry bathing suit, shouting as she went, “Nobody look!” and several evenings she had barged into the bathroom where he was bathing and, when she saw him, cried out, “Oh, pardonnez-moi -- j’ai pensé que--” “Scram,” he told her, “get-outahere-moi.”

She, of course, is Merry, and the time is one of innocent and adoring love.

Driving along with him back from the beach one day that summer, dopily sun-drunk, lolling against his bare shoulder, she had turned up her face and, half innocently, half audaciously, precociously playing the grown-up girl, said, “Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother.”

Merry is eleven and, as described earlier, suffering with an awkward stutter.

Sun-drunk himself, voluptuously fatigued from rolling all morning with her in the heavy surf, he had looked down to see that one of the shoulder straps of her swimsuit had dropped over her arm, and there was her nipple, the hard red bee bite that was her nipple. “N-n-no,” he said -- and stunned them both. “And fix your suit,” he added feebly. Soundlessly she obeyed.

It was stunning because the Swede had made fun of her stammer, something he had never done before, something he had previously seemed incapable of doing. He immediately regrets it.

“I’m sorry, cookie--” “Oh, I deserve it,” she said, trying with all her might to hold back her tears and be his chirpingly charming pal again. “It’s the same at school. It’s the same with my friends. I get started with something and I can’t stop. I just get c-c-carried awuh-awuh-awuh-awuh--”

To deepen the sense of betrayal, Roth next gives us the following long paragraph.

It was a while since he’d seen her turn white like that or seen her face contorted like that. She fought for the word longer than, on that particular day, he could possibly bear. “Awuh-awuh--” And yet he knew better than anyone what not to do when, as Merry put it, she “started phumphing to beat the band.” He was the parent she could always rely on not to jump all over her every time she opened her mouth. “Cool it,” he would tell Dawn, “relax, lay off her,” but Dawn could not help herself. Merry began to stutter badly and Dawn’s hands were clasped at her waist and her eyes fixed on the child’s lips, eyes that said, “I know you can do it!” while saying, “I know that you can’t!” Merry’s stuttering just killed her mother, and that killed Merry. “I’m not the problem -- Mother is!” And so was the teacher the problem when she tried to spare Merry by not calling on her. So was everybody the problem when they started feeling sorry for her. And when she was fluent suddenly and free of stuttering, the problem were the compliments. She resented terribly being praised for fluency, and as soon as she was praised she lost it completely -- sometimes, Merry would say, to the point that she was afraid “I’m going to short out my whole system.” Amazing how this child could summon up the strength to joke about it -- his precious lighthearted jokester! If only it were within Dawn’s power to become a little lighthearted about it herself. But it was the Swede alone who could always manage to be close to perfect with her, though even he had all he could do not to cry out in exasperation, “If you dare the gods and are fluent, what terrible thing do you think will happen?” The exasperation never surfaced: he did not wring his hands like her mother, when she was in trouble he did not watch her lips or mouth her words with her like her mother, he did not turn her, every time she spoke, into the most important person not merely in the room bu in the entire world -- he did everything he could not to make her stigma into Merry’s way of being Einstein. Instead his eyes assured her that he would do all he could to help but that when she was with him she must stutter freely if she needed to. And yet he had said to her, “N-n-no.” He had done what Dawn would rather die than do -- he had made fun of her.


There’s so much here. The competition between a mother and a daughter; the love between a daughter and a father; the struggle of a child to understand what growing up means; the struggle of a parent to keep from shaping children in an idealized image. Universals, all; and all expertly bundled together in this little vignette about a beach cottage and an adolescent stammer. There’s so much here, but there’s so much more to come.

“Oh, cookie,” he said, and at just the moment when he had understood that the summer’s mutual, seemingly harmless playacting -- the two of them nibbling at an intimacy too enjoyable to swear off and yet not in any way to be taken seriously, to be much concerned with, to be given an excessive significance, something utterly uncarnal that would fade away once the vacation was over and she was in school all day and he had returned to work, nothing that they couldn’t easily find their way back from -- just when he had come to understand that the summer romance required some readjusting all around, he lost his vaunted sense of proportion, drew her to him with one arm, and kissed her stammering mouth with the passion that she had been asking him for all month long while knowing only obscurely what she was asking for.

