A Bull to Build a Herd On

20/03/2009

9780099771814

‘The Swede.  During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical  name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete.  The name was magical; so was the anomalous face.  Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.’

So begins Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral.  This beginning paragraph is quoted here in its entirety becuase it encapsulates so much of the personality of the novel -in its content and in its style- as to leave one blown away, in retrospect, by its summative powers.

The Swede.  Tall, athletic, handsome, curteous, dutiful – this is the protagonist of American Pastoral, a novel about the fabrication of dreams and the way that even the best laid plans, like the finest stitched gloves, can come apart at the seams.  The Swede, an all-star athlete who capitalizes with an endearing humility on his good looks and sporting prowess, a young man uncomfortable with the idolatry of the war-bruised Jews of 1940s Newark, New Jersey (he was elevate ‘into the household Apollo’), a young man poised to inherit his father’s glove making business, and thus to capitalize, also, on three generations of Levov skinners, dyers and cutters – it is through this remarkable man and the narration of his (imagined) life that Philip Roth warns us what happens when the clouds we are standing on dissipate and we plummet to the earth.

Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov is a gifted youth whom, all agree, is destined for greatness.  It is not the greatness expected of a brilliant sportsman that he achieves, however, but industrial and domestic greatness (a multimillion dollar glove manufacturing company, an old house in rural New Jersey, a wife, kids…), a greatness that, it is suggested by his family, is more a product of hard work and sacrifice than the benfits bestowed upon him by the composition of his genes.  After graduating from school, the Swede marries the former Miss New Jersey, 1949, and they have a child, Merry.  The first rut in his smoothly paved road comes when the Levovs discover that their daughter speaks with a stutter.  The Swede is shaken by his daughter’s inability to do something that most people can do with such ease, and it is in her impediment that the first sign of a kind of genetic dissonance is first heard.  The Levovs, dutiful, concerned, loving parents that they are, take Merry to see a speech therapist, with a small measure of success.  Merry deals with it, she survives, she grows and matures into a caring and kind young woman.  Until, that is, the Vietnam War begins and Merry is sucked into a world of violent protests and extreme ideologies, caught in the grip of teen angst and rebellion swollen to grotesque proportions.  The second indication that the world no longer played by his rules, that he had become ‘history’s plaything’, is heralded with the defeaning blast of a bomb, planted by Merry’s hand, that leaves, like the general store and the sole local doctor, the of the Levovs in fragments.

In his book How Fiction Works, James Wood says: ‘If the book has a larger argument, it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.’  With American Pastoral, Philip Roth argues in favour of this statement with all of the grace and force of a heavyweight boxer.  The novel, one story nested within another, is a sustained exercise in irony and what Wood calls ‘free indirect style’, and, though we are introduced to the Swede with the very first sentence, the first quarter belongs to Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s long-time alter-ego.

Zuckerman, a novelist like his creator, receives a letter requesting a meeting between himself and Swede Levov, with whom he attended high school.  The letter asks for Zuckerman’s help in a certain matter with which the Swede is having difficulty but which, at their meeting, he never discusses.  It is not until months later, during which there has been no further contact between the two men, that Zuckerman learns from Jerry Levov (the Swede’s brother) not only that the Swede has died, but also of the bombing.  It is this singular revelation, the news of the Fall of the ‘household Apollo’, that motivates Zuckerman to attempt to make sense of how such a perfect setup can fall apart, how Clotho can so entangle such a perfectly straight thread; he is sinspired to ‘dream a realistic chronicle.’  It is precisely at this moment that the three-tiered hierarchy of Roth, Zuckerman and the Swede is formed, with Roth sitting firmly on top and Zuckerman as both puppet and puppetmaster.  The dexterity with which Roth (or is it Zuckerman?) moves from the external narrative of the Swede’s life to his internal dialogue is extraordinary in its subtlety, like sinking slowly beneath the surface -and rising again- of the vast Lake Levov.  In fact, Roth brings such a masterly touch that it is not long before Zuckerman disappears altogether and we forget that we are reading one man’s invented biography.

