Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

First published:- 1997

Star rating:-
Read in:- From September to December, 2013

A quick perusal of my 'In-By-About-America' shelf will reveal a wide variety of titles ranging from popular fiction by the likes of Stephen King to the brand of post-modernist razzmatazz by the wonderfully perplexing Pynchon. Yet none of those books seem as American to me as American Pastoral is. Forget all the Great American Novels which swoop down on some of the 'Great American Issues' (this term is my invention yes!) like the Great Depression, racism, slavery, brutal and merciless killing of the Native Americans in the US-Mexican borderlands. Forget the illustrious names like To kill a mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, The Great Gatsby, Blood Meridian and the other works which constitute the edifice of classic American literature. Even though every one of them focus either on watershed events in American history or relevant socio-cultural issues which form the basis of America's national identity, none of them are so glaringly American in spirit as this Philip Roth creation. I know my claims of being able to determine the degree of Americanness of any book are questionable at best since how can the internet and books supplant the experience of actually breathing American air. But I'll let Mr Roth speak on my behalf here -
"Around us nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over.The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together. If that wasn't sufficiently inspiring-the miraculous con-elusion of this towering event, the clock of history reset and a whole people's aims limited no longer by the past-there was the neighborhood, the communal determination that we, the children, should escape poverty, ignorance, disease, social injury and intimidation-escape, above all, insignificance!"

American Pastoral takes a plunge into the depths of America's heart and soul and analyzes its curious multiculturalism, its unrestrained self-love and its misdirected self-hatred. And speaking of 'depths', please bear in mind that it does go really deep, probing unmapped territory like the complications at the root of every human relationship be it between husband and wife or between a father and daughter who feel a subtly obsessive, nearly incestuous love for each other. On one hand it recounts a series of tragic events which result in the slow disintegration of a rich Jewish businessman's inner world while on the other it rapidly moves back and forth between various American issues, from the postwar economic boom to the Newark Riots of '67 to the violent anti Vietnam War protests bordering on terrorist activity, thereby weaving an intricate network symbolizing the web of America's inner conflicts. It's like AP revels in its own Americanness and its unabashed disdain for anything that is considered outside America's sphere of influence. But the surprising thing is, despite the self-absorbed tone of the narrator's voice and his blatant apathy for anything unAmerican, none of it sounds remotely offensive. On the contrary, everything put together, it comes off as a mockery of America's self-obsession. Every sentence, every stream of thought, every conversation that Roth has painstakingly put together to construct this masterpiece is rife with underlying implications. So much so that in order to squeeze out every last drop of meaning from one passage or a long conversation, a literature student reading this for coursework may need to pore over one particular page for hours on end. This, however, does not mean it is a difficult read, it isn't by a long shot. It is simply a book which requires a tremendous amount of patience and an effort on the reader's part to remove all the layers of obfuscation.

I have come across people criticizing Roth for portraying Jews in an unflattering light here but I find myself nodding my head in disagreement with them. The book smacks of anti-heroism if anything and it looks down upon the rich white American's idea of familial bliss, material prosperity and his hankering after a squeaky clean reputation free of any incriminating smudges. Roth tramples on the idea of hero-worship and stomps on it until it is so bent out of shape that it is beyond recognition. I also beg to differ on the subject of Roth's widespread infamy among the critic circle as a misogynist. Any writer capable of rustling up such fleshed out female characters like the ones depicted here, cannot be accused of nurturing a conscious hatred of women. Sure, there is a sprinkling of barely noticeable sexist remarks but I suspect it is done with the purpose of defining a particular character's perspective rather than simply out of contemptuous indifference (or maybe I need to read more Roth before pronouncing judgement). Some of the scenes of a sexual nature are disturbing to the point of being slightly cringe-worthy, but none of them demean women as such. And it will be hardly fair to indict Roth for sexual vulgarity when women erotica writers of today can be accused of much worse (rape and stalker fantasies anyone?).
To wrap up, this is a hard book to review as it obdurately resists deconstruction. But it is an ingeniously written one with long drawn out sentences which are a delight to savour if you love your share of linguistic acrobatics. Roth rambles a lot and gets side-tracked often, like an old man suffering from an early onset of dementia, frustrating the reader with his abrupt jumps from one subject to another almost in a stream-of-consciousness like manner and his penchant for detailing something as maddeningly boring as the art of glove-making. But eventually, when he makes his point you can't help but marvel at his ability to accurately deduce the hidden motives at work behind seemingly unremarkable action. And as schizophrenic as his writing may seem, one can't deny that it is also the work of a true master. 

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