Thursday, April 02, 2009
weekly book review: american pastoral, by philip roth
"I was a biography in perpetual motion, memory in the marrow of my bones."

Narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's oft used alter-ego, American Pastoral is the story of Seymour "The Swede" Levov - a man who, on the surface, seems to be a glimmering example of The American Dream. Levov is handsome, athletically gifted, married to a former Miss New Jersey, and lives in a big stone house in the suburbs of Newark, comfortably removed from the crime, decay and racial turmoil consuming his blighted hometown. But when Levov's teenager daughter decides to protest the Vietnam War by setting off a bomb that kills an innocent bystander and sends her into hiding, there so goes "The Swede's" charmed life.

Something nagged at me while I read American Pastoral, a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning story of how the idyllic American Dream turned in the the "American berserk" thanks to the political and social turmoil of the 1960s. It's been a few years, but I recalled feeling something similar while reading Roth's Human Stain - like I knew I was reading something pretty profound, something beautifully written by an incredibly skilled artist. So, why wasn't I enjoying it more?

Then I read Brian Prisco's recent Pajiba review of Roth's The Plot Against America, and it really helped crystallize my thoughts on Roth in general. Please allow me to borrow from Prisco's line of thinking for a moment:

I do not like steak. There are people who revere steak above most other things, people who would pay through the nose for a nice filet mignon or a piece of kobe beef. I am not one of those people. I will eat steak if that's what you make me for dinner, however I won't enjoy it nearly as much as I probably should, and would probably have preferred to have been served something else. For me, Philip Roth is like filet mignon: he's a satisfying, high-end, beautiful meal...for someone else.

When it comes down to it, I suppose I'm a little embarrassed that I didn't like American Pastoral very much. It's a highly lauded work by a highly revered author, so to say that I just didn't like it makes me feel like a bit of a dolt - like the uncultured, backwater hick who shows up to the opera in jeans and then falls asleep during the first act. (Yee haw, ya'll!)

And so though I may not have liked it, American Pastoral is a excellent novel by a gifted writer, so perhaps you should just take my thoughts with a generous grain of salt. After all, this is all coming from the lady who'd rather eat mac and cheese than filet mignon.

Philip Roth
432 pages, 1998

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Blogger rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read American Pastoral by Philip Roth. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

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