A novel’s protagonist, if he is to best serve the novel, must gain our sympathy.  In American Pastoral, Roth achieves this through the careful use of his narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, and by admitting us to participate in Zuckerman’s adoration of the Swede.  Indeed, American Pastoral is a novel that stands tall on the strength of its characters, and at its heart stands the Swede.  The Swede is a remarkable creation of Roth’s, a father, husband and brother, a dreamer who is at times maddeningly paralytic and unassertive.  Besides the Swede is his brother, Jerry, a man who lived his childhood in the the shadow of a greater being and, as a redult, lived a life less bright.  Jerry was a child whose dreams held not the sanctioned splendour of the American Dream and without this light shining in his eyes he grows up to become acidically pragmatic.  Dawn Levov, the wife of the Swede, is a hypocritical woman that we are clearly not meant to sympathise with; she does little more than play her role in the Swede’s American Dream – indeed, by the end of the novel, that’s all that she does.  But the most important character, after Seymour Levov, is his daughter.  Merry Levov is a shapeshifter, a changeling.  She is chaos.  It is from Merry’s bombing that all of the Swede’s problems come: she is Pandora, also.  They are the perfect counterweights and, like a fulcrum in the middle, lies the act of unforgivable terrorism.  She is a stuttering, awkward child where he was physically gifted.  She is a rebellious adolescent, going against the grain, where he ran the grooves carved by those that came before him.  After the bombing, they trade places: she adheres to a life of non-violence as a Jain and he begins to lose his vaunted control and grace, become increasingly desperate and spontaneous.

The entire cast play their roles perfectly: they are hypocrites and they are forgetful; they make the same mistakes time and again; they love and work and live and die; they are fallible human beings.

The charge of misogyny is one that has been leveled at Philip Roth many times, with lesser or greater fervour.  It seems at times that, when there are few other ‘flaws’ to be found in his work, the anxious critic hefts the accusation in fear of a five-star rating.

While Roth often sounds the depths of his characters with Dostoievskian insight, American Pastoral features no sympathetic female characters and, while it is not to be considered a flaw, the misogynistic ‘flavour’ that this gives the text may well deter the reader with the more feminist palate.  Of the dozen or so female characters in the book (excluding those at Zuckerman’s high school reunion, before he began his imagining of the Swede’s life) there are only four who are not directly responsible for causing the Swede some degree of ill-treatment, and three of these four exist in a completely servile relationship with the Swede (the other, it should be noted, is Sylvia Levov, the Swede’s mother, who, as most mothers do, willingly subverts her public authority to that of her son and of her husband.)  It may seem pertinent to ask, as these characters are depticed in the ‘dream-chronicle’ of Zuckerman, just who is the misogynist?  Roth or Zuckerman?  The question, apart from metafictional considerations, is largely irrelevant when it comes to the personality of the work: the fact remains that American Pastoral will not please those inclined to feminist ideals.  Not a flaw, then, but a matter of preference.

Several years before merry became the ‘Old Rimrock Bomber’, the Levovs bought a bull, named Count (or Seymour, if you wish) and Dawn, in an effort to prove to others that she was more than the old Miss New Jersey, 1949, began to build a herd.  This herd provided Dawn with the ‘proof’ (tenuous as it was) that she could hold her own ground out among the woods and Civil War cemeteries of rural New Jersey.  It was a flimsy pretext, though, the kind of role-playing that, instead of distancing her from her beauty pageant past, rather brought it to the fore.  Her diminutive stature is a source of comedy when seen next to the bulk of Count and her motives are revealed as hypocritical when she proudly parades her bovine patriarch.

Though the business of managing a herd is something of a hollow and misguided practice for Dawn, it serves a much better function for Roth.  The herd, the dumb cow collective, as the flawless American is one of the dominant metaphors of the novel.  This is perhaps most obvious in the final scene of the book, in which the Levovs host a dinner party.  The Swede has returned from having just been with Merry for the first time in years, a fact he does not disclose.  The petty sniping of the guest’s table-talk afford the Swede a cynical lens – something once inconceivably foreign to the golden boy that he was- through which he can guage the thickness of their skins, the quality of their leather.  The bomb blew the Swede right through the American Dream and beyond: the terrible inertia of war far outreached the small, everyday cruelties of the flawlessly Americanized Herd.

The Swede becomes, in his own flawlessly Americanized, shattered life, a patriarchal pariah – a pariah precisely because of his patriarchy, because he is the father, the father of a calf that broke away from the Herd and fell prey to the wolves of maniacal ideology ever present at its fringes.  In his dreaming the American Dream, the Swede doomed himself from the beginning.  To earn a place in the Great American Herd, Roth seems to say, all he needed was, say, a bitter wife and bad debt.  Instead he got a stuttering, disastrously idealistic daughter that set fire to his plans, blew the beautifully ‘steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask’ right off of his face and shot him clear out of the great American Pastoral.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: