Williamsburg Regional Library is the only Virginia site hosting Philip Roth’s online discussion of his new book, Indignation, on September 16. If you are interested in free tickets, please call the Adult Services desk at 259-4050.
American Pastoral is Roth’s attempt to process the fundamental changes to American society in the 1960s. That decade overturned the established “order” of the United States, leaving many people adrift as the underpinnings of our shared culture and individual values were exposed and washed away. Through the eyes of one man, Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, we see institutions – religion, family, industry, politics – crumble as they fail to live up to the ideals they espoused. In doing so, he extends Swede beyond the individual, and his times beyond a single decade in a single century to the profound question: what does one person’s life mean?
On the face of it, Swede has an ideal life. The renowned but humble high school athlete, the handsome Marine who married a former Miss New Jersey, the heir and director of a famous and successful business, the man who breaks away from his urban roots to live in a historic country home, the Jew who has transcended his Judaism to become just another American. But there is a worm at the heart of this apple – Swede’s daughter Merry. Cursed with a stutter (or is that the source of her problem?), cursed with a visceral need to solve the world’s injustices (or is she blessed with the power to recognize and confront evil?), cursed by unfavorable comparisons to her attractive parents (or blessed by a mother and father who love her unconditionally?), the 16-year old Merry forces these problems to a head when she disappears after a fatal bomb attack on a country grocery store.
Swede suddenly discovers that he doesn’t know his own daughter, can’t fathom the anger and hatred she must bear towards him and to all she thinks he represents, and won’t give up on the idea that she might be an innocent caught up in overwhelming forces. But he’s tortured by uncertainty – what if she’s a bad seed, what if she’s always hated him, what if she deliberately, cold-bloodedly, remorselessly planted the bomb, accomplishing the destruction she desired? What if, as one character suggests, she is a messiah of anarchy, a teen leading older people into a life of revolution and murder? What if, in her, he can find no trace of himself or of the parents and grandparents he knew and loved?
Added to the cumulative disruptions of Newark race riots, the end of the old-world industry that provided dignity, prosperity, and identity for three generations of Levovs, and the stresses on his marriage, for the first time in his life Swede begins to question who he is and to ponder what his life means in the face of chaos. What he finds is frightening.
Taking these threads and weaving them into a standard narrative would have been sufficient for most writers, but Roth adds an additional twist: this life of Swede’s is the product of his imagined ruminations as captured by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s fictional alter ego. A reunion with Swede, ostensibly to discuss a biography of Swede’s father, turns into the kind of superficial conversation that happens when people discover that old friends don’t really know each other. Zuckerman mentally dismisses Swede as an intellectual lightweight incapable of reflection and self-awareness; only during a high school reunion with Swede’s younger brother does Nathan learn that Swede was the tormented father of the infamous bomber, and that Swede was probably dying when they met. Zuckerman realizes that even he, a supposedly incisive writer, too easily mistook the outer man for the whole person, and sets out to write Swede’s life as he imagines it.
This is a disturbing book, not least because the reader falls into the same trap that Zuckerman did, but also because Roth taps into the often surreal, sometimes dangerous, and always chaotic decade of the 1960s. He brings forth the rawness of public and private lives left without protective social structures, but does so in a way that has a gradual, cumulative effect until the disaster is completely unveiled and Swede’s life is laid bare. He has a disciplined control of the pace and and placement of revelation, but makes no judgments and gives no answers. There is little comfort here, and that makes it a great book.