Philip Roth, “American Pastoral

1998

A family drama that seems an important precursor for Eugenides and Franzen, American Pastoral is one of several novels Roth wrote about Nathan “Skip” Zuckerman. Rather than the fusion of narrative and psyche that Henry James, for example, demonstrates, in Roth the layering of voices calls attention to the problem of linguistic (self-)representation. Like Eugenides and Franzen, too, this is a novel of suburban solipsism – the lives of others.

The formal device of novel writing is (over)performed here. It falls in concentric nests here: we read a novel about a novelist trying to imagine the mind of the Swede, who is in turn trying to imagine the mind of his daughter Merry. But the narrator often does not sound like the Swede, even/especially in moments of free indirect discourse – the neurotic calling himself “stupid bastard,” or the “oh boy, what’s really wrong with Merry,” etc. Oddly, we never return to Nathan’s frame, or if we do, it is ambiguously. Tthe novel concludes:

“Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” 423.

We have no idea whose voice this is – Nathans? The Swede’s? The stuttering, violent Merry has made the Swede “see” – beyond his own desire to “pass” (a repeating theme in Roth), and to be successful, into the pressures his own brother has resisted. But this is only if we believe we have entered the Swede’s mind at all, or whether it has been “put on,” like a glove from his factory.

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