Dangerous Girls

Dale Peck

  • 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.

What it boils down to is this: Roth/ Zuckerman has always been fascinated by the spin that immigrant Jews have put on the quintessentially American experience of assimilation, largely because he viewed it as not just impossible but undesirable. Now, at the end of his life, Zuckerman is reconsidering that position. Maybe assimilation, largely, it appears, the desire to fit in – in what seems itself a gesture of assimilation, the not-quite-synonymous term Roth uses most often is ‘ordinariness’ – is all a man should hope for. To explore this option, Roth has created the ultimate assimilated Jew. Swede Levov is proudly, even triumphantly middle-class: he was a star athlete in high school, a marine right after college; he married Miss New Jersey and took over his father’s glove factory; his nickname reflects the fact that he even looks like a goy, blond, blue-eyed, and gifted with a steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask. The Swede is, in short, a hero, and, like most heroes, a bit boring. In fact, he’s a paper tiger, a sham of innocence and decency created only so that he can be knocked down. Descriptions of his essential goodness weigh heavily on the novel at beginning and end, up to and including several pages in which the middle-aged Swede acts out a Johnny Appleseed fantasy so goofy that I’m not convinced the intention wasn’t to parody, but the only way Roth can maintain the Swede’s ordinariness is by allowing virtually nothing to happen in his life. I’ve already summarised most of American Pastoral’s ‘plot’ – high-school athlete, marine, husband, businessman. The only thing I’ve left out is the bomb.

The bomb is the novel’s fulcrum, the single extraordinary event in a life that had been ordinary up to that point and does everything it can to be ordinary afterwards, a pivot so monumental that even after two hundred pages of explication and rumination it is little more than an offstage explosion, heard only as an echo, seen only in the blood-stained clothing on various characters as they emerge from the wings. The bomb is the device that Meredith ‘Merry’ Levov, the Swede’s only child, sets off in the Old Rimrock post office, ending one man’s life and, more important, her father’s happiness. The bomb has a Deep Meaning attached to it: the year is 1968, and 14-year-old Merry has fallen in with a branch of the Weather Underground, and has set the bomb off as a protest against the Vietnam War. But that explanation never rings true; like so much of the book, it is merely a cover-up. Merry sets off the bomb for the simple reason that she is 14 and hates her parents, and she hates her parents because she stutters and cannot live up to the perfect example set by her all-star father and beauty queen mother.

Pages are devoted to the political arguments Merry has with her parents – conversations so divested of importance that they are merely listed as Conversation #1, #12, #18 and so on, all the way up to #67 – but in the end each discussion is subsumed to the stutter, which her parents are spending a fortune on speech therapy to fix: ‘I’m not going to spend my whole life wrestling day and night with a fucking stutter when kids are b-b-b-being b-b-b-b-b-bu-bu-bu roasted alive by Lyndon B-b-b-baines b-b-b-bu-bu-burn-’em-up Johnson!’ If Merry’s is the voice of adolescent rebellion, then the Swede’s is its conservative, paternalistic echo. ‘What was the whole sick enterprise,’ he says of the Sixties, ‘other than angry, infantile egoism thinly disguised as identification with the oppressed?’ As it happens, entire libraries have been filled with scholarship over the past three decades, attempting to determine just what ‘the whole sick enterprise’ was, but Roth never offers anything beyond Merry or the Swede’s knee-jerk analogies. The omission isn’t merely the novel’s fatal flaw, it’s also deeply peculiar, given Roth’s history of sharp-witted criticism.

