Sheila pretended to be listening intently to every word Dawn spoke. She had to be pretending. Not even she could have recovered so completely from the eruption in Dawn's study. If she had - well, it would be hard then to say what sort of woman she was. She was nothing like the one he had imagined. And that was not because she had been passing herself off with him as something else or somebody else but because he had understood her no better than he was able to understand anyone. How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity that he did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everyone who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everyone who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everyone who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress - probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all of the signs he flashed? People were standing up everywhere shouting, "This is me! This is me!" Every time you looked at them they stood up and told you who they were, and the truth of it was that they had no more idea who or what they were than he had. They believed their flashing signs, too. They ought to be standing up and shouting, "This isn't me! This isn't me!" They would if they had any decency. "This isn't me!" Then you might know how to proceed through the flashing bullshit of this world.
Hardcover: Published by Houghton Mifflin on June 1, 1997, 423 pages (ISBN: 0395860210)
Softcover: Published by Vintage on February 3, 1998, 432 pages (ISBN: 0375701427)
1998 Pulitzer Prize winner - Fiction
American Pastoral is a novel that the author seems to not want you to like. The protagonist comes off as the type of simpleton that everyone despises - the type of person who has everything come so easy for him, it all falls right into his lap without his conscious realization of how lucky he is. The primary antagonist is a spoiled sixteen year old girl who commits an act of terrorism without understanding why she's doing it. Caught in the middle is the man's wife and the girl's mother, a woman drenched in superficiality but tries desperately to act as though this isn't the case. Even better, the characters don't really seem to change all that much, other than a realization by the main character that - get this - people aren't always what they seem. Beyond that, the novel regularly flies off into many sidebar discussions about everything from cattle farming to the logic of connecting a garage to a house.
By the end of the novel the first time through, I detested every major character in the novel and I found the sidebar portions nearly as aggravating as the characters. I closed the book, looked at it, and immediately put it in a box to take to Goodwill. Pure rubbish, I thought to myself, greatly disappointed in the book as I had liked another of Roth's works quite a lot.
* * * * *
American Pastoral sat there in my box of Goodwill items much as it sat in the back of my mind. It was a lump of words in both places, not really adding any meaning whatsoever to my existence. Simply a pile of pages, thoughts pressed to paper by someone else, and in such a way that they didn't become a part of me like greater novels seem to do.
Yet every once in a while, my mind would turn to Swede Levov, that simple Jewish man at the center of American Pastoral. He managed to find his way into an existence on that plane of my mind where literary characters seem to go, where you might find Leopold Bloom sharing a pint with Roland of Gilead. The Swede would be in there at a corner table, usually by himself, reflecting on a life totally gone awry. Worry lines had snuck across the man's face, replacing what had been a youthful glow just a few years before with the gaunt appearance of a man who had the dark realities of the world dropped upon him out of the blue.
The Swede is really the core of this novel. He is the all-American boy, raised to embody the hopes of a community and forged with a deep sense of decorum. He is one of those people who remains blessedly conservative, no matter what his political views might be: always full of polite conversation, careful to steer clear of any problems, clean cut in appearance and presentation at all times.
It is this image of Swede Levov, a shiny outer surface with a storm tearing asunder the riggings behind it, that brought me back to American Pastoral. After two years in a big box in the closet, I dug through the menagerie of items in there, past the old clothes and nearly moth-eaten sweaters, through the compact discs of bands who failed to say anything much at all, down into the deepest recesses of the box.
And I gave the novel another shot.
* * * * *
Literature, at least in the form of the novel, so often includes lengthy sidebar discussions on all sorts of things, often making me, The Reader, wonder whether or not this is an attempt to sneak an essay on cattle farming written by an urbanite into some sort of published form. Quite often, these side "essays" come off as being the type of material that would have been rejected on their own by numerous magazines and publications, leaving the writer sitting at home with his pile of rejection letters, wondering where it all went wrong.
I understand conceptually how many sidebar discussions fit into novels: they often provide some of the fine brushstrokes of characterization, or they add an additional dimension to the setting of the tale at hand. Yet so often novelists, particularly those that are considered Great Novelists (like Mr. Roth here), often find themselves in old age relying too strongly on this side essay technique.
American Pastoral seems to flail in many places because of this, but it wasn't until a second reading of the novel that I understood the real purpose of many of these essays.
This whole novel is about hypocrisy.
* * * * *
The entire novel is a continual revelation that the person on the surface has no real connection whatsoever to the person underneath the surface. We are all wearing masks, and quite often the sidebar discussions in this novel merely serve to illustrate each mask in detail.
Take Dawn Levov, for example. The Swede's wife repeatedly reiterates her desire to distance herself from the fact that she was Miss New Jersey 1949, and as part of this mask she becomes a small-scale cattle farmer. Yet this is all a mask; as Dawn's character is slowly revealed, layer by layer, a great deal of her own self-image is based around this fact. She becomes consumed with a perpetual desire to remain young as the novel wears on, to the exclusion of every value that has been constructed in her life. It all has a nice veneer to it, but what's underneath all of that?
It is this battle between the surface of people and what is underneath that that serves as the main conflict of the novel, and it is personified by Swede and his daughter Merry. The Swede believes in what's on the surface to the point that he is defined by what's on the surface, whereas Merry is much the opposite of that.
I suppose the real question of the novel is what's more important: the appearance of the American dream or what's inside of it.
* * * * *
American Pastoral is clunky and awkward and stumbles over itself. It breaks off and breaks down time and time again, and often the reader is so filled with frustration at the lack of any sort of direction that one wants to simply toss the book aside.
But there is this deep element of truth there. Through all the literary muck and meandering, somehow this book digs into some deep aspects of American life. Roth, through all of his stumbling and casting about through this novel, manages to dowse his way into a deep and secret fountain. And it's worth the trip to get there.
American Pastoral is well worth the effort that goes into reading it. Just don't expect it to unfold before you like a red carpet. It can be a challenging read.
American Pastoral in the movies
Since shortly after its publication, a film adaptation of American Pastoral has been in development. It is currently targeted for a 2007 release and will star real life husband and wife Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany as Dawn and Swede Levov, along with Evan Rachel Wood as their daughter Merry. The adaptation was written by John Romano and the film will be directed by Phil Noyce and produced by Lakeshore Entertainment.
Surprisingly, I feel this novel will make a very solid film; once much of the sidebar discussion is stripped away, you have a handful of strongly-drawn characters. The film's feel likely will be much like American Beauty, because both works tackle the idea of false surfaces in American life.