American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

American Pastoral

The opening section of the novel American Pastoral is told from the perspective of writer Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman reminisces at length about his fascinating, larger-than-life schoolmate Seymour “Swede” Levov.

Nicknamed “Swede” because of his unusually Nordic appearance as a Jewish boy in a Jewish community in Newark, Levov is a dominant athlete in multiple sports, someone who seems from the outside to be pretty close to perfect. Rather than being arrogant about it, he carries himself in a confident, mature manner, even humble in his way, the kind of person who senses early that he has some obligation to fit the image his hero-worshipping peers have of him, and to not manifest the weaknesses, temper, immaturity, whatever that most people his age would be free to indulge. He’s the kind of guy the boys wish they were, and the girls wish they were dating.

He goes on to a successful stint in the Marine Corps, and then returns to Newark to take over his father’s thriving glove manufacturing business. Those who know him take for granted that he had the potential for bigger and better things, but if anything it’s seen as kind of an admirable humility that he opts instead for a simpler, mainstream, but still quite successful life back with his family and his community. He marries a former Miss New Jersey, and soon they have a daughter, Merry.

Zuckerman, the narrator, sees Levov as the kind of figure of royalty or even of demigod status whose persona overshadows his person. Not that he’s necessarily some kind of phony, but just that he and those who perceive him have always identified him so strongly with a certain social role as the local idol that who he “really” is has become something of a mystery, at least to Zuckerman. Or perhaps there isn’t a whole lot else beneath the surface; maybe he’s played the role for so long that that’s pretty much all he is now.

After many years with little or no contact, Zuckerman receives a request from the Swede to meet to discuss a possible writing project, a kind of personal history of his elderly father. Zuckerman wonders if (and fantasizes that) the Swede is really interested in opening up about himself and having something written about himself, and so he jumps at the opportunity in the hopes that he will finally get the chance to get to know the “real” Swede.

They meet, and it’s all very polite and friendly and such, and the Swede appears on the surface to be open and at ease, but in fact he reveals very little about himself beyond mundane biographical “catching up” stuff, and the writing project doesn’t even come up, leaving Zuckerman puzzled.

Shortly thereafter, Zuckerman learns two key facts: One, the Swede has died, and must have known when he met with Zuckerman that he had terminal cancer. Two, the Swede’s life was marred by a horrific event—his teenage daughter Merry had become a leftist radical, bombed a local general store/Post Office in rural New Jersey where the family now lived, and fled and gone underground. The Swede had mentioned none of this in their meeting, telling Zuckerman instead only of his current—evidently second—marriage and his sons from that marriage.

Zuckerman wonders if perhaps the whole Merry story is what the Swede had contemplated opening up to a writer about, and then changed his mind or lost his nerve. In any case, he decides that that is a story he’d now like to tell, insofar as he is able.

He can no longer get the Swede’s side of it, but he contacts members of the Swede’s family and other people in his life, and researches the bombing and related matters in newspaper accounts and such. In spite of his best efforts, though, he is only able to make modest progress and realizes it’s not a project he’s going to be able to pull off.

So he decides on a different approach. He determines to write not a journalistic account or a biography, but a novel. Since he hasn’t been able to find out much about what really happened, and wasn’t able to get inside the Swede to better understand him, he will instead imagine it all and write a fictional account of what it may have been like to be the Swede, what may have happened in his life and his family that led to Merry’s act of terrorism, and what the aftermath may have been.

That fictionalized version of the Swede’s story is in effect the remainder, the bulk, of American Pastoral. It is written in the third person by a narrator who pretty much sees things through the Swede’s eyes and is able to share with us what the Swede is thinking and feeling as the story unfolds.

OK, so one obvious question is, why the convoluted narrative structure?

American Pastoral is my first Roth book, but from my reading about it and Roth I know that Zuckerman was a recurring figure in Roth’s fiction, the author’s alter ego in many of his books. So Zuckerman, more or less, is Roth. And it turns out the Swede is closely based on a real person as well, a certain Seymour “Swede” Masin with a similar background.

Understanding why Roth fictionalized Masin is the easy part. Writing a novel—even one “based on” real people and real events to some extent—gives one a freedom to shape the story as one wishes to fit certain chosen themes, make certain points, whatever, instead of being obligated to stick to the facts to the best of one’s ability.

But why all the rigmarole with a Roth stand-in writing a pretend novel? Why doesn’t Roth just write a novel about a fictionalized Swede Masin instead of having Zuckerman write a pseudo-novel about Swede Levov?

I don’t know, but contemplating this matter brought to my mind the question of whether there is an obligation to be accurate in fiction. This is something I’ve written about in at least one other of these essays, and it’s a question I first encountered in college, when I had a literature professor who took the position that there is zero such obligation, that fiction is, well, fiction, not history or journalism.