After Merry bombs the post office, she goes into hiding, and, in a series of scenes that read like extracts from a bad spy novel, the Swede tries to reach her through a go-between, Rita Cohen, ‘22 years old, no more than five feet tall, and off on a reckless adventure with a very potent thing beyond her comprehension called power’. The sentiment itself is trite, but the detail that stands out here is ‘no more than five feet tall’. Why does it matter that Rita Cohen is short? Elsewhere Roth lashes out at her hippie hair and clothing – manufactured symbols of her countercultural beliefs – but why does her size disqualify her from ‘comprehending’, let alone possessing power? In the same paragraph Roth refers to the Swede as a ‘conservatively dressed success story, six feet three inches tall and worth millions’, and it was the conjunction of these two details that made me understand that, in Roth’s view, economic and political power are extensions of physical power, and as such the logical possessions of the physically powerful, which – to cut to the chase – is a traditionally male province. Rita Cohen and Merry Levov ought not to have the power they do because they are not physically strong enough to wield it, and they are not physically strong enough to wield it because they are girls:

so many were girls, girls whose political identity was total, who were no less aggressive and militant, no less drawn to ‘armed action’ than the boys. There is something terrifyingly pure about their violence and the thirst for self-transformation. They renounce their roots to take as their models the revolutionaries whose conviction is enacted most ruthlessly. They manufacture like unstoppable machines the abhorrence that propels their steely idealism. Their rage is combustible. They are willing to do anything they can imagine to make history change. The draft isn’t even hanging over their heads; they sign on freely and fearlessly to terrorise against the war, competent to rob at gun-point, equipped in every way to maim and kill with explosives, undeterred by fear or doubt or inner contradiction – girls in hiding, dangerous girls, attackers, implacably extremist, completely unsociable.

Any writer charged with reviewing a Roth novel must decide if and when to raise the spectre of the misogyny that has haunted so many of his novels. Roth’s particular brand of misogyny is often almost excusable – merely an ineffective answer to the important questions he raises about the relationships between sons and mothers or husbands and wives. And it’s not really the misogyny in this passage that takes the breath away as much as the gynophobia, the refusal to understand that women might have a stake in the most serious political questions of their time – ‘the draft isn’t even hanging over their heads’ – and so might want to do something to address those questions. It was when I read this passage, some 250 pages into American Pastoral’s muddled plot, that I realised that the true focus of Roth’s novel had nothing to do with its declared narrative subject, namely, what the blurb calls the ‘breakdown of the social fabric’ in America in the Sixties. What Roth is really after is the threat posed by ungoverned female sexuality to all that is good (and male) in the world. The reason American Pastoral’s plot seems only half there is because it is: the real narrative interest resides not in the text but in the subtext – how women, when they take power that is not rightfully theirs, betray and attack and destroy all they can.

Once this story is seen as an elaborate narration of a misogynist fantasy, everything begins to fall into place. The otherwise inexplicable riff on Angela Davis – whose ‘hair reminds the Swede of Rita Cohen’, the ‘extraordinary’ hair, which ‘says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain”’ – is a representation of dangerously unfettered female sexuality; whereas Vicki (no last name needed), black forelady of the Swede’s glove factory, with her dutiful subservience to her boss – she ‘would not desert him. She told him: “This is mine too. You just own it”’ – saves his factory from the Newark riots of July 1967. In the Swede’s last contact with Rita Cohen, she attempts to seduce him in a hotel room.

She edged her two hands down onto her pubic hair. ‘Look at it,’ she told him and, by rolling the labia lips outward with her fingers, exposed to him the membranous tissue veined and mottled and waxy with the moist tulip sheen of flayed flesh. He looked away.

  ‘It’s a jungle down there,’ she said. ‘Nothing in its place. Nothing on the left side like anything on the right side. How many extras are there? Nobody knows. Too many to count. There are glands down there. There’s another hole. There are flaps. Don’t you see what this has to do with what happened? Take a look. Take a good long look.’

