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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Started 4/12, finished 5/1

"...I dreamed a realistic chronicle." (page 89). To me, that's the key, the frame story that makes American Pastoral interesting. The whole thing is fiction, yet we are told by the narrator that since the main character is dead and cannot tell the story himself, the story must be fabricated from whole cloth in order to be understood. And I ask myself, "why should it matter? You knew you were reading a work of fiction, so why should it matter that the narrator is making up the story he's telling you? Even without the frame, it would still be made up, wouldn't it?"


What makes it important is if you're already a reader of Roth's works. Nathan "Skip" Zuckerman is a recurring character, and (not having read any of "his" works) I'm just gonna go out on a limb and assume he has his own way of doing things. In reading some reviews of Roth's other works, I came across a dialogue Roth writes between himself (also a frequent quasi-fictional narrator of his fiction) and Zuckerman. In it, Zuckerman relentlessly questions and needles Roth, challenging him on assertions made in his memoirs, his place in literary history, and his every assumption about the nature of his talent. Zuckerman is an alter ego, and through him we're able to get a picture of how he feels about his subject, "The Swede", and this colors what we read during the sympathetic portrait that follows. The depth Roth is able to explore while writing in Skip's voice is rich and skeptical. When we're later presented with a POV from the Swede himself, it's through Zuckerman, through Roth that we are able to admire how thoroughly Roth understands his craft. His talent is staggering.

I think the plot is tertiary in this book. Rage against suburbia, the ultimate banality of the American Ideal, any number of other things are candidates for what's more important. Tying them all together is the effortless style of an old codger who's been at this long enough that he doesn't need to explain himself. It begins at the end, then wanders back to just after the beginning, then ends just after the climax.

The primary question the book asks me, being a new parent and terrified of the future, is this: what do you do if you end up with a kid you don't like? You're someone who has worked hard to parlay the privilege you've been given, to turn it into gold. You marry a beauty queen, ignoring that she has tried all her life to run from her looks. You were a star athelete in your county, to the degree that, well into your 60s, people recognize you for how well you threw the ball, your prowess on the field.

Your child? A depressed, destructively overweight political activist who hates everything you stand for and everything your country (as you imagine it) was founded upon. She has a speech impediment to boot. She rejects the privilege. Rather than listen, you just pretend she is what she was when she was 12. One morning she disappears, leaving a blown-up general store in her wake. You now have to find out who you are, and how you could have gotten everything so very, very wrong.

You see, I'm terrified of exactly that. My kid is still in a "perfect" state, completely uncorrupted and uninfluenced. I have smatterings of what his personality may be like in the end, but no hard evidence, no tangible preview. The Swede's daughter was fourteen or so before he even recognized there was something wrong. I am the father of a child who could turn out so differently from what I would want. I would like to think my viewpoint is much wider than the Swede's, allowing me to accept it much better than he did. In fact, I fancy myself that different is better than normal, that if he turns out to be something I don't like I'll be able to change what I like so I can still like my son. I think it's the Swede's resistance to his daughter's differences that persuades her to cross over from activist to murderer--that is a mistake I won't make. Or will I? It's terrifying. The Swede's family and friends frequently make the comment that it "would have been better if she had died". Once the gate has swung and people are dead, it's easy for me to look into the book and try to convince him that they're right. But that's not my kid. My boy. I can't see wishing him dead if he were Herman Hesse. Truth is, I might fall apart the same way.

It's troubling.

Book #13 will be The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov.



Blogger Jess said...

My kid is still in a "perfect" state, completely uncorrupted and uninfluenced.

He's like Schroedinger's kid!

Wed May 17, 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger incandragon said...

My grandmother once said, "It's different when it's your own child. It's much worse."

I think of that sometimes. It sounded like a joke, because people say that all the heartache and whatnot is worth it ... because it's your own child. But what she *meant* that all the weight and responsibility is tiring, and worrying, and scary. And you can't let it go.

Wed May 17, 12:22:00 PM  

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