Clearly there’s no absolute obligation to be accurate—it’s not as if there’s something objectionable about The Great Gatsby unless there was an actual person named Jay Gatsby who did in real life precisely what the character Gatsby does in the novel—because, yes, fiction is fiction.

But what I’m talking about is more a matter of being true to the milieu you’re writing about, true to the social, historical context. If a novelist wrote an account of the Battle of Britain where a massively greater percentage of German bombs hit their targets than in real life, and the British characters all responded in some way that virtually no British people in real life did, then all else being equal I have a problem with that. (I mean, sure, it can get more complicated, like if it’s a science fiction novel taking place in an alternate universe or something, but for a work of conventional fiction, I don’t think such inaccuracies are acceptable.)

Or another example I’ve used in the past is if the stockyards in Chicago bore no resemblance whatsoever to those depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, then I would say he’s guilty of deception. It’s no excuse to point out that it’s a novel. It’s a novel intended to educate about certain appalling aspects of reality and to rouse people to action over them; if those aspects of reality are not in fact reality, then the book is a lie.

So to relate this to American Pastoral, one reason I can imagine for placing an extra, seemingly superfluous, narrator between the author and the story is to highlight this accuracy expectation, and perhaps lessen the obligation to abide by it.

That is, Roth in this book states or implies a great deal about certain historical periods—especially the ’60s—in America, about what various demographic “types” were like (e.g., Jewish immigrants, the children of Jewish immigrants, the grandchildren of Jewish immigrants, radical youth, leftist professors, rioting blacks, black employees, etc.), and various other aspects of the social world he’s writing about. By putting it all in the mouth of his alter ego Zuckerman, he’s calling attention to the fact that this is all one man’s opinion.

Sure, in a sense that’s the case regardless. If the book had a conventional narrative structure, the viewpoint underlying it would still be that of one person—Roth. But by making the writer himself a character, and taking us inside his mind as he researches and puts together the book (within the book), the reader is reminded that books are written by fallible human beings, and unavoidably have a certain subjectivity to them.

So as I read American Pastoral, and was uncertain of the accuracy of certain elements of it (e.g., what proportion of teenage radicals during this era were really this nasty and stupid?), I could imagine Roth responding, “Well, you know technically I’m not claiming that things were as I present them in this book. I’m merely saying that it’s plausible that a certain type of writer, positioned in a certain way, could have certain social and political beliefs and attitudes and prejudices that could come through in this way if he were to imagine a life story of someone from his childhood that he knows only very little about.”

Anyway, I’ll say a little more about the story of Swede Levov now, basically setting aside the narrative structure and responding to the book more like a conventional novel.

Really, though, only a pretty small percentage of the material tells the story itself; considerably more of the focus is on the social and psychological context and consequences of it all.

I think all of that speculation (about what a story like this tells us about the American Dream, capitalism, race relations, the generation gap, radical politics, Jewish people, commitment to craftsmanship, parenting, etc., etc.) is what makes this a deeper, more important book than it would otherwise be, and is why it garnered such critical praise, but to be honest, I wanted more of the story. I wanted to know more about what exactly Merry did, who else was involved, her life in hiding, whether she made contact or attempted to make contact with her family or anyone else from her past after she disappeared, law enforcement’s efforts to investigate the crime and apprehend her, and so on.

We get some of that, yes, but it’s like a page of that, then ten pages about how Jewish immigrants raised their kids 50-100 years ago and the psychological effects of that, then another page of the story, then five pages about the effects of automation and a declining work ethic on what used to be the proud craftsmanship of glove making, etc.

But to be clear, I’m not saying I’d prefer that the “what does it all tell us about the changes in American society” stuff have been left out—certainly not. I’m just making the point that as a reader, subjectively, I was caught up enough in the story—or at least was primed to be caught up enough in it—that I was generally most engaged with what I was reading when it was providing more information about what happened in the story itself rather than in society as a whole or inside the Swede’s head.

Speaking of which, it’s interesting that the Swede goes from being an enigma to being almost too transparent. Zuckerman couldn’t understand him, but when he chose to instead invent him he decided to share with us everything his character thought and felt.

As I say, I found the story engaging with or without the added sociological commentary. But within the story, I was most interested in the crime and in better understanding what happened with Merry. I felt like toward the end there was more tangential, mundane stuff going on—like people having affairs and such—and that while that was certainly all relevant to the central story and its aftermath, it seemed like there was plenty left out that would have been more directly relevant.

As an aside, I was struck by claims in the book about the frequency of politically-motivated domestic bombings in the Vietnam era. I wondered if they were accurate, or if this were Roth’s way of saying that someone like Zuckerman might well exaggerate how prevalent such attacks really were.

