0122 | American Pastoral – Philip Roth


Context: Finished this off on my bed as a migraine kicked in.

It’s going to be a while before I read another “classic American novel.” One of the few things that I was thankful for while reading this was that it was half the length of Underworld by DeLillo. Apart from that, there wasn’t much else that impressed me.

This is a story of someone’s life. The blurb on the back says that it’s the revelation of the dirty laundry that a perfect looking American-dream achieving citizen keeps under his shirt. Well, yes, that’s what it’s about and, I think if that was all it was about, it might not be a bad novel.

But Roth, like DeLillo, fills the novel with all sorts of rabbit trails that lead off all over the place. It’s hard to keep an eye on what exactly you’re talking about. When he returns from his rabbit trail, it’s hard to pick up the story where you left it. At times, for example, I didn’t know whether he was talking about the past or the present. This isn’t fun.

In effect, he’s trying a bit hard to be a bit too clever. It’s not just one life we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a family. Then we’re talking about a community. Then we’re talking about a whole nation. Okay, yes, I get the idea. But it’s a bit of a laboured device and, because all this is interwoven, it can make it a dry read in places.

There was a glimmer of hope on page 35 which I’ve quoted below, but you might as well stop right there and you’ve pretty much got the message. And what is that message. Well, for me, it was something like: America might look good but it has its dark side and that dark side is, well, dark. Hmmm. Not exactly the greatest observation of society is it. I mean, this applies to every nation.

It does chart all sorts of social events in the life of 1960s America and, if that’s important to you, you’ll probably enjoy the background that Roth draws on to tie in the events of the novel.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the inability of Levov (the protagonist) to come to terms with why leading a seemingly perfect life had resulted in creating a hugely imperfect family. But it’s hardly genius to observe that that’s life baby. Still it lead to some great fly on the wall episodes of family disfunction. For me, Franzen’s Corrections does that better though.

So, this won a Pulitzer Prize. Must have been a bad year but hey, forgiveable. But, this was included in the all-TIME list of top 100 novels! That’s a serious mistake. There is no way on earth that you can’t find 100 novels in the history of the world that are better than this.

The Swede.


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…and yet you never fail to get them wrong…You get them wrong when 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 someone else about the meeting and you get them wrong all over again…[T]he whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception

What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?

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  1. The time period is very specific to the actions of the characters, and how society and individuals reacted to situations. One had to have lived through those periods in order to fully comprehend how society viewed people. and events…events both past and present.

    America might have its dark side, for certain, but so does Britain, France, Germany, and every other country on the planet, very true.

    The novel is an analogy for how things and people appear, not always as it seems.

    I’ve been reading Roth for decades, and have learned to appreciate his inference.

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