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American Pastoral: A Study Of Fakeness

I really want to try and give American Pastoral its fair due. After previewing the book two weeks ago, and then taking last week off from writing new posts, I realize I haven’t said much about the novel I’m currently reading.

Right off the bat, I can tell you American Pastoral is a different type of novel. There’s something philosophical about the way Philip Roth writes–it’s also like a study of sociology for people who lived during the Vietnam War.

But this isn’t a war novel. It’s actually more of a look at The American Dream and how it can come crashing down all around you. American Pastoral is not unlike Revolutionary Road and The Corrections in that sense.

The book looks at the fakeness of people, the masks that we all wear in order to keep up appearances in a society that cares a lot about appearances.

I want to highlight the following passage because I think it gives you a sense of the introspective style of Philip Roth’s writing, without spoiling any plot. It’s a bit long, and I really want to break it up into separate paragraphs, but I’m leaving it as is because that’s how it appears in the book.

The following passage appears after the narrator, a writer named Nathan Zuckerman, meets with the novel’s main character, Swede Levov, who is a local legend, successful businessman, and an adored family man with a tortured past.

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, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, 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 might as well have the brain of a tank. 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. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with your ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that–well, lucky you.

I don’t know about you, but, man, I think that is incredible writing.

But not only is it good writing, it’s also some amazing insight into the human condition. How often do we unfairly judge someone at first glance? How often do we think we know someone just because of their public persona? How often do we criticize someone simply because they are not like us?

That’s what the narrator, Zuckerman, is dealing with in this passage. As a psychology minor and an introspective kind of guy, I love that type of stuff.

Any thoughts on that passage?

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15 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a moving quote. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

    January 4, 2012
    • The whole book is full of quotes like that.

      Like

      January 4, 2012
  2. I want to read this book now! just a thought: that quote exactly sums up what you (and Margaret) did in Are you there God, it’s me Margaret? It’s all of our journeys. Happy new year!
    nicola http://homemadekids.wordpress.com

    Like

    January 4, 2012
  3. Amy #

    Wow, that is wonderfully written. Looking forward to reading this book.

    Like

    January 4, 2012
  4. I love this book. I’m so glad you like it too. Roth is an exemplary writer. I read 3 or 4 of his books in a row and felt like I could now claim to be a resident of New Jersey. He’s so vivid and gets right to the heart of the matter.
    It might be more of a war novel than you think – or at least more political, later in the book. Definitely points out the failure of the American Dream.

    Like

    January 4, 2012
    • When I say it’s not a war novel, I say that in the sense that it’s not a “Saving Private Ryan” type story. The story itself is not about a war, though it does capture a lot of the possible consequences.

      Like

      January 4, 2012
      • Oh okay. That makes sense. It’s an amazing book, with a lot to process.

        Like

        January 4, 2012
  5. Astonishing writer, this is one of my favourite books of I read last decade. Needs revisiting I think. Glad you saw it’s amazingness.

    Like

    January 4, 2012
  6. You know, this post right here made me think that I need to incorporate a new level ranking of into my reviews. Besides the traditional star ranks on Goodreads, I think I’m going to use emoticons to rate how the book makes me feel because that is such an important thing about picking what to read isn’t it?

    🙂 – Happy Feel Good Book
    😦 – Sad Feel Bad Book
    :)(: – Happy Sad Feel Good Bad Book

    This one sounds like a 😦

    Like

    January 4, 2012
  7. Oh my goodess–I have to put this on my list to read this year.

    Like

    January 4, 2012
  8. Rachel #

    When I first saw that block of text, I was preparing to skim over it. But what a good quote! I really like the idea that to be alive, you have to be wrong about some things. Indeed, being right about everything or everyone would be like being in some kind of self-created dream. The former philosophy major in me likes this idea — that reality requires resistance from something outside ourselves, or something like that.

    Like

    January 5, 2012
  9. That is good writing — and interesting insight into the human condition.

    Like

    January 5, 2012
  10. Margaret #

    Excellent writing. Now I want to read this book.

    And about the human condition: I’m currently working on year-end reviews and reading people’s self-assessments of their work leads me to believe I am wrong, always wrong, just as Roth suggests!

    Like

    January 6, 2012
  11. You’ve inspired me to read this one next. Thanks!

    Like

    January 9, 2012

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