My latest attempt to understand Philip Roth’s work is reading American Pastoral. It is set in a changing Newark, and features Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov as its protagonist, struggling keeping his factory open and his American dream alive through the 1960s.
- There is a novel-within-a-novel here, as we are unsure if the Swede actually exists or is merely the figment of Nathan Zuckerman’s imagination (Zuckerman is Roth’s narrator and feels a lot like Roth). We find out that the Swede is a person based on other people’s memories of him as Zuckerman talks to folks at his 45th high school reunion, but the recreation that we get does not include parts of the Swede’s life (a second marriage with sons).
- I was shocked to see how many bombings the Weathermen had done over the years. I don’t remember them as a reign of terror, which confuses me in the age of amber alerts, when we are supposed to be afraid all the time. Maybe my parents just kept us out of the fear, and of course I couldn’t read all the Twitter posts debating the bombers so I couldn’t, perhaps, get worked up about it.
- The novel feels Proustian in its intense immersion into characters’ heads, ranging from Swede to his first wife Dawn. Zuckerman as narrator invokes Proust, so I’m guessing the model is deliberate.
- The Swede is as caucasian as a Jew can get – nordic looks, blonde hair, factory owner, star athlete, married to an Irish-Catholic beauty queen, the works. Roth uses that juxtaposition neatly to talk about some of the contradictions at the heart of American Judaism – political progressivism with belief in capitalism, marginalized ethnicity vs. desire to be a part of the US mainstream, a need to be patriots (Levov is Marine vet) vs. an understanding of some of the basic contradictions of American society (and the resulting desire to tear that society apart).
- Roth’s American Pastoral is distinctly east coast and suburban. The Swede moves with his family to the farm country of New Jersey, and they go so far as to become almost gentlemen farmers, with the Swede driving in to his factory everyday in Newark (at least until he has to close up shop).
- The horror seems to come from the fact that the product of the perfect Jewish family can become an American-bred terrorist who bombs post offices as part of the Weathermen. That’s the question I can’t figure out – it feels as if Roth is looking to identify the sources of Merry’s radicalisation, and if so then he seems to identify them as equally part being a Jew in America and the United States’s bloody history of conquest. I’m not sure that blame is what Roth is trying to apportion – I’m reminded of an admonition that I heard lots of times in grad school and that I take to heart, that the best novels feature really smart people wrestling with nearly intractable problems – but some sort of trying to understand is definitely happening here.
- I’m tempted to see this novel as indictment of parents who try to understand their kids, but that might be too easy on my part…
- I struggle though with thinking of this novel as a study of why folks become radicals .Merry’s stuttering, her inability to live up to the glamour of her parents, her exposure to radical politics in NYC, these all felt too easy to me as a sort of psychological understanding of why people become radicalized.
Pattern Recognition is the first of the Blue Ant novels, which I am reading out of order. While I missed the series of events that create the lived experiences of these characters, I did not feel like I couldn’t understand what Zero History was doing, which is probably either a tribute to Gibson’s incredibly dense prose style or a write-off of the repeatability of his storylines. In this one Cayce Pollard meets Hubertus Bigend for the first time, and he sends her to find the source of some mysterious videos that have appeared on the internet and that look like a fascinating combination of artistic invention and underground digital distribution. She has been following these videos intently as part of an online community, and she by trade is a cool-hunter, so she is the logical choice (rather than a detective, many of whom have already been hired to find these videos and their source) to pursue the leads. After much digging, she meets the person(s), and Bigend’s Blue Ant agency continues on its paradigm-shifting ways in creating marketing campaigns (or so we assume) by absorbing the lessons therein.
- Gibson’s obsession with how digital culture moves forward is consistent from his Neuromancer trilogy days. He’s moved on from Deep State conspiracies though to look more at how brands establish themselves, but like in Neuromancer he’s still fascinated with underground distribution and folks who create without worrying about acquiring wealth.