Yes. That. A single but singularly horrific lapse of parental judgment and betrayal.

Was he supposed to feel that way? It happened before he could think. She was only eleven. Momentarily it was frightening. This was not anything he had ever worried about for a second, this was a taboo that you didn’t even think of as a taboo, something you are prohibited from doing that felt absolutely natural not to do, you just proceeded effortlessly -- and then, however momentarily, this.

When I first read this, I really struggled with it. Despite Roth’s elaborate context and the self-tortured inner dialogue he provides the Swede, the kiss still feels out of place. It goes too far. As my college creative writing teacher would have said, he hasn’t earned it.

Never in his entire life, not as a son, a husband, a father, even as an employer, had he given way to anything so alien to the emotional rules by which he was governed, and later he wondered if this strange parental misstep was not the lapse from responsibility for which he paid for the rest of his life. The kiss bore no resemblance to anything serious, was not an imitation of anything, had never been repeated, had itself lasted five seconds … ten at most … but after the disaster, when he went obsessively searching for the origins of their suffering, it was that anomalous moment -- when she was eleven and he was thirty-six and the two of them, all stirred up by the strong sea and the hot sun, were heading happily home alone from the beach -- that he remembered.

And it does fill that niche in the story. The Swede, as we have seen, desperate both to blame himself and to find the reason for “the disaster,” for Merry’s radicalization and her bombing of the local drugstore, will obsess and obsess and obsess some more over this transgression.

Did it have to do with him? That foolish kiss? That was ten years behind them, and besides, it had been nothing, had come to nothing, did not appear to have meant anything much to her even at the time. Could something as meaningless, as commonplace, as ephemeral, as understandable, as forgivable, as innocent … No! How could he be asked again and again to take seriously things that were not serious? Yet that was the predicament that Merry had forced on him all the way back when she was blasting away at the dinner table about the immorality of their bourgeois life. How could anybody take that childish ranting seriously? He had done as well as any parent could have -- he had listened and listened when it was all he could do not to get up from dinner and walk away until she’d spewed herself out; he had nodded and agreed to as much as he could even marginally agree to, and when he opposed her -- say, about the moral efficacy of the profit motive -- always it was with restraint, with all the patient reasonableness he could muster. And this was not easy for him, given that it was the profit motive to which a child requiring tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of orthodontia, psychiatry, and speech therapy -- not to mention ballet lessons and riding lessons and tennis lessons, all of which, growing up, she at one time or another was convinced she could not survive without -- might be thought to owe if not a certain allegiance then at least a minuscule portion of gratitude. Perhaps the mistake was to have tried so hard to take seriously what was in no way serious; perhaps what he should have done, instead of listening so intently, so respectfully, to her ignorant raving was to reach over the table and whack her across the mouth.

But what would that have taught her about the profit motive -- what would it have taught her about him? Yet if he had, if, then the veiled mouth could be taken seriously. He could now berate himself, “Yes, I did it to her, I did it with my outbursts, my temper.” But it seemed as though he had done whatever had been done to her because he could not abide a temper, had not wanted on or dared to have one. He had done it by kissing her. But that couldn’t be. None of this could possibly be.

But then I began to think about the novel’s larger canvas, about how the Swede and Merry represented two generations in the American story, the Swede’s humble with its self-importance and Merry’s angry at how easy everything seems to be. And through this lens, the kiss takes on a more metaphoric meaning. The Swede’s generation loves its children, will do anything to keep it from pain and danger, but, in removing the struggle from their lives removes the very thing that builds the kind of character they esteem most. They love. But they don’t parent.

The Swede’s father gets it.

“I remember when Jewish kids were home doing their homework. What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run away from no-oppression. Once they ran away from being poor; now they run away from being rich. It’s crazy. They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are so good to them, so they hate America instead.”

The tragedy of American Pastoral is that the Swede, and his generation, never does.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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