Thursday, February 07, 2013

American Pastoral (by Phillip Roth)

I really enjoyed this one. Broadly, it's a look at the culture changes of the 1960s through the lens of people in positions of privilege in the 1950s--which is, the people who have something to lose. Through the main character, Swede Levov, we see the disintegration of the American dream. Yes, the characters are a little extreme and borderline caricatures at times, but this is easily explained by the fact that the whole story is a projection of the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, who has his own agenda. (I can see it not working for people, though; the characters aren't exactly sympathetic.)

I have not loved Roth in the past but I thought this one was compelling and beautifully written. As an exploration of all that underlies and undermines the American dream, it works beautifully. Just the dinner party at the end, when everything the Swede thinks he knows starts to unravel, is worth the price of admission. A worthy entry into the Time 100 canon.

"This is how successful people live. They're good citizens. They feel lucky. They feel grateful. God is smiling down on them. There are problems, they adjust. And then everything changes and it becomes impossible. Nothing is smiling down on anybody. And who can adjust then? Here is someone not set up for life's working out poorly, let alone for the impossible. But who is set up for the impossible that is going to happen? Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering? Nobody. The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy--that is every man's tragedy." (p. 86)