- Cayce earns her keep because she has a sixth sense about trademarks, but this sixth sense costs her because she gets physically ill looking at ones that don’t fit the pattern that she recognizes as cool…which is a horrible word here, as Gibson’s narrator (or maybe Cayce) says itself.
- It’s an easy critique to note that Bigend is the wealthy benefactor, a deus ex machina of sorts, but my guess is that Gibson is more focused on his usual obsession with when-it-all-changed moments than he is in recreating an 18th century conception of art patrons being the only ones capable of supporting artists and moving art forward.
- He recalls his own Cornell boxes in here, the one moment in the Neuromancer series that felt sort of odd amidst all the bloodshed and mayhem and shadowy assassin types hunting AIs on the verge of becoming sentient. Those Cornell boxes were his attempt to steer the conversation to machine-produced art, or art that comes about as a result of technogenesis, and as such led the way to this Blue Ant series.
Just finished Emily Bitto’s The Strays, which I guess is loosely based on an Australian artist’s collectives in the early twentieth century. The novel is narrated by a woman looking back on her time spent living at the collective as the friend of one of the daughters of the couple who own the property on which they all live. The name comes from the looseness of the parenting that the push to break paradigms and norms as an artist might drive people to.
- That last sentence might lend one to think that I read this novel as a condemnation of folks who intentionally try to rethink art and its place in and effect on our culture as parents. I don’t think the novel goes there necessarily, although their parenting skills are definitely not worthy of praise.
- The novel feels like more of a meditation on the costs of pushing any social envelope, and an examination of the consequences of artistic utopia (or its inevitable failing, perhaps)…
- And it is also absolutely feels like an extended meditation on motherhood…motherhood in many of its manifestations, and the difficulty of living up to social norms while also trying to create…
- First citation:
…I wonder why I am compelled to collect and to examine the often painful traces of the past, like a madman counting over and over the same dozen objects in a wooden box; objects others would have long discarded. (174)
I think I often do the opposite…but the image says alot about the narrator’s relationship with the world…
- Second citation:
I am angry with myself. I failed to speak from that compartment in myself, as that persona who represents motherhood, the one who knows my daughter will always in some way look down on me; will not know my dark places and my desires, my ambivalences, even toward her; will think herself wiser, braver, more modern, her inner life more intriguing, her challenges more compelling. I have cherished the self who knows this and accepts it. It is without vanity, able to resist the urge to be understood. (178)
This is one of the few places in the text where motherhood is directly spoken about by the narrator. She emphasizes the sort of foreknowledge and calm acceptance of the differences from her children that contribute to a self-idealization of being a mother that is nearly impossible to live up to.
- Third citation:
(as she recalls talking to Helena and Eva about writing a memoir, and they tell her how their life has already been chronicled) What Helena says is true, I think to myself. The events of the Trenthams and their strays have long since been recorded in the pages of art history. And yet those books are about Evan and Jerome…always, as in the monographs devoted to Evan’s life and work, the artist himself was at the center, with Helena, Eva, Heloise at the distant peripheries. They were cast as ‘events’ that accounted for the prevalence of particular themes, detailed in the same manner as the influence of the war on Jerome. Heloise’s life a footnote explaining Jerome’s brilliant work. (204-5)
Another trope throughout this novel is the writing of art histories – I particularly find the idea that people in an artist’s life become events that help art historians better understand the artist’s work. Yuck.
- Fourth citation (after reading a note from Helena to Maria:
I remember that Helena longed for paradise, and was instead shut out.
