American Pastoral by Philip Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
T. S. Eliot said it clearer.
But, I will grudgingly admit, there were a lot of things to love about this novel, even if I never fell IN love with it.
What I liked most was the transformation of all these identical events from "all-surface" from the beginning to the nearly mad-ramblings of internal monologue by the end. There was no sharp delineation. It was like I was being boiled alive like a lobster, learning that all the good and true things of the world are, in fact, illusion and subterfuge, especially when the actors never stop believing in the lie.
Of course, I'm talking about the great American Lie, and specifically the WASP ethos, and we're never truly allowed to step outside, except in brief spurts of near sexual completion, into the "other" mindset epitomized by Merry. How can any lie hold up when reality ponderously knocks down your gate, after all?
This is America. We're still going through our adolescence. That means we've probably moved on from the more frolicsome and destructive rebellions and moved on to explore more complicated ideologies than marxism or Jainism, but he fact remains that this book is placing all our attention and energies on the many masks we wear and showing us how untenable our polite fictions really are while spending the entire book trying to convince us that the Swede, the All-American Boy, the industry leader, the devoted father, the all-around decent and intelligent guy, is in fact a tragic character, the straw man representing America, itself.
I liked this novel. I really did.
BUT... I've never identified with these people. I've never identified with sports, extroversion, beauty pageants, upholding the grand American Way and Dream. Most of us moderns see through the lies as soon as they slap us in the face, and even more get pissed at the whole crapfest.
But it won the Pulitzer!
So? Maybe it would have more of an effect on someone old enough to remember that there actually WERE people who never had a doubt in the American Dream. Maybe my parents would find this book a lot more disturbing.
But honestly, Merry herself was one hell of a big strawman, too, and I never could believe the lengths she went to. Jainism? Really? Even Jainists in India have a whole culture that supports them and respects them. Without that little nudge, a Jainist here would have crumbled into dust in a shorter time than this. Five years? And the end of the novel? Come on. I never believed Merry to be as heartless and cruel as her father makes her out to be. He never tried to understand her, and brought this tragedy upon them all.
All right. I know that's a bald-face assertion that might or might not be upheld in the text, but I got the distinct impression that Mr. Roth is presenting us with a hugely persuasive novel. I mean persuasive in the way that I mean he's trying to slam home an idea into our noggins, not that I've been persuaded. He's a meme pusher, and he's trying to evoke a pervasive pathos for the loss of Americana at all costs.
Do I think he's writing from the heart? OR do I think he's a calculating and crafty writer piling in nostalgia and lost dreams for the sake of a cold and callus effect?
Honestly, there were times that I was charmed, but most of the time, I thought was going through an indoctrination/breakdown/indoctrination, watching as the sand I had been told was super valuable trickled from my shaking hands.
So no, I think the writing is fantastic, but I don't, after reflection, think that I like this novel.
I will give it one thing: It balanced a fine edge of hope and despair.
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