The vagina, jungle-like, is its own Vietnam, the perfect foil for what Rita calls the Swede’s ‘pillar of society’. If Rita Cohen represents one extreme of what happens to women who seize power that isn’t theirs – she becomes nothing but a consuming hole – then the more fragile Merry represents the other: she is consumed by the power she wields until she becomes less than human. When, five years after the bombing, the Swede is reunited with his daughter, it is only to discover that she has become a Jain, a member of a ‘relatively small Indian religious sect’ so committed to non-violence that its members refuse to wash lest they harm the micro-organisms living on their body, and whose most devout adherents eventually die of starvation rather than kill plant life to eat. Merry is unwashed and fetid – and, miraculously, cured of her stutter – but what the Swede ‘saw sitting before him was not a daughter, a woman, or a girl; what he saw, in a scarecrow’s clothes, stick-skinny as a scarecrow, was the scantiest farmyard emblem of life, a travestied mock-up of a human being, so meagre a likeness to a Levov it could have fooled only a bird’.

From here on it’s all dénouement, an incredibly protracted, 150-page anticlimax that Roth has unironically entitled ‘Paradise Lost’ (the middle chapter, devoted to the bomb, is called ‘The Fall’ and the opening chapter, which established the Nathan Zuckerman conceit, ‘Paradise Remembered’). Roth’s ‘Paradise Lost’ takes place on the evening that follows the Swede’s brief encounter with his daughter; the chapter is a set-piece revolving around a dinner whose guests are the Swede and his wife; his parents, Sylvia and Lou; the Orcutts, his Wasp neighbours (Bill is having an affair with the Swede’s wife and Jessie’s a drunk); the Umanoffs (Barry, the Swede’s oldest friend, and his wife, Marcia, the ‘literature professor’ who encouraged Merry in her early forays into radical politics); and the Salzmans, Shelly and Sheila, the latter the Swede’s former mistress and the person who harboured Merry after she set off the bomb. It’s an amazingly social scene for a novel which has been claustrophobic until this point, never allowing more than three characters on any given page. ‘At dinner the conversation was about Watergate and about Deep Throat... What surprised him, Shelly Salzman was saying, was that the electorate who overwhelmingly chose as president and vice-president Republican politicians hypocritically pretending to deep moral piety should make a hit out of a movie that so graphically caricatured acts of oral sex.’ What follows is an interplay of conservative politics and a discussion of how Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, is – well, I’ll let Lou Levov, the novel’s patriarch, explain: ‘Adolf Hitler had the time of his life, Professor, shovelling Jews into the furnace. That does not make it right. This is a woman who is poisoning young minds, poisoning the country, and in the bargain she is making herself the scum of the earth – period!’ For this, presumably, and for the kindness he shows to drunken Jessie Orcutt, Levov père is rewarded with a phallically thrusted fork in the eye, delivered by Jessie Orcutt – a gesture which causes Marcia Umanoff, an ‘unimpeded social critic in a kaftan’ and the ‘Professor’ referred to in Lou Levov’s tirade against Hitler and Lovelace, to ‘laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight was going rapidly under’. And there, abruptly, with neither bang nor whimper, the novel ends.

And then there’s the title. American Pastoral: as self-consciously literary and allusive a title as they come. But to what, exactly, does it allude? American literature – to be specific, Euro-American literature – began with the pastoral. It was primarily the work of diarists and letter-writers recording their first experiences of the New World to secure more money from their benefactors, and these diaries and letters record in unambiguous terms the rape of a virgin land. Time and again the New World was described as a woman, either a voluptuous woman of many ‘fair endowments’ or a harsh mistress who had to be conquered. In either case, the land-woman had to be subdued, and subdued it was, both physically by its colonists, and figuratively, in the three and a half centuries of literature that have been produced there. Take Huckleberry Finn or USA or Lolita. In each of these novels a feminised landscape is traversed, mapped, contained. In America, the pastoral is a false tradition, a convention, a way of writing about a subject originally designed to woo money from those who had no knowledge of what was being written about. Roth’s pastoral is similarly faked, a lost paradise that had to be invented so it could be eulogised in his novel. Roth’s thesis, one that he’s stated both in and out of his novels, is that society changed irrevocably in the Sixties. (For this he needs to write a book?) Looked at in the long view, the lie of the land appears to be pretty much unchanged.