In many ways the circle was Helena’s project, not Evan’s. Her utopian vision;
her attempt to make herself a family beyond the narrow lines of biology;her failure….she wanted to surround herself with people, to create a circle,
to be adored and needed and never disliked by anyone…Helena craved siblings rather than dependent offspring, people with whom she could approach the wordless understanding, the secret codes and violent closeness shared by sisters. (213)One reading of Helena’s ‘longing’ for sisters rather than children can simply be that Helena did not have the tools to process all of this. This is not our narrator’s take, I think…
Working with Deadly Synchronicity made me think of Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, and the following passages came to mind, both from the first chapter of the book on The Odyssey. In particular, he comments on the ways that Homer handles the fact that it takes Odysseus three days to enact his revenge upon the suitors:
Thus the journey is like a silent progress through the indeterminate and the contingent, a holding of the breath, a process which has no present,
which is inserted, like a blank duration, between what has passed and what lies ahead, and which yet is measured: three days! (10)
And (comparing The Odyssey and the Old Testament story of Abraham): Continue Reading
Exit West is the first novel written by Hamid that I’ve read, and I will read more. This novel follows Saeed and Nadia as they flee their unidentified country and go through a series of metaphorical doors that lead to other places in the world. Thoughts:
- Hamid’s use of metaphorical doors neatly characterizes what must feel like the random and arbitrary nature of current migration patterns and policies. The doors are hard to find (indeed, often requiring some sort of mystical connection and a power that can command hard currency), but once found they remain open until they are guarded or closed forcefully.
- The gradual closing down of Saeed and Nadia’s city is portrayed generically enough, I think, to make it stand in for any ideological or political movement. Hamid’s point is not to condemn a specific revolution – I think instead he is trying to humanize those who appear only as distant images on our teevee screens. He does this.
- He includes little snippets from other lives throughout, and the lives do not always directly connect. These interludes relieved narrative pressure while also giving me a sense of the concurrency of other lived experience around the globe.
- I almost postponed reading this one, but I’m thankful that I took the time. The images that kept coming to my mind are ones that often appear in my head with literature that I resonate with – scenes of almost pen-and-ink drawn green hills with lone trees, with clean lines that do not include the dirt and grime of ordinary living, spaces that echo with possibility and potential, and that also seem gentle and humble. It’s not that Hamid ignores the bad stuff; instead, he seems far more interested in how folks carve meaningful existences out of miserable fates.
- Near the end (but not at the end, where they actually return for at least a visit to their former homes), they end up in a refugee commune outside of Marin. This place is as close to utopic as Hamid goes, I’m guessing.
…the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge,unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief. (129)
- He also characterizes the feeling of watching your city disappear under a conflict that does not involve you, as particularly described in a scene in which she thinks herself the object of a photograph released on social media onlyh to find out that it wasn’t her.
…and she was startled, and wondered how this could be,how she could both read this news and be this news, and how the newspaper could have published this image of her instantaneously, and she looked about for a photographer, and she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, and she almost felt that if she got up and walked home at this moment there would be two Nadias, that she would split into two Nadias, and one would stay on the steps reading and one would walk home, and two different lives would unfold for these two different selves, and she thought she was losing her balance, or possibly her mind, and then she zoomed in on the image and saw that the woman in the black robe reading the news on her phone was actually not her at all. (96)
The Plot Against America finally came up on in my library list after having been on hold for weeks, so even though I’m trying to concentrate on southern gothic and magical realist fiction right now I plowed through it. I probably didn’t give it as a close a reading as it deserved, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it necessarily, but it also felt very appropriate in our current political climate.
Twelve-year-old Philip Roth is our narrator, and he tells us the story of Charles Lindbergh’s rise to power as the 33rd president. In this rethinking of our history, Lindbergh is only defeated after disappearing in what might be a plane crash, with the subsequent martial law declarations triggering an uprising spearheaded by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Essentially, the US comes to its senses, another election is held, and FDR resumes the presidency. We then enter WWII.
- Telling the story from a twelve year old’s perspective adds anxiety and fear that might not have been as compelling as if the narrator was an adult.
- Roth wrote the novel in 2004, and some of the parallels to our current political discourse feel prescient – both sides call each other fascist, for instance – while others feel consistent with past fascist tropes – peace through strength.
- The ending – the essential decency of people comes through in the end – felt a bit rushed. I’m guessing that Roth didn’t want to go whole hog into Harry Turtledove territory, which makes sense if his mission is to explore possible ways that anti-semitism becomes the type of force that can win an election.
