Jennifer Spiegel's Reviews > American Pastoral

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
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Nov 20, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: five-star-books


Fifteen minutes for Philip Roth. That’s all I’ve got, even though I loved this book and spent a couple weeks with it. Two caveats (like the word “literati,” I like to use “caveat” often): this was my first Roth and I did no scholarly research whatsoever.

So, imagine my pride and joy when I arrived upon—all by myself!—the comparison between AMERICAN PASTORAL and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY! Wow! Look what I came up with! This is the new GATSBY!

Others thought of this already, I quickly realized.

So be it. Still. This is a darker GATSBY. It is an ugly GATSBY. Unlike Fitzgerald, it’s not breezy, musical, or colorful. But it’s intelligent and so impressive for its narrative depth. I was completely absorbed in the glove-making process. This, from a girl whose eyes glaze over at the sight of instruction manuals or the sound of computer talk. Roth goes on and on about gloves because his characters are glove-manufacturers. And yet it’s breathtaking!

But that’s not all this book is about. It’s about the same stuff as GATSBY—though, dare I say, with more complexity, reality, and philosophical depth. (Hey, please know this: I love THE GREAT GATSBY.) This book is later, post-GATSBY. We’re talking post-WWII, nuclear threat, the Cold War, Red Scare, the Vietnam War—up till Watergate and the mainstreaming of porn in the form of DEEP THROAT. The American Dream had opened up and shut down. Gatsby, so white and preppie in Long Island, had now become Jews escaping Nazis and poor Irish seeking a Promised Land too. And forget the Hamptons. We’re in Jersey. That last, remarkable page of THE GREAT GATSBY is turned and . . . .

AMERICAN PASTORAL picks up with its own protagonist, Swede Levov. And its own Nick Carroway too, who tells the story from the sidelines: Nathan Zuckerman (imagine my own ego bursting when I put this together, thinking I had made an original discovery!).

I, of course, don’t ever really “review” books. This one intrigued me completely in that it really explores the American psyche. I can’t find the passage, but there’s a wonderful one on the loneliness within the heart of humans—the inability to truly find communion with another. And then he does this—possibly unintentionally: he spells out the secularization of America. At the very end of the book, Roth writes a seemingly tangential conversation between Dawn (a former beauty queen—how perfect is that for a symbol of the American Dream?) and Mr. Levov (a nice Jewish man belonging to another era) in which they “negotiate,” if you will, the marriage between a Catholic and a Jew. They discuss who gets what: baptism, bar mitzvah, Christmas, Easter. But the truth: it doesn’t really matter.

I found the conversation brilliant, and I found myself wondering if Roth knows how brilliant it is. The American Pastoral disappears as meaning is lost.

One final note. The end of the novel. I’m not going to give it away because I really hope you read this book. But it ends with an interesting scene with an Academic, an intellectual. At first, I felt that disappointment that comes at the end of a lot of literature because I wanted something else. But then I found it brilliant. Feel free to tell me what you thought.

This book also served as an opportunity for me to get into it a bit with my Jewish uncle. Our family is an American Pastoral in its own right; we’ve got Jews, Catholics, Atheists, and Protestants. (Jews who escaped Nazis and Poor Irish!) Perhaps others? But my Jewish uncle gave me the opportunity to escape my major summer preoccupation of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and applying sunscreen to preschoolers. We got into it over Roth and the portrayal of Jews. We touched upon such intriguing topics as Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, and Michael Jackson. Thank you, Uncle Saul, for the Roth banter.

Last night, prior to finishing this book, I read a goofy article on James Franco (Jewish!). I guess he’s behind a new Museum of Non-Visible Art (MONA), in which there’s no actual art—just descriptions of it. James Franco is a post-PASTORAL Renaissance Man—filmmaker, writer, even an Academic—so his MONA is the appropriate finale to these fifteen minutes with Roth. Franco may be the ultimate postmodern artist, actually. There is no real art in this museum.

I think Roth saw it coming.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Lambert Nice review

Jennifer Spiegel thanks!

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