Recent reading: American Pastoral

Even though I read a lot, I lack a broad connection to American literary fiction.  So I can admit it: until I read American Pastoral, I had never read a book by Philip Roth.  Don't worry. I have many worse derelictions to fess up to, some other time.

My conclusion? Roth is pretty good, but he lacks the skills to make it as a genre writer.  He shouldn't quit his day job as literary lion. I'll have to check out his genre-ish The Plot Against America, to see if this is true. I did like him enough to try another book.

Why the sly genre slam? Because, like many literary writers, Roth likes using suspense-like pacing, without ever seeming to recognize how suspense really works. He also saddles the book with an oppressively lengthy intro section from the POV of his alter ego, Nate Zuckerman. And make no mistake, this useless frame (to which he does not return in the end) is over 20 percent of the book, and involves that impossible-to-make-interesting-in-literature event, a high school reunion. The frame also involves Zuckerman not knowing the single most important thing everyone knows about his character, the Swede--that his daughter blew up a local post office, which is scarcely credible. He relies on this ignorance to stretch things out unconscionably.

Speed reading suggestion: start the book on page 89 and you won't miss a thing.

The real story, which Zuckerman tells from the point of view of the Swede (actually the Jewish Seymor Levov), is about the Swede's relationship with his daughter Merry, who becomes a 60s radical and blows up an innocent man to protest...things. She is realistically tiresome and inarticulate, though at somewhat too great a length.

Roth clearly did a lot of research on the glovemaking industry, Swede's family business, which was undergoing a mournful decline in the Newark of the 60s and 70s, the main time of the novel. We learn a lot about glovemaking and Newark businesses, all quite realistic. It is as well-researched and as dull as a novel by Richard Powers (wow, I really am in a confessional mood here: many people love him, but I regard Richard Powers as the Ken Burns of literature, which you can take as you wish). If there was some metaphoric intent to the glovemaking, I missed it, but then, I hate metaphoric intent and tend to be obtuse about it.

So the glovemaking promised to enter the plot but really didn't (he probably mentions Shakespeare's dad, the glovemaker, somewhere along the line, but I can't swear he does). The main suspense-fake comes from Merry's friend/handler Rita, who is a manipulative and fascinating terror who shows up to torment the Swede in interesting ways. She promises that there is something to figure out...but there really isn't. She just gets the Swede to make dumbass decisions. After a certain point she's been interesting enough to remind the reader of how dull the other characters are and Roth forgets all about her.

To some extent there is no point--as Homer Simpson, our greatest literary critic (apart from the creators of TV Tropes) says, as Marge tries to figure out the moral of an episode (Blood Feud): "It's just a bunch of stuff that happened."

The story kind of wanders around after Rita disappears and ends in mournful and self-flagellating suburban infidelity, like a parody of all those 60s and 70s novels of oral sex in the suburbs whose appeal has never become clear to me. Of course, it's a look back at that period, so maybe that makes sense.

There's a tight and painful story of misplaced enthusiasm and parental cluelessness in here, but this version is too long. I say that about a lot of stuff I read, and it's certainly true here.  Roth's editors are too indulgent. He's a pretty good writer. With some discipline, he could make something of himself....

Still, I read it. That's getting to be high praise, since I often give up on novels long before the end. I'll certainly try another one, though I have some other current non-genre literature to get through first.