- He hints at other types of discrimination (racism, anti-Catholicism) in ways that having his narrator being a young boy allows him to simply hint at. For instance, at one point Philip tells us that his recent-immigrant Italian neighbor doesn’t have to worry about discrimination since he’s a Catholic. Roth leaves that sentence hanging on his own in a way that calls attention to its naivete and biased perspective.
- And, once again, I’m afraid that I am missing the power of one of Roth’s novels, as I read over and over again about how he is one of our greatest living novelists. The narrative inventiveness for which he is often praised felt not all that inventive. I think I need to read American Pastoral in order to get a better sense of his strengths.
In preparing for my article on Kentucky Route Zero I am reading contemporary southern gothic fiction, and Suttree is the latest on my list. Thoughts:
- I never completely understood why I was reading this – there is no driving plot tension, no looming epiphanic moment, no sense that Suttree will emerge triumphant. And yet at points I could not put this book down. Suttree actively rejects his previous privileged life, and for the most part destroyed his relationship with all those in his previous life including his children (!), but his ability to form bonds with people not of his same socioeconomic milieu made me keep reading.
- McCarthy pulls no punches – the area he lives in (on a houseboat on the Tennessee River) is degraded environmentally as well as in a million other ways, Suttree is at best a bit of an asshole, racial lines are purely maintained, life is violent and disturbing and with not much to redeem us.
- We get no nostalgia, either – this is 1951, after which we as Americans should be celebrating the end of the war and moving into our golden age, but Suttree rejects all that as well.
- But (of course) what struck me was that this novel was actually funny. I go into reading McCarthy thinking that I will be dragged through the worst of humanity, and while that sort of comes true in this novel it also made me chuckle gently to myself multiple times, with humor that was not directed at the inanities of the characters in the novel.
- The narrative voice is dramatically different from the dialogue, which was my first clue that this wasn’t Tortilla Flat and that it was instead someone who is doing more than simply slumming – he has all-out rejected his family.
- At times Suttree drives me crazy because of his reliance on the kindness of strangers: he recovers from beatings and from typhoid fever without paying a dime, and he has two relationships with women that are troubling at best. Again, McCarthy makes sure that we know that Suttree is no hero.
- The language is so beautiful and imaginative, though, that I found myself repeating phrases and admiring McCarthy’s eloquence, and I also found the contrast between the narrative and the dialogue attention-grabbing.
- We get a clue as to what McCarthy’s doing after we are three-fourths of the way through (Suttree is having a conversation with himself):
Of what would you repent?
I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it and that I would stand a stone in that very void where all would read my name.
Of that vanity I recant all. (365)
The vanity of insisting that we are here for something more than just muddling through is the vanity that I think all of McCarthy’s fiction wants to recant from. Can’t say that I’m there yet, but I also feel that if this is the vanity at the heart of all southern gothic fiction (which might be his point) then KRZ is definitely not there.
- Another passage for your consideration (this is the last paragraph of the novel, one that provides a clue as to the fecundity of the narrative voice:
Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn in the castellated pres of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them. (422)
Fly them indeed.
- The only part of this novel that a bit self-serving was Suttree’s embrace at the end (after surviving typhoid fever) of all marginalized groups in Knoxville society, even gay men. He has gone out of his way to seek out criminals, drunks,
and other folks he hasn’t associated with. He then seeks out friends in the black community (and I think the novel applauds itself for moving from a broad use of the n word to not using it at all by the end, a mark of Suttree’s own transition I’m guessing). This feels a bit too much like a working class hero schtick, even if Suttree still remains a bit of a scumbag.
- Suttree does all kinds of wild things in his rejection of his family – he goes on a vision quest in the Smokies (which almost kills him); he falls in love with a bipolar hustler woman (who almost kills him); he goes on long drunks and steals cop cars. Each one points to that recanting, I think.