“The detail, the immensity of the detail, the force of the detail, the weight of the detail- the rich endlessness of detail surrounding you in your young life like the six feet of dirt that’ll be packed on your grave when you’re dead.” (American Pastoral by Philip Roth)
American Pastoral focuses on The Swede, a perfect man blessed with everything America had to offer, as he starts to develop an inner world so powerful it dominates the actual world in front of him. Roth starts us off with the bare facts: The Swede’s daughter builds a bomb and kills a man. At first, it’s easy for the reader to feel callous, to feel as though the event should be quickly gotten over, buried, or dismissed. But Roth doesn’t allow us to do that – he forces us to follow, step-by-step, the disintegrating mind of the Swede as he tries to equate his lively, precocious child with the raving lunatic teenager she turned out to be.
It is impossible for the reader not to rationalize, to think that the child must have always been selfish and mad, or that the parents must have been abusive somehow, but Roth does not allow us that escape either. He painstakingly, lovingly, takes us through each detailed reflection that proves Merry, the child, was wonderful, bright, energetic, smart, while Merry the teenager was fat, unruly, bitter, and a murderer. The parents were just normal, flawed, loving parents. When Roth is done with us, there is no way out. There is no one, easy, pre-packaged, reason to point to for why Merry murdered a man and fled. The reader is forced to wonder, just as forcefully as The Swede: How does it all hang together?
Recommended Action: Buy –
Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Ending: subtly dramatic, leaves you questioning
Incidental Learning: Vietnam war, Glove-making, History of Newark
Further Reading: This definitely made me want to read more Roth. Another author with a similar way of attending to detail is Franzen, though he doesn’t have the same level of respect and compassion for his characters as Roth. The last ‘volume’ also reminded me a bit of The Dinner, but Roth is more subtle in how he reveals the psychological horror of his characters.