Tuesday, August 25, 2009

[Book Review] American Pastoral

The American dream is quite a bit more complicated than the stories you hear. The book American Pastoral written by Philip Roth is an example of the inevitable dysfunction of trying to achieve this mythic concept. Roth, who is Jewish, tells the tale of a paradise lost for the protagonist, Swede Levov, whose hopes for an idyllic life are shattered by a bomb planted by his daughter Merry that killed an innocent doctor. I found this book to have extreme characters and a plot that tried too hard to represent American culture. Overall, I didn’t really find like this book that appealing and I would not recommend anyone to read it.

The plot was very much like an onion; you peel through layer after layer and find no significant substance in the middle. This book does a great deal of character development and the story follows the rise and fall of Swede Levov. Swede tends to follow a predetermined path of success by inheriting the family glove making business and achieves a good deal of initial success. He was a popular All-American kid that grew up in New Jersey and tried to pursue his version of the American dream. He was known for his placid demeanor and his friendly people skills. He was the paragon of moderation and a person who always lived up to his responsibilities.

In his life, he only challenged his family by marrying a genteel beauty queen who gives birth to his daughter Merry. He sets up a life for his family that is a caricature of perfection; he has wealth and status from running a profitable business and he couple’s this with the tranquility of being able to live on a farm. His life is the fusion of small-town America with a more benign version of capitalist America. All in all, he coasts through life by solving all problems and never has to deal with the nastier side of living. That is, until his daughter Merry becomes a radical anti-war activist and bombs a post-office in protest against the war in Vietnam. From this point on, his American dream collapses as Merry runs away. He tries desperately to get in touch with her, but his semblance of normality, of coasting through life without problems, his American dream, has been completely shattered. The veneer is destroyed and when he meets his daughter many years later, he is exposed to the dark-side of America; a land full of exploitation and greed that has basically crushed his daughter. His marriage falls apart and he does, as we find out early on the book, try to recreate some semblance of normalcy through a second marriage; however, his first marriage—which is the period in his life that is primarily discussed in this book—is exposed as hollow and that shit happens even to the people who follow all of the rules and societies norms.

The biggest problem I found with this book was that Roth tried to make the story too stereotypical of American culture and made his characters too extreme and well beyond the realm of believability. While it is true that all human beings are incredibly complex and it’s true that bad things happen can happen to good people, I found his presentation of these themes to be rather hyperbolic and unbelievable. All in all, I did not find this book to be that impressive, nor do I think that this book was really worth reading.

-Nausherwan Hafeez, 8-25-09