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.

Consider the function of writing competitions

Writing competitions are motivating. There is something about an impending deadline which will empower us to work more efficiently and imaginatively than if we were given our whole lives to write something.

This perhaps agrees with the oft-touted advice that budding writes will puzzle over: Just write! Just write a lot, often, and don’t stop!

The results can be rewarding. I was recently shortlisted for the Foyles Bookshop/Negative Press London Still flash fiction competition, which is the best news I’ve had all month. And I am also writing an essay on young people for the Financial Times/Bodley Head long form essay competition. (Deadline 18th November, if you are interested.)

Anyway, there are loads of competitions about, some of which are free to entry. Another literary blogger Rich Lakin (also shortlisted for the Still competition) mentioned these two competitions to me, and I think I’ll give them a go. Why don’t you?

The Telegraph’s weekly travel writing competition, Just Back – £200 for each winning entry

The Guardian’s yearly travel writing competition – win a holiday

COMPARE & CONTRAST Bob Dylan and the scientist

In How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer strives to articulate how creative decisions are taken: how does a scientist alight upon an innovative solution, and how does Bob Dylan conceive, gestate, and birth a song? Lehrer says:

“This is the clichéd moment of insight that people know so well from stories of Archimedes in the bathtub and Isaac Newton under the apple tree. The moment of insight can seem like an impenetrable enigma. The question, of course, is how these insights happen.”

This question of creation badgers artists in the same way that a baby does its parent. “How did you get here?” is a question leading inside the artist (back to before they consciously conceived a project) as well as outside (to the stimuli which triggered the cognitions leading to the novel, painting or poem produced.)

Martin Amis is eloquent about it, in an interview with The Spectator:

“At which point do you realise that you have a novel springing to life? It’s a fascinating question. It’s all decided in a moment, I think. You get a funny feeling, you see something or read something and almost at once you get a kind of throb, which goes through you — a shiver. And you think: this is a novel I can write. You don’t know much about it, but you know how you’re going to begin, perhaps. It’s a situation, it’s a setting, but it’s deeply mysterious. The whole process is deeply mysterious.”

Amis’ description of the moment of creation captures neatly its physiological (“throb”, “shiver”), triggered (“see or read something”), and enigmatic (“perhaps”, “mysterious”) conditions.

It brings me back to the first comparison: between Bob Dylan and the scientist. There is a problem here, and it lies in the differences between a creative solution to a problem, and creativity.

Whereas Lehrer rightly uses the scientist to show how creative innovation can solve a problem beyond the scope of logic and algorithms, I don’t think the same can be said for Bob Dylan. The key difference is that the scientist works towards an end (answering part of an unfinished theory, finding the right chemical formula to perform a task), whereas the artist does not.

Take Lehrer’s example of Archimedes who leapt out of the bathtub when he had discovered the displacement of water. That Lehrer recounts this clichéd tale in a clichéd fashion suggests he has thought little about the real connection between this moment of inspiration and one that a musician like Dylan would have. He says:

“Hopelessness eventually gives way to a revelation. This is another essential feature of moments of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the new idea.”

This is true for a scientist, who can ratify his hypothesis through testing and the testimony of his peers. But it would be inadvisable for Bob Dylan to claim that his latest song is “right”.

Why? Because art strives towards subjective perception; science, objective measurement. Hence my issue of definitions earlier: art has creativity as an end in itself, and science has creative solutions to extant problems.

This is the fundamental difference between two universal fields of human activity, but Lehrer has failed to understand it. It is only through Practical Criticism (which encourages us to interrogate the premise of everything we are told) that this shortcoming can be revealed.

Indeed, in performing this analysis we have created shortcomings of our own — words like “art” and “science” can’t be flung upon us so flippantly — but this is only a blog, after all.

CONSIDER A modern novel

Practical Criticism #3: All books think about these days is turning into films, so the yarn goes. Like a caterpillar to a butterfly.

Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was so visual, so unenamoured with using words themselves, that it was actually a screenplay in disguise. Ditto David Mitchell’s One Day, a novel with so little description and so much dialogue that it may as well be a script for the big screen.

Haruki Murakami’s After Dark is the pinnacle of ‘bigscreenliness’. No, screens don’t have pinnacles. After Dark is the blockbuster. Because though it talks about screens all the time, it hates the things.

In the novel, screens are spooky portals. While she sleeps for two months Eri Asai is transported into a TV. The people staring back at Eri’s sister Mari Asai, at the prostitute-beater Shirawaka, linger and move independently. There are CCTV cameras which takes images and put them inside the “liquid crystal monitor” to see. Even “we” – the narrator and the reader – are a “viewpoint which takes the form of a midair camera”, and which we must follow as in a film.

Oh great! ‘As in a film’. Even we, the eager reader of middlebrow literature, are now the viewpoint of a cameraman. We are part of another second-rate cinematic project which, owing to lack of explosions and breasts, no one will go and see. No reader wants to be part of a book which has already deferred to the great movie industry.

Luckily, and unusually, I am wrong. You see, Murakami’s screens are more like the pages in a book than images in the cinema, just as every image and idea that Dan Brown’s narrative alights upon is really a brown sack with ‘$$$s’.

Ah yes because there is always something beyond Murakami’s screens. I don’t just mean electronics beyond the display, not just beyond, I mean beyond. You see?

