The first time I read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, I had nothing but criticism for it. I’ll try to set the stage for my first reading. It was my early undergraduate days about 10 years ago.
A First Reading
I had had a fairly sheltered childhood. I grew up in a highly apolitical house. At that point, I had not been of age to vote during a major election, and so the extent of my political knowledge was the ability to name the president.
Despite this, I read the book at the height of my reading career. No offense for the university I attended, but I breezed through (a perfect 4.0 finishing GPA) with almost no work. This meant I supplemented my studies by reading a lot.
By this I mean I sometimes read 2 novels a week. I read Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow during this time. I wanted to read every book anyone had ever recommended to me or had said was “unreadable” (is that a description or a challenge?).
Well, it read like realism, yet nothing struck me as realistic in the book. It seemed filled with hyperbole and extreme character overreaction. Here are a few of the things I remember saying. There were probably more:
- How could anyone be so upset over politics to do something so extreme?
- How could someone’s perception of someone else be so skewed?
- How could one event cause someone to change so radically and suddenly?
- The pacing is too slow.
- The second half is too bizarrely different from the first to create something coherent.
Anyway, I decided to reread it and was shocked to find how much 10 years can change a perspective. The book is a delicate portrait of how a tragedy wrecked a family’s life.
What I originally perceived as too slow of pacing turned out to be a striking dive into the psyche of a man torn by conflicting and paradoxical emotions.
It tries to answer the question: How does one grapple with continuing to love someone after they have done something horrible? It is heartbreaking to witness.
What I originally thought of as a radical and sudden change of a character turned out to be a perfectly natural reaction of changing values and priorities.
It’s happened to me. It’s happened to people I know. It happens to everyone.
With a catalyst of such magnitude as happens in the book, it doesn’t seem at all extreme to me anymore.
I’ve learned a lot about bias and the human mind since last reading the book. Now the inconceivable false perception of someone strikes a chord of truth in me.
In fact, none of my initial criticisms ring true anymore. The book presents all of these complicated human interactions and emotions in a unified, compelling story.
Philip Roth’s Style
The thing I most love about Roth’s style (at least in the second Zuckerman trilogy) is ever-present in American Pastoral. He has the ability to lead you down a somewhat illogical, yet fully natural series of thoughts to land on a beautifully constructed gem of a sentence to contemplate.
It is hard to describe or give an example because to pull the quote out of context removes how striking it is to read in real-time.
I often found myself having to stop and contemplate how illuminating the paragraph was. I could always relate to a time when I had a similar thought process. I first noticed this style in The Human Stain which drove me to the other Roth novels.
Needless to say, I loved this book.
At a time when our politics seem to be more divided and more extreme than ever, and outrage and violence surrounding it has become more public (the recent Ferguson protests come to mind), a book of such introspection on the topic has only grown in its importance among the rank of American literature of the past fifty years.