REVIEW Roth’s American Pastoral – “an astonishing farce of misperception”

A Classically-minded friend of mine said that ancient Greek and Roman writers gave “instructions” on how to read their works.

I’m not entirely sure what texts she was thinking of, but the other day I noticed a passage in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral which fits the bill. Read it below . . . It is a standout paragraph on page 35. I mean standout because:

  1. it is a damn insightful bit of writing;
  2. and it sits so incongruously (having no mention of character, setting, or plot) that it begs to be used as an “instruction” or guide to the rest of the text.

It seems to me that the rest of the novel is impossible to comprehend without this paragraph. This is a 400-page novel about two people who will never “get each other right”: the all-American, football-playing, glove-factory-owning Swede Levov and his fanatical anti-Vietnam, let’s-put-a-bomb-in-the-local-post-office daughter Merry.

The incessant misunderstandings between these and other characters would be unbearable if it weren’t for this passage. It allows us to use these repeated misunderstandings as part of a narrative ideology, providing a sort of a philosophy on life which holds up against every piece of scrutiny that the characters, their actions, and their perceptions can give it.

This is the key to the novel. Roth explicitly states that the whole business of knowing people is “an astonishing farce of misperception”. What greater clue is there that the following novel should be read as a failed piece of perception!

It is misperception piled on top of misperception: you have a reader trying to comprehend Roth, who is writing as his alter-ego Zuckermann, who is trying to write the life of the “legendary” Swede Levov, who is trying to understand why his daughter Merry detests America, who is trying to understand why her parents don’t understand their complicity in the damage that America has inflicted on Vietnam.

No wonder Roth shows such a resigned attitude to “this terribly significant business of other people”. There is no hope in avoiding being wrong about them.

And, I think, as most readers will skim past this page without thinking about its significance, Roth is likely making a point about his novel being misread. This is the key to the novel, but it is a key which reveals only the inability of its contents to do anything adequately, most of all perceive and explain.

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