After beating up a Chinese prostitute in a euphemistically named “love hotel”, Shirawaka goes back to his suburban family home and watches the news. Ah, “but he is actually looking at something deep inside the screen – something miles beyond the screen.”

It is good that you don’t look at Murakami’s screens, that you look through them. It should remind us that every action and thought of ours is an interpretative one, which goes beyond the surface of information we are given on a screen or a page. It also takes the less observant or interested of us into new territory: considering the importance of prepositions.

I love these italicised moments. The looking beyond a screen is so like a big comedy raise of the eyebrow that it’s almost tongue-in-cheek. No, worse, tongue-through-cheek.

I say: but for the comedy value, this beyondness is a great technique. It means Murakami’s screens aren’t conveyors of intended information, they are instead like words on a page which suggest and conjure shapes, lives, emotions which aren’t really there. Nothing is present in literature, it is all in the mind, somewhere.

Thank God they didn’t make a film out of After Dark. That would take irony to new heights, where no screen has gone before.

COMPARE & CONTRAST Two anti-establishment polemicists

Practical Criticism #1: Is it just me or are the calls for reform of FIFA oddly reminiscent of Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates?

You know the one: King Charles is a tyrant who’s forgotten the key to a healthy body-politic is that the brain represents his limbs and organs. Just the same, FIFA, the governing-body-politic, should have the best interests of the greatest race of all – football supporters – at heart.

Or so is the argument of Damian Collins MP who is campaigning for reform of FIFA in the light of corruption allegations. This the plea from his website

“Football is the world’s game, and FIFA its governing body. Football doesn’t belong to FIFA, it belongs to everyone who loves the game. So when such a global institution of great importance loses its way, it is the duty of those entrusted with its care to chart a course of correction.  When the leaders of such an organisation lack the credibility that is required to do so, a valuable function of parliaments and governments is to offer sound and independent intervention and support.

“We call parliamentarians and elected representatives from all the nations of the world to register their support for our International Partnership for FIFA Reform, on this website based on the principles set out below.”

This all sounds very grand. Ah yes, football is the world‘s game. Not even just for humans anymore, football is truly the game of the animal and plant kingdom too: horses and cows would play it all day long if it weren’t for their damn clumsy hooves. Have you not seen blades of grass bend and rise as a football rolls by? That’s a mexican wave from the realm of Flora!

But I jest. Mr Collins’ pledge is all talk and no walk. And only Milton can prove for me that the FIFA campaigner doesn’t have the balls to behead Sepp Blatter at the gates of the Emirates. Only a true 17th-century nutter can justify regicide in such cools terms as this:

“The power of Kings and Magistrates […] is originally the peoples, and by them conferr’d in trust onely to bee imployd to the common peace and benefit; with liberty therfore and right remaining in them to reassume it to themselves, if by Kings or Magistrates it be abus’d; or to dispose of it by any alteration, as they shall judge most conducing to the public good.

“It being thus manifest that the power of Kings and Magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferr’d and committed to them in trust from the People, to the Common good of them all, in whom the power yet remaines fundamentally, and cannot be tak’n from them, without a violation of thir natural birthright, and seeing that from hence Aristotle and the best of Political writers have defin’d a King, him who governs to the good and profit of his People, and not for his own ends, it follows from necessary causes, that the Titles of Sov’ran Lord, natural Lord, and the like, are either arrogancies, or flatteries, not admitted by Emperours and Kings of best note.”

Oh my, what sensible autonomous citizens we all were, delegating our power and liberty to one single person to look after. And how naïve of us to think that it is the elite 1% with 99% of resources at hand who’ve actually been delegating to us! I’m not saying that we’ve ever lived in a truly top down social hierarchy, but Milton’s logic is so bottom-up that it’s bent double with it’s head in the sand.

Which brings me to my actual point.

Both of these works are clearly a big joke. The notion that every person “originally” had their own say and simply deferred it to a benevolent leader to look after is just too reassuring to be true. “Originally,” yes, as in: “Originally, in the Garden of Eden (which has taken a bit of a hit in the past 350 years . . .)”

These writers are clever enough to know that if we dethroned every tyrant, dickhead, and micro-manager from the pedastals they’ve made out of their own bullshit and propelled themselves on top of with guffs of hot air, then we’d live in a global communist state. And where would that leave us but trying to dethrone our totalitarian overlords.

Collins and Milton’s intention isn’t revolution. (Together they sound more like a solicitor’s office.) No, they aren’t for revolution against tyrants at all, they are for appeasing the confused and dominated masses. Look at the evangelically optimistic lexicon they dastardly employ: there is football for everyone who “loves” the game, there is “great importance”, there is “duty”, power “entrusted”, “care”, correction”, credibility”, “support”.

Milton is worse: there is “trust”, “peace”, “benefit”, “liberty”, “good”, “committed”.

It is gut-wrenchingly euphemistic. And what is this impossibly vague and optimistic lexicon for? Well, for Collins it is intended to hide the fact that a governing body must be separate from its worldwide representees or otherwise there’d be a global referendum any time Fowler got a yellow card in the second minute or Mario Balotelli accidentally crashed his Mazarati into his private jet.

But Collins can flog the FIFA scapegoat all he likes. It is Milton’s darker intention that worries me. This is a man justifying the replacement of his king by his king’s murderer.

Let Gary Linekar execute Sepp Blatter during half time and see if Collins rallies the world of football with his rhetoric then.