At the end of my first semester at college, the first friend I made there gave me a copy of her favorite book, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, as a holiday gift. It was a pretty bleak read for Christmastide, yet it hit a number of my fictional sweet spots: a psychologically complex family drama with swoon-worthy prose passages and a frame story to boot. And with a film adaptation on its way in October—the directorial debut for Ewan McGregor, who will also star—I decided last month that it was time to revisit the novel, in spite of the disappointing pre-release reviews.
Both novel and film follow Seymour "Swede" Levov, a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed miracle of athleticism born the son of a glover in Newark, N.J. The Swede builds for himself the perfect American life: After a stint with the Marines and some declined offers to join feeder teams for Major League Baseball, he marries Miss New Jersey, takes over his father's glove empire, and moves to an idyllic little town in the New Jersey countryside dating back to before the Revolutionary War. His wife, Dawn, starts a cattle business, and they have a daughter, Merry—an intelligent and thoughtful child with a severe stutter who is her parents' world. Then the Vietnam War begins, a newly-radicalized teenage Merry plants a bomb that destroys the local general store and post office and kills an innocent doctor, and the Swede's American idyll burns to the ground overnight.
At least, that's what writer Nathan Zuckerman, the perennial Roth stand-in who idolized the Swede as a child, learns at his 45th high school anniversary from Levov's younger brother, Jerry. From there, Zuckerman proceeds to imagine the Swede's life before, during, and after the bombing. The result is the bulk of the novel, a sweeping metafiction detailing minute occurrences in the Swede's life and offering a robust psychological profile of the man based on nothing but Zuckerman's intuition and invention.
In all likelihood, none of Zuckerman's invention of the Swede's life ever occurred, even within the fictional world of the novel. It doesn't matter. One of the book's major themes is about how people inevitably get other people wrong—Zuckerman himself admits that even writers fail at this, and one of the book's most-quoted passages digs into the idea of fallibility in mutual human understanding:
“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance..., take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong.... You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception."
Another major theme is the chaos inherent to living, and its inherent meaninglessness: "He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach—that it makes no sense.” It's a hard lesson for the Swede to learn, wrapped as it is in the package of domestic terrorism, the carnage of Vietnam, and the immense political failure of the Watergate Scandal. It's dour, difficult stuff, but in this gruesome election cycle, I actually almost found it comforting. Roth creates an America watching itself implode—a nation that has regressed from the idealized "American pastoral" into the "indigenous American berserk." Harrowing, yes, but also a reminder: America survived Watergate. We can live through this too.