book clubbing:American Pastoral (1998)

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I spent countless hours in bookshops. I love independent bookshops like the London Review where everything is carefully selected and the staff will help you find something totally to your taste, but my favourite bookshops are probably secondhand bookshops, stacked high with all sorts. You feel like you’ve done something satisfactory when you come home with a big pile of exciting new things to read. And they’re good places for weird old books on crafts and preserving and stuff, too. One of my bartenders has a girlfriend who is always amazed when she asks where I got a piece of clothing from and I say ‘oh this? three quid, charity shop.’ I can honestly say that nine times out of ten if you asked me that about the book in my hands I’d probably have the same answer.

Perhaps it’s a hangover from childhood, where my mum said the only way to afford the amount of books I read was to buy them secondhand. Honestly though, I think there’s some weight behind the fact these shops are entirely random in nature. You never know what’s coming into stock; what’ll be there one day to the next. They’ll likely never have an author’s complete oeuvre, and you have to have quite a huge to-read list if you’re going into one with the idea that you’ll pick something up from it. Luckily I do. And honestly, my to-read list has things on it for many reasons, but a large portion of it is ‘authors I feel I should read because my literary scope, even after four years of study still feels absolutely limited’. Names you hear banded about in conversation a lot to the point where you’re like ‘I should read some of that so I can figure out what on earth everyone else is on about.’ Part of me wishes I was joking, but no. My desire too have a solid personal canon of works under my belt to work from is a pretty major literature purchasing influence. And that’s why trawling the higgledy piggledy stacks of secondhand bookshops is so satisfying; it’s easy to bump into these names here and there, to pick up books by them in a completely context-free setup that allows you to discover them newly and without influence. It’s interesting.

And it’s how I encountered Philip Roth for the first time. I picked up American Pastoral for probably about two pounds thinking, ‘here is one of those American authors I have never read that I probably should, let’s give this a go.’ it seems almost silly to write it out, but it’s true. But it’s great, because I ended up really enjoying the book, surprising myself in the process.

At the outset, I was pretty convinced I wouldn’t enjoy the book. I started reading all these rose-tinted descriptions of the narrator’s schooldays and the exploits of all star school athlete Swede Levov, and found myself grimacing, wondering how much of the narrator’s adulation I’d have to endure, thinking the schoolboy penis envy was a bit much, really. But a narrative shift happens eventually, the perfect suburban life Swede Levov has bought himself into comes completely under scrutiny, and you finally find your sympathies and values tested as a reader. The canonization of Levov was a necessary warm up, you realize. You needed to see him through that lens of American heroism before you could fully understand as a reader the point the novel was driving home about the abrupt disruption of those values that happened in the second half of the 20th century. You were supposed to be as envious and irritated and admiring as the narrator and his schoolmates before you could have the whole thing unpicked and explored.

So the skinny is that Swede Levov is an all star school athlete, goes and fights in the second world war, takes over his family business rather than going into anything athletic full time, marries the former Miss New Jersey who he lives in suburban bliss with in Newark, has a daughter, Merry, who in protest against the Vietnam War, blows up the local post office slash store and kills the local doctor in the process, smashing the self-made American family dream in the process. And the thing is, it seems like a simple story, a story that could have several sympathetic entry points for a reader, along with several figures and ideals to feel contempt for. But the smart thing about Roth is at any given time in the book he makes you feel for all of them or none of them.

The book is an exploration of how, in just one generation, the dream of being a self-made American, living peacefully in America, doing wholesome American business and having a wholesome American leisure life, becomes the ultimate nightmare and oppressive state. There are several social theorists who could present cut and dried mid-20th century arguments for how, but Roth’s interrogation is through the eyes of a son-of-an-immigrant father who doesn’t know what he was guilty of, who is looking hard at the life he built for his family, the life that he was supposed to build according to the principles of America, and trying to figure out what exactly made it all come crashing down. It’s far from cut and dried.

The father daughter relationship is never a simple one. I speak from experience, being someone’s daughter and having had my own bleak and total moments of rejecting what is probably the English Pastoral that was created for me. Roth demonstrates it in all its complexity: the journey from the father being the favourite parent to becoming the tyrant oppressor, the journey that’s normal for all young girls. The fine toothed comb that Levov rakes over this relationship with, trying to see where he fucked up, is absolutely heartbreaking. the accusations he levels at himself for being a businessman, for marrying a woman for just how beautiful and American she seemed to him, they made even a father-hardened reader like me feel agonizingly sympathetic to him.

And seeing his wife, Dawn’s attempts to come to terms with her post beauty pageant existence is equally heartbreaking. She resents the whole process; the Miss new Jersey lens people view her through, the fact her later pursuit of breeding cows is not taken seriously, the fact her daughter resents what she is emblematic of.  After Merry’s bombing and disappearance she breaks down, rails against Levov for the life he has created too, turns to plastic surgery, interior design, and affairs (a suburban holy trinity if ever there was one) to recover. On paper this seems like a recipe for a terrible character, a figure created to act as a contempt -foil to Swede Levov, but no one in the book is that easy to write off; and our Swede is not without fault in all this, resorting to an affair before Dawn. There are no villains in this book in the same way that there are no heroes.

The book ends in asking the ultimate question, holding up the life of the Levovs and asking us, the readers, to comment on how reprehensible it really is. It’s not an easy question to answer; the lives are remarkable and unremarkable at the same time; nothing that is outlined by Roth in technicolour detail is abnormal behaviour, and everybody, but everybody means so well that even though everything falls down in a huge screaming heap, it’s incredibly difficult to start pointing fingers and laying judgement. The tragedy of the story is that it’s everyone’s, it’s  picture of America where everyone and no one is at fault, and the reader is left without a convenient figure to hate and blame.

Also; and I think it’s worth a mention: this review was written to the sounds of this incredibly apt suburbs playlist by the girls at Rookie magazine.

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