- American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Cape, 423 pp, £15.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 224 05000 1
Most readers, it seems, are willing and able to construct complete narratives from even the tiniest snippets of information, whether in the form of lazily written genre fiction or in the artful dodging of post-realist writers: a dynamic is created between the limited information the writer can supply – literally, just the words on the page – and the knowledge about how life is lived which the reader brings to those words. I’m thinking here of the obfuscation of the Victorians, especially James; of the essays and novels of Joan Didion, which both forbid and implore the reader to bring his own version of the story to the events at hand; of the seemingly bland fare of Raymond Carver’s fiction, offered in full awareness that the reader will sit down at table with his own salt and pepper.
It is not, however, a technique I associate with Philip Roth. Roth’s preferred method has been to bombard the reader with sensory and intellectual stimuli, a gouache painted so stridently that at times it appears to be held in place only by the muscularity of the stroke; and American Pastoral, Roth’s 21st novel, seems at first to partake of this method. Nevertheless, it could not survive without an enormous effort of goodwill on the part of its readers. It’s not that Roth’s method has failed him here: he has failed his method. His tale is not told but recounted, not felt but described. The first three-quarters of this 423-page book are characterised by a near-absolute reliance on summary story-telling – this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened – an elaborate outline relayed in language that is relentlessly, aggressively, annoyingly talky. One reads American Pastoral with the sense that Roth has compiled detailed notes on his characters’ lives without bothering to imagine the story those details should add up to. That is a task he leaves to his readers, knowing, I suppose, that for him they will do it.
I don’t mean to suggest that Roth is resting on his laurels. Although his book, and indeed his career, is full of problems, that is not one of them. In the conservative contemporary American literary landscape, Philip Roth is the only one of our anointed writers still willing to re-invent himself and his writing, to experiment with new forms in a public venue and so risk failing before his large and adoring audience, and for that alone he deserves admiration. It’s not laziness that mars American Pastoral, but a puzzling lack of engagement with his story. It’s not that American Pastoral is boring: it’s such an odd, maddening book that it is never quite boring – what it is, really, is a phantom novel, a palimpsest, to borrow the term Gore Vidal used for his recent memoirs. Vidal’s palimpsest, however, was a metaphorical conceit: Roth has created the genuine article – a slather of words designed to mask the far more troubling story they cover.
Masks, of course, are Roth’s stock in trade, and his most famous one, Nathan Zuckerman, the autobiographical stand-in of several Roth novels as well as the commentator in Roth’s ‘autobiography’, The Facts, is back in American Pastoral. In the past Roth allowed Zuckerman to lag behind him aways: now he’s pushed him on ahead. The new Zuckerman is old, impotent and incontinent; though he’s survived the prostate cancer that has killed many of his contemporaries, it is clearly a brief reprieve, and one suspects our next glimpse of Zuckerman will be at his grave. The fear of death – or, if not fear, then at least the confrontation of life’s end – gives Zuckerman’s story a tone that is ruminative, nostalgic, sometimes simply maudlin. This is hardly surprising, and I wouldn’t even characterise it as a fault – it’s just something that comes with the territory – if that wasn’t all the story was. Alas, American Pastoral is like watery porridge, the oats being Zuckerman’s mishmashed reflections about the novel’s declared subject, Seymour ‘the Swede’ Levov, the water the never-fully-articulated reasoning why Zuckerman, and by extension Roth, has decided to write about him.