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american pastoral

I love dinner parties. I love making the food. I love eating the food and drinking the wine. I love the conversation and, if I’m really lucky, playing board games. I suppose it should not be a surprise then, that dinner parties are, if not the climax, then certainly one of the important moments of some of my favorite books and movies. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse spring to mind, along with numerous others.

It is, perhaps, significant, however to note that the phrase is, I believe, primarily the domain of middle- to upper-class society. People of nearly all classes, ethnicities, and creeds get together with friends and family to eat and talk and share their lives, but it is mostly people of certain classes that call these gatherings “dinner parties” (please correct me if you think I’m wrong).

So, it is fitting that Philip Roth, ends American Pastoral—a novel that explicitly interrogates upper-middle class whiteness—with a dinner party that goes far awry, both internally (i.e., in the minds of its participants) and externally. But I get ahead of myself.

As usual when I begin reading a novel, I did not read the back cover of American Pastoral. I had no prior knowledge of the book, except that it was a Pulitzer winner and a book people talked about. My first impression was of a tired book—elegant, graceful, beautiful prose full of clichés about the parents of the baby boomers: they are sentimental about their childhoods full of entitled expectations for a perfect life in which everyone fit in and no one wanted anything except a family, a house, and as much money as they could get out of the capitalist system. It felt like an elegy for a time challenged in the 1960s and 1970s and completely destroyed in our postmodern age. That first impression is the metaphorical frame that Roth uses to begin and introduce the real story.

The literal frame is a late middle-aged professional writer who gets a letter from an old classmate, Seymour “the Swede” Levov, the most popular, biggest man on campus during high school. They meet and talk and the writer comes away feeling that Levov is the picture of bland success. Later, while attending his 50th high school reunion, the writer learns that Levov died of cancer not long after their dinner—the Swede knew he was dying and never let on, instead spending the entire meal talking about his highly successful, athletically-talented, and completely non-existent sons. (That’s right, the Swede talks about sons he does not have—but we don’t know that at the time.) Only after eighty-nine pages of the writer’s introspective adolescent recollections does the writer begin to have an inkling that the Swede’s urbane surface is an elaborate cover for a deeply troubled inner life.

My own first impression evolved somewhere in the middle of the book as I saw that it wasn’t an elegy, but was rather a castigation, a story about Roth’s parents’ generation and how their vision of life in the U.S. was a myth, a fairy tale. And then I passed through a phase where I thought the book was about the ways that we hide the secrets of our lives—the affairs, the lies, the fuck ups, the cruelty to others, the regrets, the failures—and that if we just dig deeply enough inside even the most ordinary appearing people we will find complex stories of human desire, suffering, joy, and loss. For a writer as self-conscious and in control of his craft as Roth is, that my process of sifting through the novel’s layers is similar to the framing device he uses hardly seems a coincidence.

In the end, all my impressions are right. It is a book about the American immigrant dream of progress and prosperity crashing to a tragic halt: “Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.” It is also a scathing critique of bourgeois entitlement and modernistic certainty: “Was everyone’s brain as unreliable as his? Was he the only one unable to see what people were up to? Did everyone slip around the way he did, in and out, in and out, a hundred different times a day go from being smart enough, to being dumb as the next guy, to being the dumbest bastard who ever lived? Was it stupidity deforming him the simpleton son of a simpleton father, or was life just one big deception that everyone was on to except him?” And it all comes to a head at a dinner party.

Roth tends to work a paragraph for half a page, a page, or more, until he arrives at some apparent profundity. He may or may not continue developing that idea in the next paragraph. For example he begins a paragraph talking about Levov’s wife, Dawn, and her attempt to escape from her beauty-pageant-winner reputation, from being simply a pretty face, and ends when she discovers “the place where it was okay for her to be as beautiful as she was . . . with the Swede, in bed.” Such conclusions raise more questions than they answers. Was the marital bed really that good, even when the rest of the marriage was less than ideal? Did her non-revolt against her beauty in bed make her wild? Passive? In between? Did this discovery help her reconcile her beauty in life outside the bedroom? In this case, we don’t learn the answers till the book is almost over.

This is an utterly self-conscious novel (perhaps they all are at this point). The author is self-conscious and the two characters we really get to know are self-conscious to a fault. None are quite comfortable inside their heads and all three constantly ask about the value of their work and the life they lead. Even the last sentence is a question.

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