But after doing some research online, I’d say Zuckerman certainly isn’t exaggerating. According to a Senate investigation, there were a confirmed 4,330 bombings in the U.S. in just over a year in 1969 and early 1970. Granted, most of them only damaged property—all those thousands of bombs combined resulted in just 43 deaths—but that seems like a huge enough deal that it would be more widely known. (“Widely” meaning me, I guess.) Heck, New York alone had about four bombings a week during that period.

If I imagine 5% that many bombs going off in the U.S. nowadays, I assume people would be begging to relinquish whatever is left of our civil liberties.

One thing I found myself thinking about at various times while reading American Pastoral was the lack of communication, the lack of openness. Even between friends or people who are supposed to be close to each other, or within a family, people are left to guess what others know, think, or feel because so much that is important in their lives is left unspoken of.

When characters acquire information about Merry after she goes into hiding, they conceal it. When there are dissatisfactions within a marriage, the kind of things that can give rise to an affair, divorce, etc., disappointingly often they are not discussed.

In the very areas where people need to be able to rely on those closest to them, instead of open communication there is the keeping up of fronts, the hiding of weaknesses, doubts, and wrongdoing, the paternalistic deciding for others what it’s best they know or not know, and the generating of suspicions and distrust based on having to read between the lines to guess things that one is not told.

In the end, I think American Pastoral is an apologia for a certain segment of the American population, namely white, middle class and above, educated, urban, patriotic, mostly Jewish folks who played by the rules, held liberal but mainstream positions on issues such as the Vietnam War and race, and who were flabbergasted by movements farther to the left of them in the 60s and 70s that seemed to them to be nihilistic bordering on insane. Perhaps Roth is just describing these folks and their worldviews, and how they responded when they found the pro-America ideology they had internalized inexplicably under attack by even their own children, but it feels more like a defense.

Such people are depicted as regarding the Vietnam War as unjust, and as being reliable supporters of pro-civil rights policies as long as they are not too radical. These positions are mostly not questioned or argued for or against, but treated in their circles as pretty close to self-evident.

They view people like Merry who go so much farther than they would as completely fucked up in a way that calls for a psychological explanation. She and her cohorts cite fact after fact about the avoidable human suffering that results from imperialistic wars and institutional racism and such, and claim that anything short of the violent methods of opposition that they have finally adopted has failed miserably to change that, and their elders respond not with substance or political counterarguments, but with speculation as to what sort of mental illness could drive people to such an extreme.

Well, of course they’re telling them what has driven them there, and it’s not just stuff going on in their heads.

I mean, I agree that much of the Weather Underground-type stuff that Merry represents is insane, morally indefensible, or both. But on the other hand I understand how agonizing it can be for good people who feel caught in a trap where the mainstream evils they oppose (e.g., capitalist exploitation, war) are at times equally or more insane or morally indefensible, and yet are so firmly entrenched through what Chomsky calls “manufactured consent” that nothing they can do against them “within the rules” is likely to be effective.

Consider two people: One is a totally “normal” mainstream youth who joins the military, follows orders blindly, and drops bombs on total strangers in Vietnam with whom he has no pre-existing beef, causing unimaginable death and destruction. He is supported and lauded on all sides for what he does (except by a minority of anti-war malcontents, but frankly even nearly all of them strain every nerve to avoid criticizing the common soldiers like him, instead blaming those who give the orders).

The other is a girl who figures out that there is something monstrously evil about this, and who takes her opposition to the extreme of planting a bomb that will likely damage only property, though it risks injuring or killing one or two people.

As a Gandhian, I don’t agree with what either of them has chosen to do. But certainly the first one doesn’t strike me as a sane person and the second as someone just so far beyond the pale that all we can do is debate what specific mental illness she has and what caused it.

American Pastoral takes a case of domestic terrorism that while quite minor in a sense is still terrible in its consequences for its victims, and asks us to face this ugly reality, to try to understand how such evil can come about, or failing that at least to contemplate its tragic inexplicability. But it happens in a context, in a world, where every day evil things are being done that are dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times greater in magnitude. And while the characters for the most part are of the opinion that those evils are indeed lamentable, and that good folks like themselves should stand up to denounce them and to vote for those who claim to oppose them, they never treat them as the kind of shocking, appalling, life-altering misdeeds that they truly are, certainly not compared to, say, planting a bomb in a rural Post Office that kills one innocent person.

The Swede and the segment of the population that he represents to Roth/Zuckerman finds seemingly everything he has always unquestioningly embraced in life under attack, finds that there are those who will do anything and everything to shake him out of what he regards as his well-earned complacency, and the author makes clear (or maybe not, if we read into it irony instead) in the very last passage of the book whose side he’s on:

Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life!

And what is wrong with their life? What on Earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?

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